How do religion writers cope with organizational, stylistic and cultural differences in the people they write about?
By Ira Rifkin
My first experience with Messianic Jews occurred soon after I started on the religion beat. What I lacked in sensitivity at the time I made up for with arrogance.
Messianic Judaism offended my cultural Jewish sensibilities. But so what? I was there as a reporter, not a Jew. However, rather than put my feelings aside, I covertly flaunted them by not covering my head during a Messianic Jewish worship service. I thought my silent protest had gone unnoticed until a congregant asked me if I would cover my head in a mainstream synagogue. Busted!
The experience has stayed in my memory because of the profound professional embarrassment I felt-not to mention the fear that my exposed bias would cripple my relationship with the congregation and prevent me from getting the story. I felt as foolish as if I had backed into a fire hydrant during a driving test.
I’ve since had many more experiences with Messianic Jews, and a host of additional faith groups whose beliefs I do not share. I’ve spent extensive time with groups I regard as highly suspect and others I view as hostile to my own beliefs. The beat has forced me to spend more time than I thought bearable with insufferable believers of all stripes, as well as their equally insufferable, non-believing critics. I’ve come to view them all as mentors.
Their forceful insistence on the rightness of their worldviews forced me to consider my own beliefs. They helped me realize that to understand how beliefs influence others, consciously or otherwise, I had to identify and acknowledge my own beliefs, and how they colored my thoughts and feelings. Without that self-reflection, it’s difficult to tell the difference between healthy journalistic skepticism and base rejection based on prejudice, between intellectual comprehension and emotional identification.
Bias is a problem on any beat. But it’s harder to separate reporter bias from subject matter when covering religion because of the deep-seated nature of inculcated religious opinion. Virtually all Americans share basic political beliefs, for example. The arguments are over policy, not whether the nation should be a republic or a monarchy. Religion is different, and it’s more divisive. Profound religious differences exist among Americans. The gaps often seem to be growing as the nation becomes more religiously diverse.
Theology gives rise to religious cultures, which manifest in wildly variant stylistic and organizational models. It can feel like you’re covering the Tower of Babel. But it does no good to fret over why Group A lacks a media savvy spokes-person, or why Group B insists the media-savvy spokesperson is the only one who may speak on its behalf. All a reporter can do is learn a group’s system and work it as best as possible by developing multiple sources, the key to success on any beat. The responsibility rests with us.
Religion reporting is a tremendous opportunity, and experience is truly the best teacher. But the homework must be done.
Attend as many different religious services and social events as possible, even when no story is immediately obvious. The exotic is made less so by familiarity. Analyze your reactions to groups ahead of deadline pressure, when stress is most likely to lead you down the slippery slope of stereotypes and clichés.
At the same time, be sure to explain your needs, and do it over and over. Assume your subjects know nothing of what it takes to put together a story. Standard journalistic practices are often unknown to outsiders. Explain the journalistic culture as you seek to learn about the religious culture of others. Written material and community forums can be helpful. Handle this with tact and your effort probably will be appreciated.
And by all means avoid slighting people. If going barefooted is the custom, remove your shoes in a house of worship without question. If you’re discussing doctrine, stifle telltale body language and vocal inflections that signal rejection of what others hold to be ultimate truth. If you’re interviewing a devout Muslim or observant Jew over lunch, forgo your favorite ham sandwich. If the norm is to cover one’s head, do so. It’s not pandering and its not syncretism. It’s a simple display of respect that makes professional sense.