A place for religion scholars in new media?

In the days before a potential military strike on Syria in September, there were few religious scholars who were able to articulate, quickly and succinctly, the idea of just war theory for a general audience, calling into question how well scholars are adapting to the changing media landscape. That was the observation from Paul Raushenbush, religion editor of the Huffington Post, during a panel on religion and new media at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Baltimore yesterday.

Diane Winston, publisher of Religion Dispatches and a professor at the Annenberg School, lamented that mainstream media tends to focus its religion coverage on scandal stories. “Religion often changes in slow ways, and if that’s not how you report it,” stories of sexual misconduct dominate, she said.

Raushenbush said sites like the Huffington Post allow scholars, and others, to circulate their ideas to hundreds of thousands more people than previously possible. “Now anyone is a producer of media,” he said. But who pays for this content? Winston said that the chaos in the newspaper business model has allowed space for niche websites devoted to religion, but noted that online sites haven’t cracked the funding model. “Journalists deserve payment,” she said, standing next to the editor at HuffPost, a publication frequently criticized for not paying its contributors. Raushenbush responded that while payment isn’t supplied in cash, exposure to writers whose work might otherwise not be noticed is a form of compensation. “I encourage journalists not to blog for us,” he said.

Kathryn Lofton, professor of religious and American studies at Yale and author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, expressed hesitation about how effectively online work engages readers. “We have all this stuff [online], but is there any encounter with it?” she asked. She also questioned the cheerleaders who herald a “paperless society,” a trend starting in the 1970s, suggesting “the groups that went paperless first were not groups that wanted to make a more open world” The military, intelligence agencies, and corporate executives were pioneers in eliminating paper trails. “The digital is a place to hide,” she said.

The panel, Making (the Study of) Religion Online: New Media and the Study of Religion, was moderated by Kathryn Reklis, a religion professor at the Jesuit Fordham University in New York. More than 10,000 participants are gathered for four days of meetings, panels, and presentations on a wide variety of topics related to religious studies.