What I discovered was that the bulk of religious newswriting was in the hands of a dedicated and knowledgeable press corps that wanted above all else to get the story right. The conditions under which these reporters work are seldom ideal. But the quality of their best writing is comparable with the best writing in any field, some of it even setting a gold standard for accuracy and fairness.
I wondered what Duke could do to help the enterprise along without compromising the fierce independence of religion journalists. The Divinity School was already giving prizes for the best religion news stories published each year in North Carolina. Moreover, Duke University sponsored a longstanding fellowship program for journalists, giving them an opportunity to pause and hit the reset button. Fellows could spend a month at the university, reading, attending seminars and classes, and talking with faculty, students and fellow journalists. Yonat Shimron, religion newswriter for The News & Observer, had already participated in this program. But there was as yet no slot funded by the Divinity School and reserved for religion newswriters.
In collaboration with Laurie Bley, the director of the Duke journalism program, the Divinity School developed just such a slot. To date we have welcomed as fellows Alan Cooperman of The Washington Post, Mark Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel, Caroline Borge of ABC News, and Rachel Zoll of AP.
Cooperman was interested in learning more abut the so-called Great Awakening and the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. But Pope John Paul II died before Alan could get very far with his studies, and he was whisked onto a plane to Rome with a suitcase full of dirty laundry and a credit card that did not work.
Mark Pinsky was luckier. He was left alone while he focused his interests on evangelicals in the South, a topic on which he had just written a book. Mark later lectured to a Duke audience on how his mind had changed about who evangelicals were and where they were heading.
Caroline Borge read widely on a variety of subjects, and she talked to our faculty and students about her ABC Special Report on poverty in Camden, N.J. She posed the moral problem ABC pondered: could journalists be satisfied to report what they saw among the desperately poor and homeless, and then simply walk away, or does conscience require even professional observers to become actors and intervene on behalf of the dispossessed. In the end, ABC intervened.
Rachel Zoll was incredibly productive in her brief time at Duke. Like Caroline, Rachel worked on a variety of issues, from the nature of evangelicalism in America to variations in Protestant Eucharistic theology (a subject on which all alumni of Church History 14 have notes). Her public lecture explored the present state of religious newswriting in America.