Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Religion journalists tell the truth — compassionately

Writing about faith communities

Journalists don’t always get much respect. Sometimes it is their own fault. (If a reporter stuck a microphone in your face after a maniac had shot up your child’s classroom, and asked you, artlessly, “So, how do you feel right now?,” you might not give the journalist high marks.)

The exceptions noted, most journalists try to do good and valuable work. And lacking their tenacity in the face of many obstacles, we’d be the poorer.

There is a special breed of journalist that deserves some attention. They research, write, and report about the faith community. “Religion journalism” is a special calling. One can’t do it properly without some grounding in — and respect for — the church, and without developing a balance between healthy skepticism and sympathy for those about whose world they report.

One can identify three categories of “religion journalists.”

There are those who report on religion for the secular press (such as for a commercial newspaper, like the Pioneer Press or the Star Tribune). These folks may have no particular loyalty to a religious community, and may even be non-religious themselves (although they are generally willing to steer a neutral course when covering the religion scene).

There are those who write for a religious “house organ” (such as The Lutheran [ELCA], The Lutheran Witness [LCMS], The Lutheran Ambassador [AFLC], The Lutheran Spokesman [CLC], or Forward in Christ [WELS]). Their responsibility is to inform the constituents of the denomination, but they are also committed to casting their employing organization in the best possible light. This may tempt them to become “public relations agents” for their employers — unless they can secure a long-enough leash, as some actually do, to report the unvarnished truth.

There are those who report for the independent church news sources. Notable examples are the Roman Catholic National Catholic Reporter, the pan-Lutheran Metro Lutheran, the ecumenical nonprofit magazine Sojourners, or a news service like the nonprofit Religion News Service.

The publication you are reading right now has benefited from those with experience in all three venues. Here are examples:

* Writers for commercial media: Willmar Thorkelson, long-time religion writer for the Minneapolis Star, turned his energies in retirement to writing for Metro Lutheran. Almost until his death in 2002, he was a regular correspondent for the paper. Likewise, the late Clark Morphew, who crafted religion stories for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, wrote for Metro Lutheran in his last years. Morphew in particular earned a reputation, at the St. Paul daily, for taking on the church establishment when he thought its leadership was being less than forthcoming on a particular issue.

* Writers for denominational house organs: Wilfred Bockelman, who lives in retirement in the Twin Cities, was a long-time staff journalist for the American Lutheran Church’s house organ, The Lutheran Standard. He received the Metro Lutheran Gold Pen Award (1997), as did Thorkelson (1989) and Morphew (1992). Another Gold Pen winner, a previous editor of Metro Lutheran, Charles P. Lutz, cut his teeth as a journalist editing One, a magazine for Lutheran youth, when on the staff of both the “old” and the “new”American Lutheran Church. Metro Lutheran editor emeritus Mike Sherer previously served as an editor, and then a communication director, for agencies of the American Lutheran Church and, later, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (as well as for an independent publisher of religious books and magazines).

* Writers for independent religion publications: A journalist who has written primarily for the alternative religious press is the present editor of Metro Lutheran. Bob Hulteen was a associate editor for many years at Sojourners before accepting his current position, and still is a contributing writer there.

A dedicated life

One stand-out communicator followed a completely different path. Robert Ylvisaker, who died in December of 2012, pursued a career in secular journalism before becoming a religion writer in retirement. A graduate of Luther College and the University of Minnesota, Bob spent decades as a reporter for the The Gazette of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; the Rochester (Minnesota) Post-Bulletin, and the Minneapolis Tribune (later merged with the Minneapolis Star). He completed his pre-retirement career by editing a newspaper in the Camden neighborhood of North Minneapolis.

Robert Ylvisaker

Religion journalists research, write, and report about the faith community.

