Interview: Kate Shellnutt, web producer, religion blogger, Houston Chronicle

January 9th, 2010 by Menachem Wecker

I first connected with Kate Shellnutt on Twitter (where she has two handles). I was very excited to be a part of her article “This Muslim-American life: Allah and the Arts,” which she wrote as a journalism student at Medill. Shellnutt has since graduated and now works on the Houston Chronicle’s religion page, where she continues to write on many of the topics which are most important to me. It was obvious that I had to formally interview here, and I think readers might find particular relevance and insight in her view of the role of religion reporters.

MW: Was there a particular experience or revelatory moment when you first decided covering religion was your passion?

KS: I don’t have a crazy story. I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was little, and majored in journalism and religion in college (Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.). I’ve spent most of my life very curious about religion and very concerned about religion, but without strong ties to a single tradition. Studying and covering religion has given me the opportunity to explore a spectrum of beliefs. I have the chance see how different people experience the sacred, which in the end, is the most magical, special, meaningful thing we get to do.

MW: What is a day in the life of a web producer and blogger for the Houston Chronicle’s religion site like?

KS: Several times a day, I check up on religion news online: blogs, mainstream sites, religion-specific sites, organization reports and releases. I look for stories to localize, get background information and note any trends. I meet with religious leaders and attend events in the area to cover on the site. I also manage our team of pastor and reader bloggers, offering suggestions and helping promote their work on the site. And, what seems to be my least-fun job, I patrol our forums and comments for hateful and offensive remarks.

MW: What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities for religion writers?

KS: If you’re a religion writer, in many ways, you are THE expert in the room on matters of faith. The average person, even among the educated, doesn’t have impressive levels of religion knowledge and rarely has any helpful knowledge outside of their own tradition. I see the role of religion journalists to encourage their newsrooms to consider the religion angle on all sorts of stories, because it’s often helpful and relevant, but not the obvious way to go. They can help organizations deepen their coverage of everyday topics. Just this week, I’ve found religion angles to stories about Texas football, national politics the weather and celebrity gossip. The audience for mainstream news includes a great number of people of faith, and we underserve them if we don’t consider this dimension of life in our coverage.

MW: How seriously do you think religion reporters are taking religious art? Do they tend to view it as a source for soft, feel-good stories, or are religion newsrooms seriously considering religious culture as potentially news?

KS: Just this morning Houston’s Belief section in the paper led with a religion and art story. This story, as a profile of a local church and its artwork, is more feature-like; it’s not merely fluff, but not incredibly in-depth, simply a local look. I think most religion and art stories you see are either like this or on the other end of the spectrum, the controversial piss-cross kind of stories. I’d like to see art and religion stories that better explain how the art relates to the tradition, rather than just pointing at the phenomenon, like “look at that, it’s Jewish/Muslim/Christian!”

MW: Do you think there has been a tendency lately to focus on the negative side of religious art in the press (Danish cartoons, chocolate Jesus, etc.)? If so, is that because religious artists aren’t pitching their stories well enough, or is it the fault of religious press?

KS: Yes. Controversy, juxtaposition, the unexpected certainly get more attention, but that’s the case with almost all news. People are still desperate to know and learn, but they don’t necessarily want to spend time with long essays that don’t draw them in from the start. Religion reporters, like all reporters, must consider the audience and present topics in exciting, creative ways that make people want to click and read.

MW: What are some of your favorite examples of religious art? Favorite religious artists?

KS: Ok, so I did do the mandatory European art history kind of course in college, and I’ve studied in Italy, touring the museums and churches in Rome and Florence… but that’s not really the kind of religious art that turns me on.

Rather than art that depicts religious events or is commissioned by a church or includes religious symbols, I like when artists create work in a way that reflects their religious tradition. I met an artist in Chicago who was inspired by her Jewish roots. Ellen Gradman (Twitter) makes large, multimedia colleges, sculptures and environments using found objects. In the creation of her work, she’s putting pieces together, acting out the Jewish notion of “tikkun olam,” which is a notion that Jews have the responsibility to serve the broken world they live in and rebuild it piece by piece. What a deep, and almost literal, way to put religion into action, I thought. Plus her work was beautiful! (I haven’t told her this, but even her little Twitter logo reminds me of the logo for Tikkun Daily.)

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