More “Frequently Asked Questions” on the Religion Beat

Does RNA provide internships?

No. However we encourage you to call the media outlet you are interested in and ask about its internship programs. Many organizations offer internships in various beats to help the educational experience of future journalists. You may want to inquire with the Religion Editor or reporters to ask about the process within their specific organization. We are aware of religion reporting internships in the past at the Dallas Morning News, Religion News Service and The Charlotte Observer. You may also look into:

Most journalism internships at mid to large newspapers are set up in January, February and March; however each has their own process and deadline.

Does RNA provide free training to assist with religion writing?

Yes. We offer free workshops throughout the year partnering with a variety of groups. Visit our website for dates, topics and locations:

In addition we provide speakers on various panels throughout the country. Visit our site for details and locations.

We also provide a scholarships to reporters for the RNA Annual Conference. Reporters must submit an application and be selected to receive a stipend to cover travel to the event. Check out our Web site for more details.

What training opportunities are available for a fee?

Our Annual Conference is packed full of training and networking opportunities. Visit our site for registration information and a conference outline. The 2013 conference is Sept. 26-28 in Austin, Texas.

Does RNA offer scholarships?

RNA is pleased to offer the Lilly Scholarships in Religion to fulltime journalists or freelacers who meet the eligibility requirements. Stipends up to $5,000 are awarded to reporters to attend a college course of their choice in any topic of religion, in any part of the country. Deadlines are April 1, July 1, October 1 and January 1. For more information, please visit our site and click on “Scholarships”.

We also offer Conference Scholarships to our members to attend our Annual Conference. Amounts vary depanding on the number of applicants. Visit the “Scholarships” section of our website.

What other religion reporting scholarships are available?

You are encouraged check with the individual educational institution you are interested in for various scholarship programs.

Northwestern University, University of Missouri and Columbia University offer specific programs/degrees in religion and media. Individual religion and reporting courses are offered at Loyola, Marquette and Trinity College, among other locations.

Some specific denominations may offer scholarships for religion reporting as well. A good source to review for additional scholarships are Columbia Journalism Review; American Journalism Review; E&T; and The Chronicle of Philanthropy that will often list award monies from various foundations and non-profits.

Do you have a discounted membership rate for students?

Yes – students may join RNA for $25. For a membership application please visit our site at and click on “Who We Are.” Membership will provide you with networking opportunities, resources and training opportunities to learn more about the beat and assist with your writing. You will have access to newsletters, discounted rates to events, various resources that are mailed, access to our bulletin board (where job opportunities are often posted) and membership directory.

How many RNA members are there?

We have a total of about 450 members and subscribers. Of those, about 260 are active religion reporters at the general circulation news media. Most of those members work for newspapers; a handful work in broadcast media. Journalists working in religious media are not eligible for active membership in RNA, but they may become subscribers.

What organizations help with funding for religion-specific media?

There are several available options, provided you’re willing to apply early and be patient :

How many people are currently employed in the field of religion reporting in the secular US media? What’s the outlook for the future?

We estimate there are between 400 and 500 people who spend a significant part of their time reporting on faith and values. Nearly all newspapers with circulations of 100,000 or more have at least one religion reporter who works mostly fulltime on the beat. Reporters working at newspapers smaller than 50,000 usually cover a variety of topics, including religion. About two-thirds of RNA’s members are at publications over 50,000 in size,

It is rare for television stations to have a religion reporter, because its reporters are rarely organized by beat. ABC network news does have a reporter whose specialty is religion, but none of the networks has anyone who does it fulltime.

The secular news media, particularly newspapers, are in a transition time. As they struggle to increase circulation they are striving to find new beats and new areas to cover that will attract readers, especially youth and readers from diverse ethnicities. At the same time they are under increasing pressure to raise corporate profits. At many publications, religion is not as highly valued as some other beats, even though polls show that most people adhere to some belief in God.

Because of this, it is unclear what the prospects for religion news will be. But it seems safe to say that there will not be a huge increase in the number of religion reporters at U.S. general circulation papers, It is our estimation that the trend of increasing religion reporters has peaked.

What are the salary ranges in the field?

Salaries depend upon the reporter’s experience, size of the paper or media outlet and the region. Checking with the state newspaper association of your interest can provide the most accurate information. Full-time average range is typically $25,000 to $55,000 with significant experience.

What qualifications are necessary for employment in the field of religion reporting?

According to RNA member David Briggs there is no one way to become a religion writer. “A great reporter is a great reporter.” He recommends obtaining two degrees, a graduate or undergraduate degree in journalism and a graduate or undergraduate degree in religion studies. “The better the schools in each field, the better prepared you will be in the profession, and the greater you flexibility and attractiveness will be in the job market. Working with talented instructors who have professional experience also provides important lessons in collegiality. How you work with people will make an immense difference in what you can accomplish.”

How do people get started as religion writers, either for print or for magazines? Do you start as a general assignment reporter? What job opportunities are there?

