Redefine the religion beat

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WATCH FOR CH-CH-CHANGES. People’s search for meaning and connection amid cultural shifts breeds new expressions of spirituality. Don’t cover the same old story. Many people get their spiritual fix in ways that were unthinkable two decades ago — gathering at coffee houses, spas, sports arenas, film festivals or multi-site churches that project the pastor on a video screen. Different ages, religions, ethnicities and races are finding their own ways to define faith in the 21st century, from spiritual programs for Alzheimer’s patients to Hindu summer camps and faith-based Internet dating services. Schools and workplaces are the new hot sites for religious expression. Attitudes toward caring for the poor and oppressed are changing, too.

LOOK OUTSIDE INSTITUTIONAL RELIGION. Fewer people are affiliating with houses of worship, and one of the fastest-growing segments in religion surveys is people who profess spiritual beliefs but don’t attend worship. Stories about their expressions of spirituality — through environmental groups, books, conferences, yoga, house churches and more — say a lot about religion in America.

INSIDE INSTITUTIONAL RELIGION, FIND GREAT STORIES. Houses of worship and religious organizations still, however, remain rich, powerful and, in some cases, influential forces in America. Stories about their inner workings can be fascinating, telling or disturbing. How does a 13-member church end up with 40,000 members? How does a 2,000-member church end up with 40? How does an all-Anglo church become multiracial? What happens after a pastor’s fall from grace? How does a mosque or synagogue attract younger members?

PATROL THE PUBLIC SQUARE. Bitter clashes, unlikely alliances and surprising resolutions all mark the high-profile stories found when religion intersects with education, government, health, science and more. From public holiday displays to graduation prayers to abortion legislation, ask why conflicts or alliances exist or why some issues can be resolved and others will never be.

WHEN POSSIBLE, BE LOCAL AND NATIONAL — OR LOCAL AND GLOBAL. One of the best ways to pump up the impact of a religion story is to connect it to a national or global trend or event. It gives readers, viewers and listeners a sense that the values debated in their town are being tested on a larger playing field. Most local stories can be placed in national context with a quick clip search. And most houses of worship and religious organizations — even those that aren’t part of a global faith — have strong international ties because of immigration, missionary or relief work, sister congregations, funding of overseas projects or concern for members of their faith involved in violent conflicts internationally.

ENCOURAGE CONVERSATION. Rather than report on one faith group at a time, focus on issue stories that reflect the thinking of a variety of faiths. How do Jewish, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant Christian and Muslim believers differ in their approach to stemcell research? How do Buddhists and Hindus approach end-of-life care differently from Christians, Jews or Muslims?

BE TIMELY, BUT DON’T WORRY TOO MUCH ABOUT TIME PEGS. With religion, some of the best stories result from following up later to find out what effect a vote, a change in leadership or a new policy had on real people’s lives.

DON’T DREAD THE HOLIDAYS. Yes, most religion reporters write stories to advance the major holidays of themajor faiths. Yes, most reporters approach them with some amount of dread. But the smart ones use holidays as an opportunity to explore an issue related to the theme of the holiday—identity for Rosh Hashana, birth for Christmas, freedom for Passover. They find a person, an event, an issue, a ritual or a trend they view through the lens of the holiday. An ethnic community’s unique observance can be helpful. Holidays aren’t that important, but the way people live out their faith is. (Consult the online Interfaith Calendar for dates and descriptions.) There is an argument to be made for not observing the major religious holidays with enterprise pieces—after all, seven or more holidays can eat up a lot of one reporter’s time during a year. Creative alternatives include photo essays or single photos, a Q-and-A, a book review or stories by writers in other departments about something related to the holiday—travel, food, etc. (The most commonly covered holidays are listed by faith under the Roundup of Religions).