Tips for reporting on religion and why it matters

Mar 27, 2023 in Specialized Topics
People praying with hands palms out

The vast majority of people globally identify with a religious group. Religion may significantly dictate, influence and/or inform their behavior and interactions with others, whether consciously or subconsciously. 

As a result, it is a necessary component for journalists to consider as they document and explain the world to readers. 

Here’s what three reporters who cover religion and religious issues had to say about its relevance to journalists, and how to best report on it:

Why religion matters

Many people rely on religion – as they do with journalism – to help make sense of the world, noted Ekpali Saint, a Nigeria-based freelance reporter. “Just as journalism acts as a light to the people and helps them make informed decisions, people also turn to religion for guidance and meaning to certain phenomena,” he said. 

An understanding of religion can help journalists better identify how and why people in different communities may behave in distinct ways. “[Journalists must] understand the interplay between social and religious issues, and how belief and religious practices shape an individual and influences [their] relationship with others,” said Saint.

In many parts of the world ignoring religion shirks journalistic responsibility.

“The pulpit is a major platform for mobilizing people,” said Kamran Chaudhry, a correspondent for UCA News in Pakistan. “Covering a story without the voices of these religious leaders doesn’t do it justice.”

Freelance religion reporter Meagan Clark Saliashvili pointed to norms important to Protestantism, such as individualism, as having influenced U.S. history and society. “Religion affects how we think about ourselves, our values [and] moral choices and through our politics, […] ideologies, [and] our societies,” she said.

How to approach religion

As with any good journalism, reporting on religion first requires journalists to do their research. Chaudhry suggests using social media: consider, for instance, joining faith-based groups online, to evaluate how people of a particular faith may be reacting to an issue. Faith-based podcasts and YouTube videos can also help journalists understand the issues at play in religious communities. Subscribing to social media channels run by intellectuals of different religions, interviewing religious leaders and seeking input from friends within religious communities are also ways reporters can learn more about this topic. 

“Aside from research and interviews, spend time observing and experiencing the community at regular services or events, even without a story in mind,” said Saliashvili.

Be cognizant of any prior assumptions and biases you may hold, especially when reporting on faiths outside your own, Saliashvili cautioned. “Know what you don’t know, and cultivate a variety of credible sources in that religion. Try not to relate other religions to your own faith or experience of a particular faith, and just understand the religion primarily on its own terms, in its own history first,” she advised. “Ask sources a lot of questions about what you have found in your reporting so far, and really listen to their answers.”

Due to the deep nuances of religion, Saint encourages journalists to keep an open mind and approach sources with respect. “Journalists must always be ready to learn from religious leaders and authorities and then seek clarification from them where necessary to avoid misunderstanding and even conflict from groups,” he said. 

How to report on religion

As journalists, our job is to provide unbiased, accurate news – not to definitively draw conclusions. This applies to covering religion, too.

“Sometimes, the way journalists cover or represent a particular religious faith or practice may be different from how members of that particular religious group see it. This could result in misunderstandings,” Saint explained. “Journalists who are not theologians should leave the interpretation of the sacred texts, specific words, traditions, dogma, practice and belief system of a religion to experts and religious authorities.”

Ask sources what harmful stereotypes may exist and how you can avoid them, suggested Saliashvili. Soliciting feedback from sources can also help journalists identify stories about religion to pursue, and build trust.

“Understand the history of how those stereotypes came about […] and why they fail to capture the nuances and reality of the religion — its variety of cultures, political opinions, regional differences, racial divisions, theological differences, etc.,” said Saint.  

Covering religious conflicts

An unbiased understanding of religion is especially important when covering religious conflicts.

It’s critical to provide context and historical perspective that helps explain the nature of the conflict while avoiding generalizations. Saint warned against “generaliz[ing] actions of a particular representative of a religious group as the tradition and belief of the religion.”

For Chaudhry, 9/11 highlighted the need for religious sensitivities in journalism. “Terrorism was stamped on a specific religion by those who don’t care much about religious beliefs,” he said, referring in particular to Western countries. 

Saliashvili underscored the importance of seeking out different perspectives to inform your coverage of religious conflicts. “Understand that it’s very emotional for someone affected by the conflict to read a biased or misinformed take in the media — it can feel like another attack, leaving communities feeling helpless and voiceless to share, from their perspective, what the real story is.”

If religion isn’t your beat

Even if you are not a religion reporter, religion may still be involved in your story in one way or another. Religion is inseparable from daily life in many communities, and it’s important not to overlook its influences.

“When religion comes up in your normal reporting, don’t ignore it. Lean into it and ask more questions,” said Saliashvili. “Just as race, socio-economic status or cultural background may affect a story, a person’s religious identity could also affect the story.”

Failing to account for religion while reporting is a dangerous game. “Ignoring or not understanding religion in a news story could cause the reporter to unintentionally spread or reinforce negative stereotypes about a group, […] underestimate the impact of a story on different religious groups and, overall, result in an incomplete or even misleading story,” said Saliashvili.

Photo by Pedro Lima on Unsplash.