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Issues of faith having impact on the news

John G. Roberts' Catholic faith is an issue in his nomination for Chief Supreme Court Justice. President Bush burnishes his image by attending a national prayer service in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A federal court in Pennsylvania will hear arguments over a school district's policy requiring students to hear about "intelligent design" before biology lessons on evolution.

"Private faith has become part of public scrutiny," said Delia Gallagher, who was just named CNN's first full-time faith and values correspondent. She is the only full-time reporter in that role on a commercial news network. ABC previously had a religion reporter.

"The reason CNN has created this position is that religion is big news now, not just in politics but in our lives," added Gallagher, who has a degree in theology from Oxford University in England and spent five years in Rome covering the Catholic Church as an editor with the magazine, Inside the Vatican.

AT CNN, with its national and global reach, she could have a huge impact on religious reporting.

"I'm very hopeful about this," said Ari L. Goldman, former religion reporter for the New York Times who now teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "CNN could improve its religious coverage and set an example for other news outlets."

Commercial network news, in general, has a poor record for covering issues of faith.

"The problem is how networks view it, and it's not at the top of their news agenda," Goldman said. "These are tough issues and they have to be treated in a serious way. I don't know if it's such a hard thing for networks to cover religion. But they have to be willing to devote the time and the effort to it.

"It means understanding religious issues and how they shape people's lives. People are guided by their faith."

Goldman is struck by the surge of religious intensity throughout the world. He mentioned the rise of fundamental Islam in the Middle East, political power of the religious right in America and the dedication to faith of Israeli settlers.

"This is something that is happening on a global basis," Goldman said. "People are thinking more about religion."

Covering religion is another matter.

"It's difficult to figure out how to cover faith and values as opposed to doing stories about religion," said Al Tompkins, broadcast and group leader for the Poynter Institute for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Religious stories seem to run a predictable cycle, during presidential campaigns, or when such issues as the right to die or abortion are in the news due to an individual case. Reporting the core of an individual's spiritual belief is another media matter.

"Faith is what people believe and why," Tompkins said. "It's harder for a journalist to get that from a person.

"If someone says, 'This is what I believe,' it's that person's truth and a journalist has to find out why. Then a reporter can understand why people will act out publicly what they believe."

That's a challenge Delia Gallagher is willing to accept at CNN.

"We want to do these stories in a meaningful way and still make interesting television," added Gallagher, a California native now in her early 30s. "In print you've got readers willing to read a longer story with depth and information.

"We're going to try to do that on television, because these kinds of stories don't lend themselves to 30-second sound bites. We want to do longer pieces, maybe in two or three segments, because we want to do justice to them."

The Vatican is close-knit, and it proved to be an ideal training ground for Gallagher.

"It was a fantastic place to learn to be a reporter," she said. "At the Vatican, people don't want to talk to reporters, so you learn how to get them to open up. It took a lot more time and ingenuity to get stories but that's great experience. I think when you have a difficult beat, it makes you a better reporter."

Gallagher believes her combination of education and experience have prepared her for the CNN job.

"When I got my theology degree, a lot of people laughed and said, 'What are you going to do with that,' " she said. "Well, I got the last laugh.

"It comes in handy because I'm thoroughly conversed in religious culture. You cannot be a good journalist on this kind of beat and not be knowledgeable."

That may help Gallagher provide context to questions of values and faith for a world increasingly consumed by religion.

"We're not just going to do reports when a religious story becomes a big issue, we want to keep it in the public mind when it's not in the heat of the moment," Gallagher said. "I hope we can bring background, depth and meaningful discussion to questions of faith."

e-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com

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