Balance & fairness

Do religion reporters face issues of balance and fairness that are different from other beats?

Kim Sue Lia Perkes is an award-winning journalist who has worked as the religion editor for the Arizona Republic and religion writer for the Austin American-Statesman in Texas. Other job stints include political reporter, urban growth reporter and features editor. Currently, she is a freelance journalist and media consultant.

By Kim Sue Lia Perkes
Freelance Writer

For religion reporters, the issue of balance is often more complicated than other beats because stories that deal with theology are about beliefs and not proven facts.

So how does one discern what is true and not true, what is objective and subjective? These are the concepts of good reporting we all learn in journalism school, but I have found the best thing you can do in religion writing is throw them on the back burner. What should be foremost on your mind and your absolute goal can be summed up in one word: fairness. When you think about being fair you can write with authority, interpretation and a precision that results in balance and accuracy.

My experience has been that even when covering the most controversial issues, whether it’s pedophilia among clergy, scriptural differences on homosexuality or government grants for religious-based social service agencies, sources on both sides of an issue or breaking news story will always talk to religion writers who build their reputation on fairness.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Throughout the writing process, you must constantly check yourself for fairness, avoid descriptive words that slant in one direction and be careful not to become caught up in the loaded jargon lobbed at you from the opposing sides.

Let’s take a story dealing with the religious differences on abortion. It’s one thing if pro-life is part of an organization’s name, but to label abortion opponents as pro-lifers in a story is to imply the opposition is anti-life. On the flip side, to fall into the use of right-to-choose basically says you, the writer, have decided the legalization of abortion is, in fact, a right. Simply use anti-abortion and pro-abortion as descriptions that avoid subtle bias.

When you complete a story, you must allow time to go through it with a fine-toothed comb, asking each step of the way whether your word selection, explanations and interpretations fairly represent both sides of the story. Also double-check that your theological explanations are clear for the average reader. Remember, what we do is reduce volumes of scholarly theological debate into a paragraph or a simple sentence. The most seasoned religion writers will always readily admit this is a constant struggle.

One of the reasons religion writers across the country know each other well is because we are all aware of our difficulties and rely on each other to bounce off wording, ideas and explanations. Also, it’s important to listen and talk to colleagues who don’t cover religion.

For instance, a reporter at the Austin American-States-man took me to task over a story where I used the phrase “practicing homosexuals.” She was adamant it was the stupidest thing she had ever seen written. I explained to her I used the phrase because theologically some religions, such as the Roman Catholic Church, accept homosexuality as a valid orientation but it is totally unacceptable to act on that orientation by engaging in same-sex relations. She was unimpressed with my explanation.

I dwelled on it the entire evening after work, realizing I had allowed denominational labeling to enter into my writing. I tried to console myself with the fact that every religion writer I knew wrote it that way. Then I started brainstorming about a better way to do it. It took about two hours, but suddenly the solution came. It was so simple I was completely embarrassed at myself for not thinking of it sooner.

Now, my stories say “non-celibate homosexuals” or “non-celibate gays and lesbians.”

Fairness and balance are not only about the guts of a story but story selection itself.

Religion is a difficult beat but it’s also the most rewarding one. The most exciting part of religion reporting-and its biggest curse-is you must constantly use your own analytical skills, sift through religious rhetoric to create stories that are fair and understandable to the average reader and you must constantly think, learn and be open to change.

The fairness of a good religion story often does not rely on assembling the normal foundation, such as state budget or court documents, police records or school performance ratings, but on your skill to explain intangible concepts held as real truth and sacred fact to those who believe them.