Do you need to be religious to report on religion?

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NO. For reporting in general-circulation media, the answer is no. Just as political reporters are not required to be Democrats, Republicans or even voters, journalists who report on religion aren’t required to have certain beliefs. In fact, religion beat reporters include Christians of all kinds, Jews, Muslims and members of other faiths, as well as atheists and agnostics. However, it is critical that journalists respect faith as an important part of people’s lives, and they must be committed to the core journalistic values of balance and fairness. Whatever their own beliefs, journalists must write about others’ beliefs with respect, whether or not they agree with them.

If you want to specialize in religion news …

Religion Newswriters estimates that up to 500 journalists in North America regularly spend part of their day reporting on religion. Many of those cover religion full time, particularly at newspapers, but a good number do not. Few outlets have more than one reporter on the beat full time, and even fewer have editors or producers who specialize in religion. If you want to specialize in religion, you can apply for a fulltime position or begin including religion in your stories and lobby for a full-time position. Some reporters report to features editors, while others work for local news desks. A few cover religion nationally for large-circulation newspapers, newsmagazines, Web sites or television.

There is no one “right” way to cover religion. Reporters and news organizations tailor the beat to the demands and interests of their readers, viewers and listeners; the area they cover; and their staffing. Most, though, extol the value of a mix of religion stories — hard news, trends, feature stories, profiles, perspective or analysis pieces, and daily coverage of events.

What can you do to improve your ability to cover the beat? Most religion reporters recommend a degree in journalism. A good number acquire an undergraduate or graduate degree in religion, either through a religious school or secular university program. Many learn on the job through reporting and reading extensively on their own. More and more, reporters take advantage of the expanding opportunities to attend conferences, such as Religion Newswriters’ annual conference, as well as workshops and fellowships that focus on religion.