Covering Religion, Faith and Belief

Covering Religion, Faith and Belief


By Michael Longinow
Media adviser, Biola University

You know how to cover tuition stories. Sports? Oh yeah. Crime? Sure. But there’s a layer beneath your campus that’s probably not being covered much. It’s religion. Figure out how to cover it well and you’ll gain readers. Keep ignoring it, and you’ll see them walk away — maybe taking others with them.

But be warned. Religion’s a hard beat. Sources are hard to find, and those you do find won’t want to talk on the record.

Why? It’s sort of the same reason cops, coaches, scientists and medical professionals don’t like journalists — they’ve been burned by reporters who had no clue about the topic and tried to write their story fast, easy and on the surface. Bad religion reporting quickly turns into stereotype, disinformation, and even profiling (albeit unintentional.)

The United States has always been a nation of believing people. The U.S. Constitution makes references to God, as do documents connected to the founding of the country. And research suggests an undercurrent of belief still defines us. But in 2015, it’s not Christian faith as a predominant ethos. It’s lots of faith perspectives. And you need to know what they are on your campus, challenging as that might be.

The pros have wrestled with this for generations. There’s even a group that’s banded together to collaborate on stories that involve faith. Here’s a blog that some of these journalists have put together to trade ideas on religion reporting.

Religion is about women as well as men. It sometimes involves violence. It involves money — lots of it. It’s about how men and women of faith relate to (and love — or hurt) each other — publicly and otherwise. Religion affects what people of faith wear in public. It’s about the Pope and the Dalai Lama and people devoted to them. Religion helps us explain events happening in Libya and Syria, ones that could be affecting students on your campus. Are all Muslims terrorists? No. Are all Baptists like Westboro Baptist people? No. Journalism helps separate perception from reality.

So how do you cover religion? Easy. It’s people. People who really care about their faith show it. Find them. Look for a bumper sticker, or a bracelet, or a medallion around their neck. It could be in a book they carry or read in public or when they think nobody’s around. It will be in that head covering you can’t spell. Talk to them. Get to know how what they believe affects their ability to live on your campus (or off your campus.) Ask them about others on your campus who believe like they do: how do they get together? Where do they celebrate their faith? What are the ways it’s hard to live out their faith because of university rules or the social climate on the campus? Have they been profiled? How so? How did it feel? What have they done to compensate — particularly if it happens a lot?

These aren’t screaming headline pieces. They’re feature section cover stories. They’re multi-camera video feature packages. They’re audio slide shows that tell the story of a woman or man who’s recently come from Egypt or Somalia or Cambodia or Indonesia and is figuring out what it means to be in a place where Christmas decorations show up in Wal-Mart in early October.

Reporters who figure out how to cover religion find it a boost to their careers because when they get out in the world beyond their campus, they find their journalistic vision is improved. They can see stories their colleagues don’t see — probably because those colleagues are too buried in the spreadsheets, press releases and horse-race politics of the 24/7 cycle of journalism.