Religion is the most studied topic on the planet, so there are thousands of “experts” out there. Your mission, however, is to find one or just a few who are knowledgeable, articulate and helpful for your particular story.
There probably is no such thing as an impartial expert on religion. However, there are experts who, by their training or by the requirements or politics of their job, offer analysis or context about a topic without advocating any one faith’s position. Ask potential sources what makes them an expert in an area and what their own opinions and involvement are on the issue. Accurately characterizing sources’ expertise is important.
Don’t assume that because someone is a leader or member of a faith group that they agree with all of that group’s policies and beliefs. There are widely divergent opinions within every faith group.
Who is an expert?
Clergy. Most faith groups require ordination, which includes education, training and endorsement from a hierarchy. Some groups use titles without requiring any formal training.
Academics. They include professors in religious studies in undergraduate or graduate programs, who may or may not be religious themselves, and professors in seminaries, theological schools or other religious schools, who approach religion from belief in a specific faith. Many professors in other fields also have strong interests in religion and can be helpful sources, particularly social scientists, anthropologists, pollsters and political scientists.
People who work at nonprofit institutions that involve religion. They include religious advocacy groups, think tanks and research centers. Some of these push religious viewpoints. Others study religion’s role in specific areas, such as education, politics or health. Be aware that many organizations call themselves nonpartisan but nonetheless advocate a certain point of view and may be active lobbyists.
Bloggers and other online sources. More and more, bloggers are making news with their opinions and ability to sway others. Religion is, in many ways, the great equalizer. Everyone has access to religion and religious experience, whether they have religious education or training or not. You’ll find many articulate people who have acquired tremendous expertise through volunteer work and life experience.
- ReligionLink: Religion News Foundation’s resource site provides primers and source guides on topics involving religion, public policy and culture. ReligionLink provides international and regional interview sources (with contact information), story angles, resources and background. The service is free, and its archives are searchable. New issues are distributed regularly by email and posted on the ReligionLink home page.
- Religion Stylebook: The Religion Stylebook is an easy-to-use guide created for journalists who report on religion in the mainstream media. It’s an independent supplement to The Associated Press Stylebook and is a service of Religion News Association.