Here’s one good reason: religion throws up many great storiesAnd here's another: religion affects a great many people, even if they have no faith of their own
According to Judith Mitchell Buddenbaum, author of Reporting News About Religion: An Introduction for Journalists, reporting on religion is second only to education in the public's ranking of importance. Yet it tends to turn up last in audience satisfaction surveys.
So that’s a third good reason to choose it as your beat. Be a great political reporter and you’ll be among many others who are really good at their jobs. Be a great religion reporter and you’ll stand head and shoulders above many of your rivals.
And there will be plenty of stories for you to shine on, because religious faith is a factor in many of the big contemporary issues– from the international right down to the local level.
The war on terror is the obvious one, but there are plenty of others, such as the debates about assisted dying, stem cell research and even science education in schools.
The Religion Writers' Foundation says: “Religion is a factor in the issues Americans consistently name as their top concerns: war, terrorism, education, health care, immigration, the environment and the health of the economy.”
Faith plays a more visible role in public life the USA than it does in the UK. In the former, a presidential candidate’s faith is seen as an important part of their character and suitability for the job. The Pew Institute publishes regular reports on the impact of religion on elections in the US
Journalists don't do GodIn the UK, politicians are reluctant to talk openly about their faith. In the words of Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell: “We don’t do God”.
In the USA, the Religion Writers' Foundation has produced a great online resource called Reporting on Religion: A Primer on Journalism’s Best Beat, in which it is said: “Religion can enrich your stories by explaining people’s motivations and providing details that can transform run-of-the-mill reports into surprising or provocative narratives.
"Religion shapes people’s actions and reactions in very private and very public ways across the range of news and features. Without it, you’re often not getting the whole story.
“Faith and spirituality are a powerful undertow in so many of the stories of our day. Too often, that undertow remains invisible to media audiences because journalists don’t acknowledge its persistent pull.
“Often, religion provides the 'why' in the equation of a story. Faith motivates people, groups and, at times, nations. Religion plays a significant role in world events from war in the Middle East to tension in Northern Ireland to terrorism in the United States.”
But while religion matters to many people, it matters less to many journalists and journalistic organisations.
The BBC’s Roger Bolton puts the case here for why it should matter in the corporation, and in British journalism, and there’s a great video on the point which I’m not allowed to embed, but which you can watch here.
He says: “Journalists tend to be sceptical of religion and those for whom spirituality is important.
“That's understandable to an extent. Journalists work with evidence; they want proof; want to see things with their own eyes. Faith and belief are the antithesis of that mindset.
“Some journalists take this further and find those who live their lives and make their decisions on the basis of their religious beliefs incomprehensible. Or they're contemptuous of those of sincere spiritual conviction.”
This blog post from a BBC editor demonstrates how religious news can lose out to other stories in the schedules.
A survey from the Pew Research Centre reported here found: “There’s a major divide between journalists and the general public when it comes to personal faith…only 8 percent of national journalists claim that they attend church or synagogue each week. This compares with 39 percent of the general public. While a lack of personal affiliation doesn‘t necessarily mean that journalists can’t properly report on religion, this disparity is important to note.”
Reporters don't know enough about religionDespite the need to understand religion as a factor in many stories, many reporters acknowledge they don’t know enough about it.
Less than one-fifth of reporters called themselves “very knowledgeable” about religion in a survey by the Knight Program in Media and Religion at USC and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
And the public thinks religious reporting is sensationalised: “Two-thirds of the American public believe religion coverage is too sensationalized — a view held by less than 30% of reporters”
Not surprisingly, it's people of faith who feel most strongly that religion is badly reported.
The BBC did a survey and found: “Faith groups think that the majority of people derive most of their knowledge of religion from the news. So the power of news coverage to influence opinion about faiths is felt to be particularly strong.”
Among the negatives were “the prominence of occasional negative and inaccurate coverage, most often in News and Current Affairs output, which betrays ignorance of key issues.”
Most faith groups had a grievance about how they were covered.
- “Minority voices within Islam articulating extreme points of view are thought sometimes to receive disproportionate coverage that harms the image of the faith overall….
- “Many Jews perceive coverage of the Middle East conflict to be hostile to Israel and, by extension, to them as a faith community.
- “Roman Catholics are generally worried by what they think is the negative depiction of Catholicism. It is not disputed that child abuse by priests, the health of the Pope or Vatican teaching on sexual morality are newsworthy. It is the repeated presentation of these aspects of Catholicism alone that leads to a sense of being under attack.”
A bid for better faith journalismRecently, an international organisation was set up to represent faith reporters. It’s called the International Association of Religion Journalists and among its goals are boosting the prominence and professionalism of religion reporting, and emphasising the need for responsible journalism that can unite instead of divide people.
U.S. journalist David Briggs, a Pulitzer Prize nominee and the main driving force behind the initiative told Ruth Eglash: “We are living in a global society and our understanding internationally of religion is weak. With this association, journalists now have contacts in various countries and can work together.”
British Author Karen Armstrong, who supports the body, said: “One of the problems we have is the media who only present very one-sided views of certain religious activities. Islam is the obvious example. We hear all about the negative [things] that people are saying. But we don’t have a balance of the positive.”
Will you be any good as a religion journalist?Here are a list of traits that the Religion Writers' Foundation says are essential for any great reporter on the faith beat.
Check them out to see how you measure up.