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Tips for pitching and covering stories about religion

Tips for pitching and covering stories about religion

Natasha Tynes | January 30, 2014

Like most news reporters these days, religion writers face myriad challenges, including shrinking newsrooms, fewer jobs and small paychecks.

Religion writers also face the additional challenge of proving their relevance, especially in countries where the subject is infrequently covered. In the U.S., for example, religion reporting makes up just 2 percent or less of news coverage overall, according to Religion News Service.

“Too often, too many editors see religion as a boutique specialty beat that they can live without, and that often leaves religion to be covered by general assignment reporters who don't know the beat very well,” Religion News Service Editor-in-Chief Kevin Eckstrom told IJNet.

But while religion coverage has declined in mainstream media, “it's exploding online, with religion-focused websites leading the way,” Eckstrom said.

With this reporting environment in mind, IJNet asked Eckstrom, along with Sally Steenland, who directs the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress for advice for reporters assigned to cover a religion story or for reporters who want to deepen their coverage of the topic. Here are their tips:

Educate yourself

“Be smart,” Steenland said, “otherwise you will be duped by a source.”

The subject of religion is defined by nuance, complexity and context, Eckstrom noted, so it’s important to start by learning some background information. He recommends the Religion News Association website and ReligionLink, which connects reporters with sources and background on major stories.

Pay attention to detail

There's a “huge” difference, for example, between "worshipping" the Virgin Mary and "venerating" her, Eckstrom pointed out. "That's a rookie mistake I made early on in my religion writing career," he said. "Other common mistakes include calling Reform Jews 'Reformed Jews,' and also throwing around radioactive terms like 'cult' or 'fundamentalist' or 'extremist' without proper attribution or explanation."

Find a religion angle to stories on other topics

It’s sometimes hard to get editors interested in stories purely about religion, so look for a religion angle when reporting on sports, politics or business. There’s a religion angle, which can include morals, ethics and values, in almost any story, Eckstrom believes.

For example, he notes, "A Dallas pastor recently said President Obama is paving the way for the Antichrist. That's an opportunity to explain what the Antichrist is, and how views of the Antichrist have shifted over time."

Other examples: In a story about the contraception mandate controversy, you could explain evangelical or Catholic views on abortion or contraception. You could also use the Academy Awards as a news peg to examine religious, moral or ethical themes in the nominated films.

Answer the “So what?” question

Ask yourself, has this happened before? What's the background? Why does it matter?

“Context is extremely important in religion and in religion stories, and placing the story on a mental map for folks will help you sell the story,” Eckstrom said.

Show respect

Give people the same respect and deference that you would want for your own beliefs, even when their beliefs are wildly different, Eckstorm advised. “Don’t take it personally when a source asks to pray for your soul or tells you you're going to hell.”

Avoid stereotypes

Don’t lump people together, by saying, “Catholics think this” or “Muslims think that.” The worst thing you can do in a story about religion is “mischaracterize what someone believes, or to say they believe or do something when they don't,” he said.

Look for fresh voices

“Don’t be lazy,” by always going to the usual “talking heads,” or well-known sources, Steenland advised. “Ask yourself: ‘Who are the new voices?’ and always get quotes from fresh voices.”

Natasha Tynes is a bilingual digital journalist based in Washington, D.C. and the founder of Tynes Media Group. You can read her thoughts on journalism, digital media and the Middle East on her website, follow her on Twitter or email her at ntynes (at) gmail.com.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Vik Nanda.

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Religion Stylebook

Religious terms are among the most challenging to use. The online and free ReligionStylebook.com is a stylebook written by journalists and intended as a supplement to the Associated Press Stylebook. The free and searchable resource is at www.ReligionStylebook.com. Debra Mason Religion Newswriters Association www.RNA.org