GOOD RELIGION REPORTING BEGINS WITH GOOD JOURNALISM. “Without a love for non-religion news, you won’t love religion news,” says veteran reporter Richard Ostling, recipient of the 2006 William A. Reed/Religion News Service Lifetime Achievement Award. Use your best reporting skills on every story to provide solid facts and illuminating interpretation.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SACRED COW. Question everything. Coverage of the Roman Catholic clergy abuse crisis has shown that religion requires relentless reporting. Reaction to it has also shown that most readers and viewers want tough questions to be asked of religious leaders and institutions. While it is important to treat faith groups with respect, reporters should never skip questions or background checks just because they’re dealing with religious issues or people.
FOLLOW THE MONEY. Finances are a woefully underreported area of religion, partly because nonprofit religious organizations are exempt from some of the financial reporting businesses contend with. Learn what religious organizations have to file with the government and what information they share with their congregations. Ask questions about money and ask for copies of budgets. Financial improprieties can and do happen in congregations, many of which don’t have a professional accountant on staff. Religious organizations are a tremendous beneficiary of donations in this country, but there is little examination on how it is spent unless a problem is uncovered (See resources).
GO WITH GRAY. Religions deal with good and evil, but in everyday life, there’s little black and white and mostly a thousand shades of gray. Honor that. When writing a profile of a minister who runs an amazing program for underprivileged kids, don’t ignore the fact that he owes child support. When reporting on a family whose faith saw them through a crisis, include the fact that they don’t go to church. Religion often confounds expectations, which is one reason it is fascinating to write about.
DIG DEEPER. Investigative reporting has yielded great journalism on the religion beat, from the Catholic sexual abuse scandals to televangelists’ financial improprieties. All were a result of dogged investigative reporting. Thanks to journalism organizations and workshops, computer-assisted reporting is within the grasp of any reporter with a computer.