Revealing personal beliefs

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Veteran religion reporters have various ways of responding to questions about their own faith. There’s no single right way to respond; every person has to handle the question in a way that feels comfortable to him/her. Some journalists also find they answer the question differently over time or in different situations. Some options:

BE UPFRONT. Say what your faith is and where you worship. Some reporters say that they feel they need to be honest and open with sources because they are asking sources to be honest and open with them. It is a way to build trust.

ANSWER IN GENERAL TERMS. Say, “I’m Christian” or “I’m Jewish” or “I’m Muslim,” but leave it at that and quickly begin the interview.

ASK WHY THE PERSON WANTS TO KNOW. You may want to tailor your response to the person’s agenda. Are they trying to figure out if you’re on “their side”? Or is it a casual question that doesn’t carry weighty baggage? Some reporters justify not revealing details by telling sources they worry that if their tradition is the same as the source’s, the source will expect favorable coverage, but that if their tradition is different, the source won’t feel they can trust them.

IS SALVATION AT STAKE? Veteran religion reporter Julia Lieblich offers this anecdote: “When asked, ‘Are you a Christian?’ the writer replied, ‘I don’t like to talk about my religion when I am working. But if you are wondering whether I will be sensitive to the beliefs of Christians, the answer is yes.’ ”

DEFLECT, OR REFUSE TO ANSWER. Some reporters say, “The most important thing you need to know is that I will listen to you and that I am committed to representing your faith accurately and fairly. This interview is about your faith, not mine.”

CHALLENGE ASSUMPTIONS. Some reporters find that because of their name, appearance or ethnicity, sources assume they are Jewish, Catholic or other faiths. Sometimes they challenge (or affirm) that assumption, explaining that they won’t assume anything about the interview subject.

CONSIDER WHERE YOU ARE. Journalists in the Bible Belt report that they are asked about their faith in almost every interview; journalists in other regions of the country say the question comes up only occasionally.

USE HUMOR. You can always say, “I’m still considering,” or “It depends on how this interview goes!” if you’d rather not answer.