Working the beat

Do religion writers always write stories for religious holidays? New clergy? Anniversaries?

Melanie B. Smith has been religion writer for The Decatur Daily in Alabama for nearly 24 years. She is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, has done graduate work in communications at Auburn University and has won several awards from the Religion Newswriters Association.

By Melanie Smith
The Decatur Daily

The routine events of religious life are a challenge to the religion reporter. Is there anything newsworthy about another Easter or Rosh Hashanah or Ramadan? Do readers want to know how their neighbors observe Lent or Divali? Does anyone care that a congregation has been around for 200 years or that a new rabbi has arrived?

The simple answers are all yes. Such events and changes affect people’s everyday lives. Religious holidays are important because they change or refocus what many followers do-how frequently they attend a house of worship or what they do there, how they spend money and, perhaps, how they use their time or seek to influence their communities. Similarly, a new pastor or a ministry’s 100th anniversary can mark an important shift for an institution or a movement.

Of course, the difficulty is deciding which holy days and what sort of other routine events to cover. These guidelines may help you and your editor pick and choose:

1. Know your coverage area. What major Protestant groups are present? Are there several mosques? How many Roman Catholic parishes are in the area? Are Hindus numerous enough to have several temples? You get the picture. What holidays you cover and how will depend first on demographics.

2. Once you know who the dominant religious groups are, learn about their major religious holidays. Ask religious leaders which holy days they consider most important, drawing the most people to houses of worship or spurring the widest observance in homes or communities. Ask how the holy day is fascinating to outsiders or how it will be observed differently this season.

3. Similarly, when trying to cover such routine news as staff changes, find out which religious congregations or bodies of believers are large, fast growing, influential or long enduring. Try to report these groups’ clergy arrivals, important anniversaries and other major changes. One way to keep these manageable is to work out an approximate standard length for such stories or news briefs, using as a guide your newspaper’s coverage of routine events on other specialized beats, such as business or health.

4. To keep holiday coverage fresh, look for ways observances cut across popular society or intersect with current events. For instance, the tragedies of Sept. 11 changed how religious groups observed holy days at the end of 2001. Services were not business as usual for many people, and religion coverage reflected that. In one heavily Protestant community in the South, 18,000 people turned out for performances of an Assembly of God Christmas pageant. The pastor told the religion writer the increase was a reaction to the terrorist attacks. Another example is the story a religion writer for a metropolitan daily wrote about Muslims and Hindus embracing during their overlapping holy days. Both groups were natives of a region where conflicts between the religions intensified after 9/11/01.

Even without such a ready news peg as terrorism, religion writers can find novel ways to cover holy days.

Is there a new immigrant able to celebrate freely for the first time? Is there a Hindu group that asks a neighboring church for use of its parking lot during an observance-but the church refuses? Is there a Muslim struggling to observe Ramadan and keep his evening shift job? Could a Christmas story focus on the debate in Christianity over Jesus’ virgin birth? Is there a terminally ill priest who refuses to give his Holy Week duties to someone else?