Covering Communities of Faith

All news is religious news.

That’s not a statement of faith or an assertion about the importance of religion to society. Rather, it’s a lot like saying all news is political news because there’s nothing that’s not touched by some politician’s interests or some piece of legislation. Religion is the same way, with tendrils of connection to everything. Sept. 11 has made that more obvious than ever in modern history.

The difference between political news and religion news is that most papers have a political or city hall reporter, but many don’t have someone dedicated to religion. It’s not hard to imagine how that happened; it is a secular press, after all, and religion can seem a step removed from the practical world of sewers and subpoenas.

But it is not. And Poynter’s mid-November seminar, “Reporting on Faith, Religion & Values,” re-affirmed the fact that — in the words of one participant — religion is a broad and deep topic, and we need to keep learning more about it.

Most of the participants in the seminar were religion reporters, religion editors, or college professors with expertise in religion. But if all news is religion news — and if there’s a shortage of dedicated religion reporters — then it makes sense for all reporters to be able to cover the dimensions of religion in their beat. How?

I sought advice from Terry Mattingly, one of the seminar’s visiting faculty members. He’s a professor of mass media and religion at Palm Beach Atlantic University and a syndicated columnist on religion. (You can read his columns at his website.)

Here’s what Mattingly says reporters — religion or otherwise — can do to improve the way they think about, and cover, religion:

First: Know your religious community. We expect a reporter to know the political dimensions of her beat: the demographics, the big players. We should expect the same awareness of religion in the community. What proportion is affiliated with a church or synagogue or mosque? Which is the largest denomination? Which is the smallest?

These are not necessarily easy things to find out. The U.S. Census doesn’t track religion, and there is no single authoritative source for religion statistics. You can get a fair approximation of the numbers, though, by combining data from several different resources on the Web:

• Like an old attic, Adherents.com is jam-packed with treasures — but they can be a little hard to find. The global statistics are fascinating, but fine-grained coverage is spotty. Even if you don’t discover anything of local interest, spend some time browsing here — the site offers an outline of world religion that every reporter should understand.

• The American Religious Identification Survey is another good source of overview statistics. The basic numbers are in the key findings section, but there’s plenty more to explore.

• Just released in September 2002, the Glenmary Research Center’s Religious Congregations and Membership data for 2000 is fascinating, and is probably the most useful of these three sites for local reporters. You can view data by state, county, or metro area, and also see these areas ranked in interesting ways. These are numbers provided by religious organizations, so approach them with a critical eye.

Terry Mattingly wrote a column about the difficulties of counting adherents recently; it focuses on a specific faith, Islam, but the general issues it raises should inform your interpretation of any numbers that you find.

Second: Assemble a peer group online to brainstorm ideas about religion, share leads, and comment on drafts. Don’t include more than four or five members — make it a cell, not a listserv — and make sure it’s people you like and respect, people who are also interested in thinking more deeply about religion. Mattingly has a group like this, and he says he’s had nothing but positive interactions with its members. It’s been productive, too: A CNN transcript circulated by a group member served as the basis for a column in October 2002.

Third: Find ways to get your hands on documents. Mattingly loves them. “I live off documents,” he says. To him, the perfect column starts with a document that no one else has seen or paid any attention to — like that CNN transcript. And the more controversial a story is, he says, “the more I want a document.” If you find yourself uncomfortable dealing with, say, the subjectivity of religious experience, this is the perfect antidote — a church’s tax receipt, after all, is just like any other tax receipt.

Know your community; assemble a peer group; use documents. Religion reporting sounds a lot like any good reporting.


Room for Improvement

Improving religion reporting is more than an individual imperative. Mattingly’s experience is with newspapers, and he’d like to see them improve across the board. He imagines: at large papers, an entire religion desk; at middle-sized papers, a religion specialist coupled with a dedicated editor; and at small papers, a hybrid writer/copy editor job in which the reporter would edit and lay out his or her own religion section once a week. This, he says, is the kind of multi-faceted opportunity that could attract talent on the cheap. “You will have people, especially young people, who want that job.”

And in all newsrooms, print and otherwise, Mattingly thinks ideological diversity is as important as racial and cultural diversity. It’s not because only “religious people” can cover religious stories; rather, it’s because they bring knowledge and awareness to the mix, raising newsroom consciousness and making sure that nobody misses news in the making.

Mattingly tells a story from his days at the Rocky Mountain News: A colleague from the business side of the paper stopped by his desk one day and said, “Some group called ‘Focus on the Family’ is moving to Colorado Springs. Is that a story?”

“I just about fell out of my desk,” Mattingly says now. He knew it was a story, because he knew about Dr. James Dobson and his organization. Not everyone did back then. Focus on the Family is much better-known today; but what organizations are growing up in its shadow? Do you know?


Start Now

So what are the steps you can take right now to improve the way you cover religion?

Start by clicking around. Visit the sites listed above, zoom in to your part of the world, and get some numbers. Check out Beliefnet. Keep learning by reading magazines like Christianity Today, Christian Century, and World – each a different politico-religious mix. Check out the Religion Newswriters Association website, which is full of thoughtful resources. My favorites are the reference library and the Writing About Religion FAQ, which is fairly new.

Then, move on to Mattingly’s other basics: Talk with interested peers. Track down documents.

And make a mental habit of looking for the strands of religion in whatever you cover. It’s everywhere; and you never know when the next Focus on the Family is going to come to a town near you.

Question: What are some other religion resources that reporters should check out? Add a comment below, or let me know via e-mail.

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