I told David that he would need to be able to make his point in 650-750 words. Quote no more than one source—and that briefly. Editors are interested in your opinion, not your citations. (As painful as it may be for pastors, avoid quoting Scripture at all costs; reporters are loath to quote someone quoting someone else.) Write as if you are addressing incoming freshman, and not the brightest of them.
David was an apt pupil. He listened and grasped the voice in which he needed to speak, and it turned out he had a gift for this sort of thing. I put him together with our op-ed editor, Mike Murphy, and they hit it off as well. I explained to David that the Sentinel could only pay him a pittance for his columns, but the real value was that Mike would post them on several news services we contributed to. That has had an amplifier effect, and brought him to the attention of larger media outlets.
Not all interactions play out this well. Some religion professors have little patience with our journalistic and intellectual shortcomings. Christian Smith, formerly of the University of North Carolina and now of the University of Notre Dame, went out of his way to insult all religion writers as shallow and inept in the conservative evangelical journal Books and Culture. Some of his criticisms were justified; others gratuitous. In any event, it is highly unlikely many of us will trouble him in the future.
David was not satisfied with individual success. He understood the value of media exposure and contacts for the Divinity School, and pushed for the school to be included in the Duke Media Fellows program. This is a well-proven way to reach out to religion journalists by bringing them to the school for a month to become acquainted with the faculty. One of the reasons I was anxious to come to the Divinity School as Media Fellow in 2006 was to convince Grant Wacker, a world authority on Pentecostalism, that he could trust me enough to take my calls. The program also gives students, faculty and staff a chance to hear about journalists’ take on the church.
One more thing about these calls, which applies to local pastors as well as to professors and authors. After a positive encounter with a religion journalist, offering your home and cell phone numbers and your personal e-mail is an act of trust that is likely to redound to your benefit manifold, particularly when a news story breaks after hours.
Mark I. Pinsky T’70, is religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel and author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed (Westminster John Knox. 2006), among other titles. A former media fellow at the Divinity School, he was a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion during spring 2008.