Social versus theological issues: When pursuing religion stories, reporters should consider social versus theological issues. How do the non-religious issues that are the focus of the reporting reflect on a faith community’s religious identity?
Quoting experts: Reporters often rely on the voices and viewpoints of “experts,” who either claim to represent a faith community or who offer an outsider’s point of view. How do you know that individual is an expert?
Interpreting the scriptures: Sacred texts are the written records of faith communities and they explain beliefs. However, interpretations may vary greatly, even within specific denominations and sub-groups. Interpretation of these sacred texts and scriptures should be left to trusted, qualified theologians. Reporters who are not themselves theologians are likely not qualified to interpret these texts.
Terminology: Words can mean different things to different faith communities and even within denominations. For instance, words often generally associated with Native American faith practices can vary from one community to another.
Understanding congregations and communities: Understanding the structure of a faith community can help facilitate better coverage. Almost every faith community has denominations. There is unlikely to be a representative spokesperson for an entire community. An issue or topic can have multiple meanings and interpretations, even within faith communities and denominations, and depending on location. Paying attention to how members of a community characterize their beliefs and practices will provide cues for how to cover a topic.
Diversity within faith communities: Religious and faith groups are usually ethnically and culturally diverse communities, even if local congregations are not, and accurate reporting on these groups should reflect that. The Pew Research Center publishes demographic information about religious groups at http://www.pewforum.org/. Reporting that is rich in data and trends is less likely to be questioned and more likely to be accurate.
Developing reporting expertise: Stories about religion and faith communities are often assigned to general assignment reporters as they arise. However, newsrooms that routinely cover religious communities and their practices can develop expertise that can be valuable when covering more complicated topics. Reporters assigned to religion and faith as a beat learn to cover faith communities with respect.
Unbiased Reporting: Demonstrating respect and sensitivity for a community of believers and their dogmas requires no compromise in the reporter’s beliefs but will go a long way to helping gain access to and credibility within a community. Once lost, credibility is difficult, if not impossible, to regain.
Mistaken Identity? When covering a bias crime or attack on a religious group, suggesting that community may have been targeted because of mistaken identity can unintentionally suggest that one group is more or less deserving of maltreatment than another. An example would be the suggestion that members of the Sikh faith were mistaken for Muslims before being attacked. Ideological terms: Some words, phrases and characterizations have ideological overtones, including such terms as Black Muslim, Muslim extremist and Islamist.
Awareness of Christian Communities: The need for the newsroom staff to become more familiar with non-Christian communities does not preclude the need to continually know more about Christian denominations, which can vary greatly in their beliefs, dogma, structure and practices. Even churches within a denomination can be very different.
Religion can be controversial and the beliefs and practices of faith groups – which they claim are divinely inspired – can be at odds with societal values or a journalist’s personal beliefs or worldview. The journalist’s role is to understand what people believe and practice and then explain those beliefs and practices to a broader audience. Each faith group has its own way of defining the spiritual issues that human beings face and each understands and explains the human relationship with the divine differently. A journalist can question those beliefs and practices if they appear to cause harm but should avoid debating the merits of differing points of view.
Be careful to understand the leadership of the religious group you are covering. Some are democratic, with congregation members having a say in decision-making processes. Others are more top-down and hierarchical. Take time to ask how the organization operates.
Remember to follow the money. Houses of worship are not usually required to reveal their finances. However, many do and so do religious charities. Check for tax returns, audited financial records, property records, etc. Do not be afraid to ask for copies of church budgets and financial statements. Many congregations will not turn them over, but you lose nothing by asking.
Do not assume you know what people believe or that you understand what they have said. If you are confused about something or it sounds odd to you, ask for clarification.
As with any organization you might be covering, keep an arm’s-length relationship and remain skeptical. Ask for evidence of any claims groups make about work they are doing within communities and verify facts.
Talk to leaders, lay people, critics and experts. Build relationships and learn as much as possible about any religious group you cover. No news organization would send a reporter to cover a sporting event who did not know the rules of the game, but will often assign a reporter who knows nothing about religion to cover faith stories. Religion can be far more complicated to cover than sports and at least as complicated as politics.
The Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape study is based on surveys with more than 35,000 Americans. It includes detailed information about demographics, beliefs, regional distribution and attitudes of most major religious traditions. The survey was first conducted in 2007 and then again in 2014. The survey’s website has interactive tools to examine details of each faith. Pew Research also continues to survey religious groups of all kinds and is a great resource for reporters.
The Public Religion Research Institute has a major religious landscape survey and their American Values Atlas allows reporters to example religious beliefs, political views of religious people and demographic data. An interactive tool also allows reporters to compare different cities and areas of the country. PRRI also does periodic surveys about religion and social trends.
The Association of Religion Data Archives is a clearinghouse for religion research and statistics. It is also home to the 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership Study, which has data on religious congregations for every county in the United States. That data was collected by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, a group of official statisticians for most major religious denominations. Those statisticians also can provide reporters with data for specific denominations, from membership and church attendance to giving and participation in rituals like baptisms.
Faith Communities Today, from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and the National Congregations Study at Duke University, are large-scale, ongoing studies of congregational life in the U.S., with data on attendance and giving trends. Professor Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary and Professor Mark Chaves at Duke are two of the most helpful sources in the country for understanding religious trends and statistics.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University is the best source for statistics about the Roman Catholic Church.
LifeWay Research, based in Nashville, is an evangelical research organization that does public polling of the American public, churchgoers and pastors.
Religion News Service is an independent, nonprofit source of global news on religion, spirituality, culture and ethics, reported by a staff of professional journalists.
Religion Link is a nonpartisan service of Religion News Association that provides free tools and tips for writing about religion, source guides and story ideas on the most timely and controversial issues in religion and ethics.
Faith Communities Today is a cooperative of organizations representing Bahá'ís, Protestant groups, Catholics, Christian Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim communities. It conducts and publishes research about congregational life.