Remain calm amid conflict

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Reporting about religion often involves dealing with extremes, and extremes can generate conflict.

Some advice:

  • The loudest, most aggressive voices — or those with the best P.R. teams — are usually on the fringes of any issue, while most people have opinions that fall somewhere in between. There are almost always more than two sides to any issue involving faith. Seek them out.
  • Long-running conflicts — such as those over sexual orientation or gender identity and expression — tend to be stoked by extreme voices. Look for other sources who offer constructive ways of moving debates forward — mediators, ethicists, observers, people who have unique or unusual perspectives.
  • Don’t overemphasize conflicts because of aggressive sources or fascination in the newsroom. Does the issue affect everyday life? Do affected communities care about it? Tailor coverage accordingly.
  • Don’t automatically give prominent play to the latest proclamations from the usual voices in a debate. How many people actually agree with their views? For whom are they speaking?
  • People with extreme views generate news because they are often willing to take extreme actions based on their convictions. Be savvy about carerfully gathering information on groups’ beliefs and potential for action.
  • Some people are, in fact, delusional. Most religion reporters have gotten at least a few phone calls or letters from people making impossible accusations or far-out religious claims. Politely, but firmly, explain that you won’t pursue their story and get backup from supervisors if the person persists.

BE CAREFUL WITH LABELS. Many labels — including liberal, fundamentalist and pro-life — are loaded and can mean different things in different countries and contexts. Characterize beliefs with specifics rather than giving them general labels. Allow people to characterize their own beliefs and ask sources how they identify, but be wary of allowing them to explain opposing views.