The holy terror of religion news

Journalists at the Newhouse News Service bureau in Washington, D.C., learned to appreciate the sound of editor Deborah Howell cutting loose during a good argument. As news spread about her untimely death, former colleagues sought ways to describe her linguistic style using words that could be printed in family newspapers.

A Washington Post Tribute noted: "Some journalists swear like sailors; she swore like the fleet."

"She had a unique persona. She could be very intimidating. She knew how to browbeat people," said Mark O'Keefe, who worked for Howell on the Newhouse staff and as editor of Religion News Service. "It's easy to talk about her colorful language, but I also think it's important to understand why she used to get so upset. ...

"She was a fierce advocate for important stories that she really cared about and that was especially true when it came to covering religion."

Howell died on Jan. 2 during a trip to New Zealand with her husband, Peter. She was crossing a road to take a photograph and was hit by a car traveling on the left side of the roadway, the opposite of the custom in the United States. She was 68.

A symbolic figure for many journalists, Howell was a spitfire from Texas who pushed, argued and wrestled her way to the top of the executive ladder in an era when men ran the newsrooms that mattered. During her years at the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- finally reaching the top editor's chair -- she guided two projects that won Pulitzer Prizes, one on the plight of Midwestern farms and another on AIDS in the heartland.

While leading the Newhouse bureau in Washington, she played down business-as-usual political coverage and focused on culture, technology, sexuality, race and, yes, religion. In the mid-1990s, Howell urged Newhouse to purchase Religion News Service, the only mainstream wire service dedicating to covering religion news.

In the years that followed, "She protected us, advocated for us, cajoled us, yelled at us, pushed us, swore at us and loved us," noted Kevin Eckstrom, the current RNS editor, in an online tribute. "She, more than any other person, is responsible for us weathering the media meltdown that has devastated daily journalism."

A cartoon in that newsroom says it all. In it, Howell is depicted as an angel hovering over the U.S. Capitol, while a second Howell -- a devil with a pitchfork -- gazes up in disgust, saying, "Give me a @?X!*$# break." An adult convert to the Episcopal Church, the editor cherished her two nicknames bestowed by friends -- Mother Mary Deborah and the Dragon Lady.

After her retirement in 2005, Howell repeatedly articulated her views on religion news while serving as ombudsman, or readers' representative, at the Washington Post.

"Religion is a subject that many Post readers care deeply about, and they often don't think journalists care as deeply about it as they do," argued Howell, in one column. "Journalists are just like readers. Some are religious; some not. I don't think that matters as long as religion and spiritual issues are reported thoroughly and sensitively. ... I think that readers would not be so offended by an occasional story or reference they see as insensitive if they believed that The Post made religion coverage a priority."

Howell was just as blunt in her farewell column, which urged the newspaper's editors to, "Devote more coverage to religion. When you see how many reporters cover sports and politics, it seems natural to add more coverage of a subject dear to many readers' hearts."

It might even help to pursue more in-depth, accurate coverage of the lives and beliefs of conservatives. "I'd like those who have canceled their subscriptions to be readers again. Too many Post staff members think alike; more diversity of opinion should be welcomed," wrote Howell.

Year after year, stressed O'Keefe, Howell used her national network of contacts in newsrooms, and her credibility as journalism pioneer, to pound away on the importance of religion in the news.

"She was so passionate," he said. "What she believed was that journalists can't understand this country and what makes it tick -- as well as lots of events around the world -- without understanding religion. ... She was like an invisible guardian angel out there behind the scenes, fighting in her own unique way for serious religion coverage in the mainstream press."