Religious Studies Program Partners with School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Associate Professor Susan B. Ridgely with students from RS 102  at the RS Fall Open House in our new home, the Bradley Memorial Building

Associate Professor Susan B. Ridgely with students from RS 102  at the RS Fall Open House in our new home, the Bradley Memorial Building

Religious Studies Associate Professor Susan B. Ridgely is no stranger to the frustrations of trying to explain complex religious factors she has written hundreds of pages about to journalists who have to present them in two lines in two minutes. As an ethnographer who researches contemporary religious movements highly adept at using media and a teacher who often employs journalism in the classroom (she recently taught a course on religion and the presidential election), she is also keenly aware of the importance of improving public understanding and discourse about religion through improving journalism’s grasp and presentation of religion. This, for Ridgely, requires collaboration between Religious Studies and Journalism as academic fields in research and teaching. It also has to involve dialogue between scholars and practicing journalists on presenting— or “storytelling”—with religion.

This fall Ridgely, along with Associate Professor Michael Wagner of the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC), have begun to bring religious studies and journalism together at UW thanks to a $60,000 grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. The grant project, “Interactive Skill Building to Improve Religious and International Affairs Storytelling in Local Journalism,” involves a series of workshops over two years. Alternately led by Religious Studies faculty and SJMC faculty, the monthly workshops offer local journalists as well as journalism faculty and graduate students a deeper understanding of how religious beliefs and practices are influencing the actors in national and international events. Religious Studies affiliate faculty learn journalistic techniques of storytelling to develop their op-ed writing ability, foster connections with local journalists, and learn to be effective sources for stories.

Workshops this Fall included “How to Write and Publish an Op-Ed About your Research,” led by Professor Wagner, and a session on building relationships with journalists led by Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, Professor Kathleen Culver. One RS affiliate commented on how “incredibly helpful” it was to learn about how journalists work and how to “tailor expertise to talking points” that journalists can use.

For RS’s part, RS Director Jordan Rosenblum led a discussion on “Why a Journalist Should Call a Religious Studies Scholar” and Dr. Ridgely discussed “Religion’s Role in Fake News,” drawing on her own research on the Christian organization Focus on the Family for lessons about worldview and news-making. At one session, a journalism graduate student appreciated the “rare opportunity” to have an in-depth conversation about religion—a subject she had not studied academically—as an important factor in world affairs.

Two mini-conferences are planned to foster interdisciplinary research collaboration in RS and Journalism, curricular development in the SJMC’s master’s program in reporting, and opportunities for deepening and implementing knowledge about religion for practicing reporters. RS also sees this as an opportunity to explore ways to enrich our undergraduate program offerings. RS-International Studies major Katherine O’Brien is interning with the project alongside a graduate project assistant in journalism this Fall. Jointly, they are participating in and recording the sessions and creating a website for the project. Please visit the website here.