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AAR Honors Journalists for In-Depth Reporting

May 29, 2008

Contact: Susan Snider

Manya Brachear of the Chicago Tribune, Lee Lawrence of The Christian Science Monitor, and Mohamad Bazzi, former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday, won the 2008 American Academy of Religion Awards for Best In-Depth Reporting on Religion.

Brachear won the contest for journalists at news outlets with more than 100,000 circulation or on the Web; Lawrence for journalists at news outlets with less than 100,000 circulation; and Bazzi for opinion writing.

The annual awards, given out since 2000, recognize “well-researched newswriting that enhances the public understanding of religion,” said John R. Fitzmier, Executive Director of the AAR. Founded in 1909, the AAR is the world’s largest association of academics who research or teach topics related to religion, with more than 10,000 members in some 1,500 colleges, universities, seminaries and schools in North America and abroad.

Brachear submitted articles on the Jewish New Year and interpretations of the story of Abraham; the potential political challenges for Barack Obama as a member of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ; debate over a revised edition of the Reform Jewish prayer book; a Catholic man’s pilgrimage to 365 churches in 365 days; and megachurch Willow Creek Community Church and its business model for surveying member satisfaction. “Newsy, ambitious, diverse. And it almost called the biggest issue (so far) of the Democratic presidential primaries with an early profile of Trinity UCC,” said a judge. “A well-written and well-researched entry,” added another judge.

Lawrence submitted articles from a series on military chaplains. Lawrence was embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for three months and covered the day-to-day life of Army and Navy chaplains as they navigated such issues as suicide, baptism, family separation, patriotism, interfaith dialogue, and the mentoring of foreign military clergy. Said one judge, “This ambitious series on military chaplains … shows how effective it can be to approach a major news event from the often-overlooked religion angle. There is wonderful clarity in the writing …. Good use of detail and a smooth narrative flow bring the chaplains and their world to life.”

Bazzi, writing for The Nation and Newsday, submitted opinion articles on Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s struggle for power within Iraq’s Shiite community; the possibility of civil war in Lebanon between Muslim Sunnis and Shiites; and how the U.S. should respond to the statements of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Bazzi’s “focus on politics and religion in the Middle East provides insight into some of today’s most vexing topics,” commented one judge. “The opinions are clearly stated and well supported,” said another judge, noting the articles are a “must-read for anyone trying to understand the political situation in the Middle East.”
Yaroslav Trofimov of The Wall Street Journal placed second in the contest for news outlets with more than 100,000 circulation. “This entry’s portrait of religious issues in other countries was unusually comprehensive and an excellent read. The ease with which this reporter handled the difficult task of overseas reporting for American readers shows skill and a trained eye for the good story,” said one judge. Another judge highlighted the entry’s “vibrant detail and effective quotes.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald of The Christian Science Monitor placed second in the contest for news outlets with less than 100,000 circulation. MacDonald “showed a good eye for a story — in particular, an excellent profile of Pastor A.R. Bernard, a significant figure who had not gotten due media coverage,” said one judge. The articles are “well-sourced and thoughtful,” noted another judge, adding “the pieces on financial investments are particularly strong.”

William McKenzie of The Dallas Morning News placed second in this year’s opinion writing contest. “The writer has a knack for making complex subjects accessible. Despite the weighty topics, the pieces display a light touch, drawing in readers who may not think they want to read about theologians or pastors,” remarked one judge. “Perceptive commentary … written about in a very accessible way,” said another judge.  

Adam Parker of The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.) placed third in the contest for news outlets with more than 100,000 circulation. Parker “did an exceptional job with several stories that many writers have tried to do. The summary of the turmoil in the Episcopal Church was filled with detail and context that did not overwhelm the story. The coverage of the Catholic sex scandal effectively localized a national story,” said a judge.

Brad A. Greenberg of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles placed third in the contest for news outlets with less than 100,000 circulation. “These stories pop! The writer’s easy style masks the depth and breadth of the reporting,” said one judge. Greenberg’s “enthusiasm for exploring Jewish life … comes through to the reader and makes for some delightful pieces. There is a sense of humor and curiosity behind the articles,” commented another judge.

Robert Sibley of the Ottawa Citizen placed third in this year’s opinion writing contest. “These pieces are the intellectual equivalents of comfort food for rainy days,” said a judge, highlighting Sibley’s “elegant prose” and erudition. “The lively, thorough article on the 30th anniversary of the release of ‘Star Wars’ was an exceptionally good exploration of the role of religion in popular culture,” added another judge.
Each contestant submitted articles published in North America during 2007. Names of contestants and their news outlets were removed from submissions prior to judging. Each of the first-place winners receives $1,000.

The judges for the contest for news outlets with more than 100,000 circulation included Cecile Holmes, a professor of journalism at the University of South Carolina and a former reporter for the Houston Chronicle, and Jeffrey Weiss, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News. The judges for the contest for news outlets with less than 100,000 circulation and for the opinion writing contest included Paul Moses, a professor of English at Brooklyn College and a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for Newsday, and Diane Winston, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Ronald Thiemann, a professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School, served as the third judge on all three contests. Thiemann is a member of the AAR Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion

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