Reporting about religion often involves dealing with extremes, and extremes generate conflict. Some advice:
- The loudest, most aggressive voices – or those with the best P.R. people – are usually on the extremes of any issue,while most people have opinions that fall somewhere in between. There are almost always more than two sides to any issue involving faith. Seek them out – even if they don’t have P.R. people.
- Long-running conflicts – such as those over homosexuality – tend to be stoked by the most extreme voices on both liberal and conservative sides of the issue. Look for other sources who offer constructive ways of moving the debate forward – mediators, ethicists, observers, people who have an unusual perspective.
- Don’t overemphasize conflicts because of aggressive sources – or because editors or producers are fascinated. Does the issue affect people in everyday life? Do the people in the pews care about it? Tailor coverage accordingly.
- Don’t automatically give prominent play to the latest proclamations from the usual voices in a debate. How many people actually agree with their views? For whom are they speaking?
- People with extreme views generate news because they are often willing to take extreme actions based on their convictions. In 1993, David Koresh led the Branch Davidians into a deadly clash with the federal government in Waco, Texas. Since then, reporters have gotten much savvier about carefully gathering information on extreme groups’ beliefs and potential for action. Resources on New Religious Movements can help.
- Some people are, in fact, delusional. Most religion reporters have gotten at least a few phone calls or letters from people making impossible accusations or far-out religious claims. Politely but firmly explain that you won’t pursue their story and get backup from supervisors if the person persists.
BE CAREFUL WITH LABELS. Many – including pro-life, liberal and fundamentalist – are loaded. Characterize beliefs with specifics rather than giving them general labels. Also, allow people to characterize their own beliefs, but be wary of allowing them to explain opposing views.