Most of the tools used in religion reporting are the same ones you’d use for other beats: Identifying an idea, locating the best people to address it, visiting the scene, researching background, investigating leads, fact-checking, storytelling.
Reporting religion, however, requires some special skills.
It is a complex beat with nuanced interpretations and passionately held convictions and differences. You are always in a process of learning – new practices, new words, new concepts. You have to describe events and feelings not seen with the eye. Also, you can’t call God “for comment.”
It requires accurately describing people’s beliefs and experiences. It is important to be respectful but neutral. (It’s not your job to endorse or dismiss the person, group or beliefs, but you can put them in context). You tell the “truth” to the best of verifiable facts, and interpret events for readers, listeners and viewers.
Readers can learn something new from each of your stories. You can illuminate them through explaining something about a faith they did not understand, clarifying a faith’s role on a subject, or even inspiring them to act, learn more or embrace their own faith.
- Be where people of faith are. That could be a church, mosque, temple, bookstore, knitting group, sports game, conference, festival, meditation center.
- Covering a holiday can be a good introduction to a faith.
- Spot trends within religions and between religions. Look for ways religions respond to a changing world. Do they vow to remain the same? Do they vow to change with the times? Do they vow to change the world?
- Look outside traditional religion, such as web-based churches and Internet communities, home-based groups, yoga classes and spiritual book clubs.
- Find the intersection of religion with “public square” issues such as education, government, health and science. Almost any issue – immigration, homelessness, education, public policy, sexuality, politics – has a relationship with religion that you can talk about.
- Look for ways to tell national or global stories locally. Find out how a wider story is playing out locally. Pick a topic and find out how various faith traditions respond to it. Find local representatives of national organizations. Learn how local congregations and leaders are “framing” issues or events.
- Talk to people about religion. It’s supposedly a “taboo topic,” but you can do it with curiosity and respect. Ask your sources how their faiths guide their actions or decisions. Ask people you meet where they worship, or what activities they’re involved in. Continuously make new contacts.
- Sign up for church newsletters and other publications of local religious organizations and houses of worship.
- Know what you don’t know – and then learn about it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – most people are willing to share their experiences and beliefs. Be respectful about what you don’t understand. But also don’t be afraid to investigate or expose “sacred cows” (coverage of the clergy abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is an example.)
- Look for the views of “real people.” Don’t rely on leaders, the loudest voices or polar extremes when exploring an issue.
- Surf the Web for blogs, sites and information about current topics in religion. Read national and local religious magazines and newspapers such as The Forward, Christian Century, Christianity Today, Tricycle, National Catholic Reporter and Science and Theology News to learn about what faith communities care about.
- Watch for movies, books, TV shows, computer games and other places where you see religious themes.
- Sign up for e-mail newsletters to help spot trends.
- Check daily religion headlines, such as on the Center on Religion & the Professions’ home page.
- Look at lot of different sites and publications to get a feel for the range of opinions, interpretations and positions out there, even within a faith. Be aware that some religious organizations and spokespersons are more media savvy than others, and that some sites are politicized or personal. Knowing the breadth of content will help you put stories in context.
Knowing the demographics of the area, faith or group you are covering is important to creating that context (and can also be the source of story ideas outright). However, in the case of religion, it is a distinct challenge.
For example, the U.S. Census – which records much demographic information about Americans – does not ask people’s religious affiliations.
There are several surveys of religion, but none is considered 100 percent reliable. Results differ based on the options offered, how people are contacted, how many people are surveyed and other factors.
Numbers can vary widely. Many faith groups are so small that they rarely show up on surveys. Some traditions, such as African-American congregations, are typically underrepresented because of difficulty in obtaining numbers.
That said, there are a few resources that can be useful in creating a demographic framework for your coverage. Using a combination of these statistics, with appropriate explanation, can help create a context or idea of your area’s religious demographics.
See demographics sites.
Almost any story can be a local story. And sometimes local stories will drive larger trends.
- Become familiar with the demographics of your coverage area and how it compares to the rest of your state and the country. See demographics sites for Boone County.
- Become familiar with the places of worship in your community and what they are doing. You can learn some information about Columbia’s religious community.
- Look at events hosted by various organizations, read ads that appear in the paper, on billboards, on the Internet or TV (often religious organizations will bypass journalistic coverage to get their message straight to the masses).
