Redefine the religion beat

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MILLENIALS AND RELIGION. Millennials in the U.S. and Western Europe have been moving farther away from organized religion, especially Christianity. Some attribute this shift to religion’s entanglement with politics, to numerous sex abuse scandals, and to consumer capitalism, among other factors. Despite being branded “nones,” many religiously unaffiliated young people still pray and embrace strong notions of spirituality. Millennials sometimes combine religious teachings in order to formulate belief systems that suit their own views. While a growing number of Millennials may not want to attend church, many do crave a feeling that they are part of something larger than themselves.

LOOK OUTSIDE INSTITUTIONAL RELIGION. Fewer people are affiliating with houses of worship. One of the fastest-growing segments in religion surveys is people who profess spiritual beliefs but don’t attend worship. Stories about their expressions of spirituality — through environmental groups, books, conferences, yoga, house churches and more — say a lot about religion in America.

INSIDE INSTITUTIONAL RELIGION: FIND GREAT STORIES. Houses of worship and religious organizations still remain rich, powerful and, in some cases, influential forces in many places. Stories about their inner workings can be fascinating, telling or disturbing. How does a 13-member church end up with 40,000 congregants or a 2,000-member church shrink to 40? What happens after a pastor’s fall from grace? How do houses of worship attract younger members and increase diversity?

PATROL THE PUBLIC SQUARE. Bitter clashes, unlikely alliances and surprising resolutions all mark the high-profile stories found when religion intersects with education, government, health, science and more. From public holiday displays to graduation prayers to abortion legislation, ask why conflicts or alliances exist, or why some issues can be resolved and others will never be.

WHEN POSSIBLE, BE LOCAL AND NATIONAL — OR LOCAL AND GLOBAL. One of the best ways to pump up the impact of a religion story is to connect it to a national or global trend or event. It gives readers, viewers and listeners a sense that the values debated in their town are being tested on a larger playing field. Most local stories can be placed in national or international context, and most houses of worship and religious organizations have strong international ties because of immigration, missionary or relief work, sister congregations, funding of overseas projects or concern for members of their faith involved in violent conflicts internationally.

ENCOURAGE CONVERSATION. Rather than report on one faith group at a time, focus on issue stories that reflect the thinking of a variety of faiths. How do faith groups differ in their approach to today’s most controversial social topics?

BE TIMELY, BUT DON’T WORRY TOO MUCH ABOUT TIME PEGS. With religion, some of the best stories result from following up later to find out what effect a vote, a change in leadership or a new policy had on real people’s lives.

DON’T DREAD THE HOLIDAYS. Yes, most religion reporters write stories about the major holidays of major faiths. Yes, most reporters approach these stories with some amount of dread. But smart reporters use holidays as an opportunity to explore issues related to wider themes—identity during Rosh Hashanah, birth at Christmas, freedom during Passover. Good reporters find a person, an event, an issue, a ritual or a trend to view through the lens of the holiday. While covering holidays may not seem that important, they offer a unique window through which we can understand how people live out their faith. Consult the online Interfaith Calendar for dates and descriptions:

Some time-strapped editors may discourage reporters from producing enterprise pieces for each major religious holiday. Creative alternatives include photo essays or single photos, Q&As, book reviews and stories by writers in other departments about something related to the holiday—travel, food, etc.