Very few people get hired into a religion reporting job without experience. So the best way to break into the beat, if you are just out of college, is to get hired in a general assignment position. Once there, try to write some religion stories on the side (being sure to clear it with any religion editors or reporters on staff). After you have some clips on the topic, it might help you to be hired as a specialist. Taking college courses in religion can also help give you a level of expertise that could be helpful. But generally, there are few openings in religion reporting and often they are filled by someone already employed at a media outlet.

How do I develop clips to submit?

You are encouraged to participate in your college newspaper and apply for internships with your local media. Ask your editors for the opportunity to write religion features or assist other writers with their stories. You could assist with research, to start getting your feet wet in the beat.

How feasible is it to support oneself as a freelance religious writer – either by submitting articles to magazines targeted to particular faith communities or working for a newspaper on a freelance basis?

The feasibility depends upon the individual’s commitment, writing ability and connections. There are many successful freelancers in the field of religion writing. Networking with other freelancers helps explain the field and requirements. But often the most successful freelancers are reporters who developed their contacts when they were on the beat to begin with.

Is there information on religion reporting and religion resources, such as books?

RNA publishes “A Guide to Religion Reporting in the Secular Media: Frequently Asked Questions” that is available online or in a booklet form. Please email us to request a free copy. An online version is also available on our site by clicking on “FAQ: Religion Reporting”. Pages 75 and 76 of the printed version outline various publications that are useful on the beat as well as essential references that should always be on your bookshelf.

Also, Colorado State University Professor Judith Buddenbaum has written a book about religion reporting, Reporting News About Religion: An Introduction for Journalists.

What do you think about the overall quality of religion coverage in mainstream print journalism?

According to Debra Mason, Executive Director of RNA and its Foundation, the overall quality of religion coverage is hard to generalize. Overall, it is much better than in the past. It has more depth, there is more complexity about story selection and there is greater variety in the story topics. That said, there are still places where religion news needs improvement.

For the most part, religion reporting that is done by people who specialize in it–the beat reporters–is excellent. It is nuanced, complex, balanced and fascinating. But there are only a few hundred specialists in the country (nearly all at U.S. Daily newspapers of 75,000 circulation or more). Many religion stories are actually reported by people who don’t typically cover religion regularly. They don’t realize how technical a beat it is. Almost always when someone is complaining about a lousy religion story, it is a report written by a general assignment reporter or someone similar. In addition, many stories in which religion is a component do not include religion, mostly because reporters are insecure in their knowledge about any faith other than their own. For example, Gordon Melton’s Encyclopedia of Religion lists 63 Baptist groups alone. Imagine the variety among the hundreds of different religious groups in this nation. It is mind-boggling, and reporters rushed for time sometimes decide it’s not worth the effort to learn more.

Finally, most people make a huge mistake by trying to assess the quality of religion coverage by looking at the East and West Coast elite papers. Some of the best reporting in the country takes place elsewhere.

Any problems with religion reporting are not related to the notion of “secular journalists,” i.e. Reporters who are anti-religion. In fact, the most reliable studies show that journalists in general mirror the general religiosity of the nation–in terms of how they define their faith. Rather, the biggest factor affecting whether or not religion is covered well has to do with time. Journalists need time to explore this angle, because sources are not easy, diversity is broad, and records aren’t public. If they don’t have much time, the religion angle will be the one most often left out.

Does religion news get “ghettoized” when it’s published once a week in a special section? Does religion news need to be more integrated into other sections?

The answer to this question differs depending on the newspaper. In some places, religion sections showcase the local writers’ efforts and the journalists are so busy trying to keep it filled that they have little time for anything else. In other cases, religion sections consist mostly of listings of religious events or they use wire copy of religion briefs and let the local reporter write for A-1.

Ideally, papers would have a great weekly section, but also would break religion news that could run in the local or metro section of the paper. And in fact this does happen in some cases. But this takes considerable staffing. In more cases, the reporters may work on a great section, but have little time for anything else. So in places in which there are too few religion reporters (which is most places), that reporter has to fill a weekly section AND write for the run of the paper. This is an all-too-common scenario.

Sections make a lot of sense and give a visibility to religion news that doesn’t generally exist at papers without sections. In some places, they are well-liked by readers and help assure a certain level of religion news at that outlet. Measuring how readers view religion news is very difficult if a paper does not have a section.

Realistically, most religion news appearing in sections is “featurized,” so getting rid of a section is no guarantee that there will be more news on A-1. Most likely there will just be less religion news if a paper gets rid of a section. Without a section, many papers do not feel the need to have a beat specialist and the best religion news comes from those specialists.

What are some tips for/advice on/characteristics of good religion reporting?

For the most part, “good reporting is good reporting.” It’s just that in religion news, finding balance is a lot trickier (not just two sides such as in politics) and you have to work harder to get financial information because most of the records are private. Anything that would make a story on another beat compelling is the same thing that makes a religion story sing: eloquent writing, tight and precise use of words, variety of sentence styles and lengths, well-researched, clear, complete, nuanced, etc.

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