A humorous (and, in some ways, embarrassing) moment for the writer of this article came scarcely a week into my tenure as the new editor of Metro Lutheran. I recall the day Ylvisaker walked into the editorial office at the Minnesota Church Center in Minneapolis. A recent arrival from Ohio, I had no knowledge of him or his recent significant career in secular journalism. (Because he was an Ylvisaker, I sensed he probably had a Lutheran pedigree, but I knew one should never assume anything. I later learned he had previously served on the Metro Lutheran board of directors, adding to my chagrin.)

In that early encounter with Bob, he announced to me, in his usual modest — almost self-effacing — manner, “I’d like to write for the paper.” I was caught off guard. I didn’t know whether he was a decent writer, nor whether it would be the kind of writing Metro Lutheran really wanted and needed. My plan, by then just recently formulated, was going to be to seek out writers on the recommendation of those “in the media world.” I had received no such recommendation for Bob.

So I decided to put him through the fire. I told him I’d give him an assignment and that, if it turned out well, we’d consider using his talents more in the future. On the spot I concocted the most difficult assignment I could envision. It was early September, and Minnesota was ramping up for election season. I told Bob I wanted a story in which he would report on every election race, from mayor on up to U.S. House, in which a Lutheran was a candidate (and, if two Lutherans were facing off, all the better). I wanted a “roundup story.” I figured if an assignment of that magnitude didn’t scare him off, he was either foolish or highly skilled. (I had no knowledge just then of the fact that Bob had been a crack political reporter for a local daily.)

His response, as I recall, was, “Sure. I can do that. When do you need it?”

The story he turned in was better than I’d expected. It was also very long. It served me right. I had asked for comprehensive treatment of a complicated topic. It was the first story I included in Metro Lutheran under Bob Ylvisaker’s byline, but far from the last.

Religion journalists who are worth their salt maintain their commitment to the dual task of “speaking the truth … in love.”

In terms of story length, it soon became clear to me that Bob liked to “write long.” The other staff writers began to notice that Bob’s stories were always more comprehensive than theirs (and chided me for allowing it, since I’d asked everyone to condense their submissions). I confronted Bob about this. He cheerfully replied, “I’m sorry. I keep trying to keep the stories as short as you want them. But when I was ‘in the business’ we were taught to write in such a way that you answer every possible question the reader might legitimately ask on the topic at hand.’”

Who was I to argue with a trained professional steeped in his craft? After that, I resorted to printing portions of Bob’s stories and running the longer version on Metro Lutheran’s website. He informed me that he thought that was a creative solution. (A less generous journalist would have taken me to task, or perhaps even thrown a tantrum. Not Bob.)

How different is that?

The ALC’s The Lutheran Standard (a predecessor to the ELCA’s The Lutheran), consistently ran a biblical quote underneath the masthead at the top of page one. It read, “Speaking the truth in love.” Religion journalists who are worth their salt maintain their commitment to that dual task. It will not serve the readership well to sugar-coat, obfuscate, mislead, or under-report a story. Speaking the truth means just that — getting the facts in front of the audience and trusting them to draw appropriate conclusions.

But unlike the secular media, religion journalists also take seriously their responsibility to tell their stories “in love” — that is, compassionately.

The one-time (now retired) editor of The Lutheran Church in America publication, The Lutheran (later the editor of the ELCA journal by the same name), explained this calling memorably in a workshop for church journalists. Edgar Trexler said, “I once attended a Lutheran church assembly at which a pastor was escorted from the plenary meeting, in full view of the entire gathering, by the local police. The next day the local secular media reported he’d been solicited for sex by an undercover agent on a public street, and had responded inappropriately.”

Said Trexler, “We could have ignored or buried the story. But we decided to report it with compassion. So we talked about how the pastor’s congregation and his synod ministered to him just then.” That was a great example of “speaking the truth in love” if ever there was one.

Martin Luther reminded his church to celebrate vocation (calling) in all its forms. He said a shoemaker and a bishop were on equal footing before God, assuming both did their task with integrity. The same is true for journalists.

Those who report for the church and its members exercise a special calling. They are worthy of our appreciation.

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