2010-10-24 20:47:00

I'm against having idols in my workshop

The "Pravoslaviye i Mir" website continues a series of conversations about church journalism in 1990-2010. We will look behind the curtain of church journalism and clear out who and how have informed us about the Church all these years, how relations between media and Church have changed, what and how to write about Orthodoxy. We discuss the topic with those whose texts and names we have already known for many years.

The idea of such conversations belongs to publicist Maria Sveshnikova, website executive editor Anna Danilova carried it out.



From its first day Interfax-Religion cannot leave anyone indifferent. Its executive chief's thesis on IFR strategy: "Share of news on a religious organization should correspond to number of its followers and influence in society" is still discussed. Readers wonder how editorial staff manage to find up to 30 religious news a day, colleagues keep an eye on media monitoring, bloggers discuss headings and photos, Mosaics section is cited in Internet, and from now on any resident of Russia can find his or her church on the interactive map of religious communities posted on the website.

Editor-in-Chief Valentina Dudkina tells how the largest website on religion in modern world has been organized and develops.



Valentina Dudkina is a Lomonosov Moscow State University Journalism graduate. When a student, she was a film critic and wrote for the "Cosmopolitan" magazine. She has been working for the "Interfax" Information Agency since 1997. She covered religious and political life in Russia there and late in 2004 became a head of the "Interfax-Religion" Internet project.


- Valentina, please, tell our readers how did you come to religious journalism?

- It was almost 13 years ago, it's unbelievable that so much time has passed! It just so happened that not long before I came to Interfax a girl who had covered religious topics quitted the agency. When she left, an entire field of work became free an as this field was not so big (then Russian media wrote less about religion) it was given to the youngest staff member. So at first sight I came to religious journalism absolutely by chance, my chiefs could ask me to write about anything else. But when I think of how it started and what happened next I recall the phrase I first heard from a Moscow priest: "he, who believes in chance, doesn't believe in God." Every year proves these words are true.

- Who was your model in religious journalism, whose journalistic skills did you want to master?

- To tell the truth, I didn't have such models and I am against of having idols in my workshop. No doubt I sometimes appreciate depth of thought, beauty of style, efficiency of work demonstrated by some of my colleagues covering religious sphere, but I don't want to imitate any of them. Why? I am convinced that every creative person, including a journalist, must be the only of his kind or you can just become a skilled, even brilliant, but imitator.

For example, when Leonid Parfenov appeared on the television, he demonstrated his own, unique style with special intonation, composition of report, unique manner of behaving before the camera - it was for the first time on our TV screen and the impression was so great that many young journalists readily copied Parfenov's style and still do it. However what was admirable when performed by the author of the style, is sad to see from newcomers who again and again copy Leonid's style. Every of these guys could have invented something of their own, but has chosen to copy others' know-how.

- What acquaintances and events do you remember most brightly from the time of your work in religious journalism?

- I won't conceal that religious journalism met me without enthusiasm and the first editorial task left bad aftertaste. I remember that I had to go to a Liturgy and make a news report basing on the sermon. Trying to come closer to the ambo with a pen and note book, I asked two women to give me the way and one of them answered me harshly that there was no place in the church for people like me. When I asked "Why?" she gave me a precise response: "You wear a hat! Woman of fashion serves Satan." I spent the rest of the service with this label as a "foster." Should I say that on that day I didn't have any inspiration for the work...

However, such unpleasant moments were soon put into shade by impressions from meetings with great number of people who constituted intellectual nuclear of religious organizations - synodal departments, spiritual boards, rabbinates, belonged to the category of newsmakers. My journalistic cooperation with the Department for External Church Relations was certainly very important for me as then it was the main link between the Church and mass media.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how DECR representatives tactfully and readily explained me details of church policy, no matter that then I was a very young girl rather far from understanding church situation. I was pleasantly surprised that priests who headed key spheres of church policy were modern. Certainly my acquaintance and communication with the Chairman of the Department Metropolitan Kirill was very important for my creative destiny. Probably, his election to the patriarchal see that took place later has become the most memorable event in my career.

It's difficult to recall everything that has happened for 12 years: here you have to write a book or to take it out of the context. It is impossible to tell everything as when your work becomes a part of your life, you live through a lot of personal moments and it's not generally accepted to talk about it widely. But if we speak of public events, I first of all recall deeds that required personal courage from people. It was in spring 2003 when few hours before the war in Iraq began Mufti Tajuddin with a small delegation went to Iraq to express his support to Iraqis. It was in spring 2007 when Patriarch Alexy came to Ukraine even though its orange authorities even didn't try to conceal that they didn't want to see him. And how ordinary people nevertheless met their Patriarch with the sea of Russian flags and heartfelt wave of sincere love, and what great strength was displayed by then severely ill Primate and how Metropolitan Kirill, organizer of the visit, in few minutes conquered hearts of many thousands people in downtown Kiev - all these things I still recall with heartbeat.

- And how will you characterize interaction between the Church and media in its development? What conflicts could have been avoided?