- Get to know religious leaders and believers in your community. Attend events. Talk to people you know. Ask to be introduced to people you don’t know. (A lot of “working” the religion beat is about broadening your contact base, as many religion stories don’t come in the form of a press release).
- Go to bookstores and look for trends in spiritual titles and merchandise. Check out the religion section at Barnes & Noble or University Bookstore, or specialty stores like Columbia’s Heart To Heart Christian Books, Cherokee Heritage Books, South Asia Books, or The Peace Nook.
- Listen to local religious radio stations. What are hot talk radio topics? What local events are advertised? Who is an on-air guest? See some local stations with religious programming. You can hear podcasts, streamed broadcasts and audio files of sermons and radio shows from around the country as well. See some local podcasts.
- You can also visit the Interfaith Council of Columbia, which meets at 11:30 a.m. Wednesdays, at Columbia Senior Center.
- Religion Newswriters Association, trade association for religion reporters working in the secular press
- Reporting on Religion: A Primer on Journalism’s Best Beat, a guide to the basics of reporting on religion
- Religion Stylebook, definitions, preferred usage, titles
- ReligionLink, ideas and experts on topical issues
- Faith Communities Today, Hartford Seminary, calls itself the largest survey of congregations conducted in the U.S.
- Adherents.com, a growing collection of over 41,000 adherent statistics and religious geography citations
- Glenmary Research Institute, religious congregations and membership data for the U.S.
- American Religious Identification Survey, national surveys of religious identification
- American Religious Data Archive, data on American religion, profiles, maps
- Religious demographics of Boone county, ARDA
- Boone County’s ranking for number of religious adherents in Missouri, ARDA
- Daily Tribune Spiritual Life calendar
- Daily Tribune Worship Guide
- MyMissourian, Spiritual Life
- The Missourian Worship Guide
- ReligiousLife@MU, list of religious organizations on campus
- KJAB 88.3 FM, Mexico, Mo.
- KBKC 90.1 FM, Moberly, Mo.
- KHGN 90.7 FM, Kirksville, Mo.
- KMFC 92.1 FM, Centralia, Mo.
- KJTR 101.7 FM, Rolla, Mo.
- The Crossing Church: Sermons, teaching and music (See also past sermons up to 2005)
- Karis Community Church: Recent and archived sermons
- Calvary Episcopal Church: “Radio Calvary,” ongoing podcast series, overview of worship services
- The Office of Creative Ministries, Missouri Conference, United Methodist Church in Columbia: Audio and video, weekly “MissionCast”
- Missouri United Methodist Church: Sermons
- Fairview Road Church of Christ: Sermons. Audio files are also available.
- Woodcrest Chapel: Audio files of sermons and messages
- Islamic Center of Central Missouri: Audio files of lectures
- Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, distributes information, surveys and expert opinions about religion and public affairs
- Guidestar, a searchable database of nonprofit organizations
- Religious Etiquette Guides, tips for addressing religious leaders, behavior in houses of worship and homes (Another good resource is the book, “How to be a Perfect Stranger,” Jewish Lights Publishing)
- Harvard Pluralism Project, aimed at helping Americans engage with religious diversity
- Barna Research Group, conducts research and surveys on Christianity in America
- Beliefnet.com, religion and spirituality web site
- Religion News Service calendar of religious events
- Interfaithcalendar.org, calendar of religious holidays
- Religious Movements Project, profiles, links and information
- The Bible Gateway, passage lookup and word search in various versions of the Bible
- ReligiousTolerance.org, promotes religious diversity, glossary, definitions, hot topics
- Focus on the Family, Christian ministry and broadcasting company
- The Catholic Encyclopedia, compendium of Catholic interests, actions and doctrine
- Judaism 101 encyclopedia of Jewish beliefs, practices, holidays
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), official site of the church
- About Hinduism
- Council on American-Islamic Relations
- Internet Sacred Text Archive, texts of world religions and more
- First Amendment Center, research, news and analysis of First Amendment issues
- Social Science Research Council, Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates
- Spirituality in Higher Education, national studies of college students’ search for meaning and purpose
Prepared for presentation by Amy White of the Center on Religion & the Professions at the Missouri School of Journalism, Nov. 5, 2007. White was a newspaper reporter for 12 years, four covering the religion beat.