Having Faith in The Post

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, January 8, 2006

Religion is a subject that many Post readers care deeply about, and they often don't think journalists care as deeply about it as they do.

Journalists are just like readers. Some are religious; some not. I don't think that matters as long as religion and spiritual issues are reported thoroughly and sensitively.

While religion reporting has had a renaissance at The Post and in American journalism in the past few years, it doesn't getn anything like the resources devoted to coverage of entertainment, sports, and politics and government. I think that readers would not be so offended by an occasional story or reference they see as insensitive if they believed that The Post made religion coverage a priority.

A Dec. 13 Style story on over-the-top New York parties celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs brought a number of complaints from Jewish readers.

Nancy Leopold of Bethesda, a Post subscriber since 1980, said, "I'm barely breathing after reading the bar mitzvah story. I can't dispute the facts about what some Jews spend and how they spend it. But with little context about how the vast majority of Jews celebrate when their children become b'nai mitzvah and what it means spiritually, the tiny piece stands for the whole and feeds right into the most widely held caricature of Jews as caring only about money."

Reporter David Segal, based in New York, said the parties are "extravagant, weird, competitive, status-obsessed and very colorful. In short, they are perfect fodder for a Style feature story. I understand why it upset some Jewish readers. This is far from the most flattering side of the religion (my religion, I perhaps should add). But the story doesn't purport to be the total picture of Judaism -- merely a snapshot of one segment."

Segal said he knows "that thousands of Jewish kids, and their parents, approach the bar mitzvah in far subtler and more contemplative ways. That's a different story, but it doesn't make the one we ran any less interesting or true." I found the story both fascinating and appalling. I understand the complaints and even sympathize with them, but I also think that it was a story worth telling.

Bruce Valoris of Centreville complained that a story by Dan Morse quoted Pee Wee football coach Nick Miller using "Jesus Christ" as a swear word in a story about Miller's young Prince George's County football team winning a national title.

"When did it become okay to use the name Jesus Christ as an expletive, even when quoting someone?" Valoris said that its "offense to many Christians is an understatement."

Deputy Metro editor Keith Harriston approved the use, thinking it was important to the drama of the quote, but later regretted it. I thought the expletive didn't add anything to the story and should have been left out.

Part of my perspective has been formed by working with Religion News Service, a small news service owned by my former employer, Advance Publications Inc. RNS is remarkable in its reach and authority, even though it has a tiny staff. It gave me a much wider view of how much happens in the world of religion. The Post subscribes to RNS and uses it regularly.

The Post has two good religion reporters -- Alan Cooperman on the National staff and Caryle Murphy on the Metro staff. Candidates are being interviewed for another local religion reporting job. Other national, foreign and local reporters cover religion stories in the daily paper and in the Extra sections. Paul Bernstein, an assistant metro editor, supervises local religion coverage and the religion pages.

The Post's religion pages in the Metro section on Saturday are almost always filled with interesting stories and a briefing column of national and international news. On Faith appears once a month, usually on the Metro front, along with Voices, letters from readers on a question given the month before, and a monthly column on noteworthy local religious events.

I see nothing wrong with The Post's religion coverage; I would just like to see more of it -- particularly in the A section, even if it is brief stories from RNS, the Associated Press and Reuters. I don't think that incremental stories about denominations are all that important, but I don't want The Post to ignore interesting stories, especially as the diversity of religions explodes in our area.

I've read several stories lately that I would have liked to have seen in The Post, such as Pope Benedict XVI saying that mental illness is an "emergency" caused by eroding moral values and global instability; the closing of some churches on Christmas Day; and how exiled Iraqi Christians voted in the recent Iraq election. Another was the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church -- President Bush's denomination -- calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

But I read three excellent local pieces around the holidays: Michael Dirda's article in the Dec. 4 Book World, headlined: "A season to remember the transforming power of sacred language"; Richard Morin's Christmas Day story on the blind South African woman befriended by Christians at a Leesburg church; and DeNeen L. Brown's story the next day about the homeless woman who had slept on Metrobuses for two years until an anonymous donor, moved by religious faith, found her an apartment, furnished it and paid a year's rent. Now that's an anonymous source to love.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com. She cannot personally reply to all queries.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company