The Korean businessman had answered all of Aly Colon's questions.
Still, a good journalist often senses when something is missing. So Colon went back, probing to learn why this man was so anxious to heal the rift between Koreans and their black customers. Yes, the bloody Los Angeles riots had left him shaken. Was there anything else?
"I want you to know that I've been telling you the truth," the man said, back in 1996. "But there is one thing I haven't told you."
He hadn't talked about his faith. He hadn't confessed his own racial prejudices. And after the riots he was haunted by St. Paul's words to the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male for female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This Korean businessman prayed to see that truth at his shopping mall.
After opening up, he said the dreaded words: "Don't print that." If he failed, it would just inspire more news about hypocritical Christians.
Colon argued that the faith element was essential to this story. Ever since, he has been mulling over the lessons he learned doing that Seattle Times feature. The results are shaping new seminars on faith and the news at the Poynter Institute (www.poynter.org), where he leads programs on diversity and ethics in journalism.
The key, he wrote recently, is that "matters of faith manifest themselves in all kinds of places, among all kinds of people." This is true in news stories both large and small. Reporters who ignore this reality will find that they can "tell the story, just not the whole story," he said.
After 20 years on the God beat, I can only say, "Amen." That's why I was thrilled to speak at a Poynter seminar on this topic. Here are some of the questions I raised.
* If the goal is to improve coverage, does this mean covering more religion stories that intrigue people in newsrooms, or more stories that intrigue people in sanctuaries?
* Is religion news best covered by trained, committed specialists or by newcomers with a fresh, blank-slate approach? This is not a new question. In 1994, Washington Post editors tacked up a notice for a religion reporter. The "ideal candidate," it said, is "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion."
Would editors take this approach with the Supreme Court? Or sports? Or the arts? Try to imagine a notice for an opera critic stating that the "ideal candidate does not necessarily like opera or know anything about opera." Maybe we should treat religion like opera or, better yet, a fusion of opera and politics.
* Should newsrooms be more diverse when it comes to religious faith and practice? I am constantly asked if, in particular, it would help if there were more traditional, "devout," practicing members of major faith groups.
By all means, yes. But this is not because only "believers" can cover religion. What we need in newsrooms are more people who bring knowledge, experience and sensitivity into the news process. The goal is to miss fewer obvious stories and mess up fewer obvious facts.
* Focus groups and polling drive the hyper-competitive world of television news. If this is true, then where are the religion specialists in broadcast news or the 24/7 niches of cable news?
"Even the agnostic cannot fail to notice that the headlines and airwaves are full of religion," commentator Bill Moyers once said at Harvard Divinity School. Yet newscasts are so full of the "confused and condescending commentary of the religiously tone-deaf that there is little room for the authentic voices of religiously engaged people to be heard. So our ears are not trained to hear."
* While teaching at Denver Seminary, I used three simple questions to help pastors study the power of mass media over their flocks. I urged them to ask: How do my people spend their time? How do they spend their money? How do they make their decisions?
What would happen if newspaper editors and television producers asked these questions about their readers and viewers? If they did, I believe it would quickly affect the time and resources dedicated to religion news.