- For the last ten years general tone has changed: it seems to me that now less journalists write about religious life in ironical or malignant manner and there are more positive materials about the Church, especially on television, reports where the hero, a spiritual person, is presented as a model for others and not as a caricature Father Feodor from The Twelve Chair (classic satirical novel by the Soviet authors Ilf and Petrov - IF) .

But sometimes there are such publications that are impossible to bear. I don't mean the cases when colleagues write about the problems that really exist in religious sphere. It is necessary to write about them as very often "surgical interference" of media helps settle these problems. But there are so many examples when choosing an actual theme for the report, a journalist gets to the field alien to him and even doesn't try to study the question, but starts speaking about the things he doesn't know at all, confuses terms, uses rude parallels, bases on false grounds and come to groundless conclusions and he does it with pathos. And from outside you see that he is just a dilettante and trying to produce an effect he has shown himself from the bad side and spoilt his relations with religious figures. It seems to me that such conflicts should be avoided.

- Religious news in mass media is often a small piece in the Society rubric, however the major part of events in the country and in the world has religious roots. What do you think about it?

- Today when it is not prohibited to write about religion, it seems to me that volume of religious information and analytics meets public interest to the topic.

When an important event happens in church and public life and its result will influence life of great number of people and the whole country (for instance patriarchal election) number of publications and programs about it was very big. Certainly sometimes something important happens in religious life and journalists don't pay attention to it, or skeptical chiefs "weed out" the material. It's easy to explain as anticlerical past still reminds of its existence. Probably, the generation should change and then media will have not indifferent people who can brightly and interestingly tell about religion helping readers to look at the world with new eyes.

- How do you think the policy of secular editions writing about religion should be formed?

- Every media focuses on its audience and has specific tasks. Schematic coverage of religious topic is enough for some of them, someone goes further and spotlights religious, spiritual, moral aspect in almost every event. The reader, in his turn, also changes, alarming and tragic events of the recent times change him and now sociologists give us amazing figures. For example, the number of abortion opponents in Russia has decreased by nine percent in three years. It's a very joyful leap for such short time and this decrease certainly proves that society started recovering. However if readers change, the media inevitably changes too, and it will be nice if journalists have enough wisdom to participate in this transformation and in particular to back up socially important initiatives of religious organizations in their materials.

- What religious journalism lacks today?

- It lacks interesting presentation. Perhaps it is impossible to require that any religious edition equals the number of its copies to glossy magazines that capture their readers from the cover, but this skill to grab attention is important and it shouldn't be considered "pops" and something unworthy of spiritual reading. An average person will never buy or even take for free unpretentious paper with boring headings, if he is not interested only in parochial life. The same is true about radio and TV programs.

Besides, I believe that people who write about religion sometimes lack solidarity. Sometimes hair stand on end when you read someone's Live Journal! No one abolished the culture of communication, say nothing of Biblical rules of blaming the neighbor. I wish all of us can overcome temptations hidden in electronic diaries.

- How the idea of organizing a religious portal under auspices of Interfax information agency appeared?

- Perhaps it was inevitable, but there was a subjective factor too. When I worked in the agency for about seven years I was suggested to join the group covering foreign policy. It was considered a kind of promotion as it supposed frequent trips abroad and so on. But when I spent some time at the new place, I understood that I can't think of foreign policy because all my thoughts was focused on how a new person who was appointed on my topic would write about religion, how he or she will develop relations with people which I had been building for many years and how I would leave my circle. In about a week I understood that no, I can't do it and my move to the other department was a terrific mistake. Then I went to my editor in chief (then it was Georgy Gulia, now Interfax Executive Director) and suggested to set up the Interfax-Religion department. Georgy, in his turn, gave an idea of making our news line open to everyone considering unlimited Internet opportunities and my good friend and religious expert Roman Silantyev formulated the concept of our website. So it started.

Certainly there were objective reasons for setting up a religious news line as the number of news on religion was growing and there was impossible to cope with it alone. I've paid attention to one trend: the more correspondents our project has the more news comes out. One priest has recently joked: "You write so much! When will I read it all?"

- What is the most difficult when choosing and presenting your material? Are there many attacks on your portal for not being monoreligious and covering all religions?

- As to critics, we stated from the very beginning that we will write about this or that religious organization only in the volume corresponding to its real weight in public life. When writing a text the most important thing is to make this piece of news simple, comprehensible to every person who may come to our page accidentally and our task is to keep him or her on our page as long as possible.

- Probably Interfax-Religion is the only religious portal where jokes are officially allowed. What is the aim of Mosaics rubric?

- Last page in a paper has the same aim - to make its reader relax and smile. When we opened this rubric I remember somebody wondered whether it is acceptable to make jokes on religious topics. We also were thinking about it, but when we looked at numerous funny news and pictures we collected for the first two years of work we understood the life itself makes jokes on religious topics and brings a note of humor to the places where, at the first sight, it is not allowed. And when we read Rabbi Lazar's Jewish joke in one of the central papers, we eventually decided to open this rubric as even religious leaders don't consider it disgraceful to laugh at them publicly.

By the way, some of our readers confessed that first they look through Mosaics and print its materials for relatives who don't use Internet. So it comes out that Internet also has limits and light news is able to overcome them.