A big help for radio/TV newsrooms on covering religion is out this week. The National Association of Broadcasters and its NAB Education foundation released the Awareness in Reporting/Reporting on Religion Toolkit.
The on-line toolkit contains excellent content and its user-friendly. There is a lot included, but it kicks off with some general guidelines to remember when covering religion:
- Religion can be controversial and the beliefs and practices of faith groups – which they claim are divinely inspired – can be at odds with societal values or a journalist’s personal beliefs or worldview. The journalist’s role is to understand what people believe and practice and then explain those beliefs and practices to a broader audience. Each faith group has its own way of defining the spiritual issues that human beings face and each understands and explains the human relationship with the divine differently. A journalist can question those beliefs and practices if they appear to cause harm but should avoid debating the merits of differing points of view.
- Be careful to understand the leadership of the religious group you are covering. Some are democratic, with congregation members having a say in decision-making processes. Others are more top-down and hierarchical. Take time to ask how the organization operates.
- Remember to follow the money. Houses of worship are not usually required to reveal their finances. However, many do and so do religious charities. Check for tax returns, audited financial records, property records, etc. Do not be afraid to ask for copies of church budgets and financial statements. Many congregations will not turn them over, but you lose nothing by asking.
- Do not assume you know what people believe or that you understand what they have said. If you are confused about something or it sounds odd to you, ask for clarification.
- As with any organization you might be covering, keep an arm’s-length relationship and remain skeptical. Ask for evidence of any claims groups make about work they are doing within communities and verify facts.
- Talk to leaders, lay people, critics and experts. Build relationships and learn as much as possible about any religious group you cover. No news organization would send a reporter to cover a sporting event who did not know the rules of the game, but will often assign a reporter who knows nothing about religion to cover faith stories. Religion can be far more complicated to cover than sports and at least as complicated as politics.