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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

September 3, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 102




Tom Roberts Reporters on the religion beat

Tom Roberts NCR editor

In 1984, within weeks after I arrived in New York as the news editor for Religious News Service, I was invited to lunch by officials of the American Jewish Committee.

Two of them, one a rabbi, the other a former newspaper reporter, met with me at the AJC headquarters in midtown Manhattan. We weren't many bites into the fish lunch when the publicist, the former reporter, got to the point.

He told me he would try to "use" my news service the way he tried to use outlets like The New York Times, Time, Newsweek and others. He said he'd send us every press release his outfit generated -- and I found out a single day's production could make for a blizzard of paper. He said he knew we'd throw most of them in the trash. He just wanted me to know what he was up to.

It would not be all one way, he said. He told me I could call any time I wanted. That he would always be available, even when there was controversial news. And, he added, if I ever needed a source or an expert on any aspect of Jewish life or the news of the day, he'd find one for me. He was always good to his word.

The memory stuck with me because he was so frank and up front. He remained a model of candor and availability. And he worked hard to get the press what it needed to do its job, even when the story was controversial or unflattering to his organization. No question was stupid, no request too insignificant. I learned a lot about Judaism and American Jewry over the years from such patient tutelage. And the AJC and other groups received balanced and informed coverage as a result.

The memory of the AJC lunch was prompted by a recent column I read in which a Catholic cleric made some derisive comments about general reporters and condescendingly recalled sitting next to a reporter at the Dallas bishops' meeting in 2001 and being asked, "Now, what exactly is an archbishop?" It was also prompted because I will be attending a meeting this weekend of the Religion Newswriters Association, a long-standing organization of journalists dedicated to covering the religion beat.

My impression over the years is that a lot of news outlets make considerable investment in the religion beat. They hire very bright people who see the broad religion story as one of the most important to be covered and who have significant knowledge of its rather expansive and eclectic terrain. Often the complaint about covering the Catholic church is that reporters have little access; everything is done in secret, and too often leaders act as if responding to reporters is beneath their station. Face it, many church leaders don't do well handling questions from church members; they certainly don't like outsiders poking around the premises, asking difficult questions for publication.

As the AJC officials understood, however, effective relationships with media require a two-way communication and access for reporters to the decision-makers and newsmakers. Church leaders are correct to expect some understanding from reporters of the subjects and people being covered. The church would do well to understand, in return, the demands under which reporters work and the kind of regular access they need to do their job.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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