Personal biases

How can I interview and write about religions I don’t believe in?

Jeffery L. Sheler covered religion for U.S. News & World Report in the 1990s and prior to that worked for UPI. He is on the board of the Religion Newswriters Association and its Foundation. He is the author of Is the Bible True? and now works at the Norfolk Pilot-Ledger.

By Jeffery Sheler
U.S. News & World Report*

This, I think, raises a basic question of professional ethics every reporter faces regardless of beat. As most of us learned in J-school, standard journalism ethics require that, in reporting and writing the news (as opposed to writing editorials or commentaries), we should aim for objectivity, fairness and balance. That’s the target and the norm. It requires being constantly aware of one’s personal biases and striving to keep them in check.

I don’t think it’s any more or any less difficult for a religion reporter to meet that standard than for someone who covers politics or business. As a religion reporter, it means that regardless of my own views of what constitutes religious truth, my personal and professional ethics require that I be accurate and fair in portraying the beliefs (or disbeliefs) of another-not in terms of how they stack up against my views, but in terms of what those beliefs mean in the life of that person.

Frankly, few religion reporters I know seem to have trouble measuring up to this standard. More often, it’s the reporter’s “friends” or fellow church members who raise the issue: “How can you write about that religion as if it might actually be true? Don’t you feel an obligation to point out the errors of their ways?”

I found help on that question at an RNA meeting a few years back during a panel on religious pluralism. A rabbi and a Roman Catholic priest were discussing recent developments in interfaith relations and Jewish-Christian dialogue. Both speakers emphasized that while they were keenly intent on promoting interfaith understanding, neither was interested in abandoning or watering down their own beliefs, nor in condemning the other on points at which they disagreed. Both insisted that being true to one’s own faith does not require being false to another’s.

I found that to be particularly instructive. It may be tempting, when we compare or write about other religions, to try to tip the playing field by comparing the strongest points of one’s own faith tradition against the weakest points of the other’s. But truth is not served when we describe another religion in ways that an adherent of that faith would not recognize.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, that’s called “bearing false witness.” The test I try to apply whenever I write about a religion not my own is simply this: Will the person I am writing about recognize his or her faith in the story I’ve written? Have I accurately captured the essence of that faith? If the portrait I’ve created is accurate and recognizable to those portrayed, then I’ve told the truth about that faith.

There is another related ethical hazard that bears mentioning. Most religion reporters recognize it would be unethical to give special treatment in a news or feature story to one’s own faith tradition. But “special treatment” does not always mean favorable treatment. Holding one’s own denominational leaders, for example, to a more exacting standard and subjecting them to closer scrutiny than one applies to others can simply be a form of reverse bias.

To avoid such pitfalls, some religion reporters choose not to handle controversial stories about denominations in which they are active. It’s important that reporters discuss such potential conflicts with their editors.

**This article was written in 2001, at the time Jeffery Sheler was writing for U.S. News & World Report. Sheler is now at the Norfolk Pilot-Ledger.