‘Religion is always in the room’: How to improve coverage of faith

Religion is a dominant force in American life. 

More than 75 percent of Americans said they identified with a specific religious faith, according to Gallup polling conducted in 2021. Yet the field of journalism is notoriously secular and largely averse to including religious angles and storylines.   

If news organizations want to earn the trust of people of faith, news coverage needs to reflect the broad range of religious traditions of the communities they serve, experts said during a June 24 National Press Club Journalism Institute panel on covering faith.  

“Religion is always in the room,” said Holly Meyer, religion news editor at the Associated Press. “Religion makes people uncomfortable — including journalists. And so what we need to do is when religion comes up in the room, whatever room that is, don’t ignore it. Don’t look away, as that’s an opportunity for follow-up questions.” 

Seven journalists, including Meyer, shared tips for earning trust and telling nuanced stories:

  • Dawn Araujo-Hawkins, news editor at Christian Century; vice president at Religion News Association
  • Alison Bethel, vice president of corps excellence at Report for America
  • Sarah Breger, editor at Moment Magazine
  • McKay Coppins, staff writer at The Atlantic
  • Richard Flory, executive director at USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture
  • Aysha Khan, editor at Next City, freelance journalist, and Harvard Divinity School graduate
  • Holly Meyer, religion news editor at the Associated Press

Building trust among sources, audiences, and colleagues

There is no shortcut: Earning trust takes time, patience, and consistency. For some community members, there might even be an expectation that news media will get their perspective wrong. 

“Religion is held so tightly to people that I think there’s often a lot of fear, and I’m thinking primarily amongst sources, that you are not going to tell their stories accurately,” Araujo-Hawkins said.

Breaking through this barrier starts with a mutual understanding. 

Araujo-Hawkins suggests walking potential sources through your journalistic process, from what to expect in an interview to how you will verify quotes and accuracy prior to publication.

There’s also no shortcut for describing certain faith practices or faith identities.

“None of these people correspond to the very easy shortcuts that we attempt to take as journalists by describing people as conservative Christian, or devout Muslim, or Evangelical, or liberal,” Khan said. “We use these labels, we use these shortcuts, and attempt to describe our sources, our interviewees — entire communities of millions of people — in this way, as if our readers are supposed to know what that means.”

Bethel provided an example of how such a shortcut has gone wrong: 

“Newsrooms, reporters have taken the word Evangelical and used it in such a way that the general public would think that Evangelicals are white men or women in the Midwest who are racist … instead of looking at what the word really means and what being an Evangelical means.”  

The minutia matters: All religions are complex. Take time to learn the details and nuances behind what you’re covering.

“If we want to be taking lived religion and people’s lived religious experiences seriously, we have to [understand] that vast diversity within religious traditions,” Khan said. “None of these are monoliths.” 

Spending time with religion experts will build a foundation of knowledge. Meyer recommends reaching out to the Religion News Association to find resources and experts.   

But, Breger adds, don’t rely on the same sources each time.

“For readers … when they see their religion or their denomination basically being expressed through, or filtered through, one or two people — often maybe the loudest or the squeakiest wheels,” she said. “It really erodes trust.”

Religious diversity is an important part of representation in the newsroom: Journalists of faith can add valuable perspective to stories outside of their belief system. 

“​​I think that we have to look inward first to get it right so that we can have people, have readers trust us with getting it right and not twisting or mocking their belief,” Bethel said.

Coppins said he advocates for more people with any kind of religious experience being in newsrooms. 

“I think it benefits all religious people and all faith traditions,” Coppins said. “What I found is that people who have had any kind of lived experience in religion — regardless of what their tradition was — have generally approached Mormonism, which is the faith tradition I know best, with more care and nuance than other reporters.”

The audience for religion stories is everywhere 

Religion stories are for all: While not every newsroom can hire a religion reporter on staff, that doesn’t mean journalists can’t include religious angles in their stories.

“I think religion journalism is for everyone,” Araujo-Hawkins said. “I think when you start asking those questions in almost any type of story, what you get from people and what you learn about your neighbors, about the world is just so deep and fruitful, even if it’s not part of an organized religion.”

“We’ve seen there’s a real hunger for religion journalism out there,” Breger said. “Just in talking to friends who work in other newsrooms, often their religion stories are the ones that get the most clicks, the most traffic.”

Telling impactful, inclusive religion stories

Faith transcends all beats: Ask your sources about how their faith, religion, or spirituality has shaped their experience.   

“There’s always a religion angle to every story,” Coppins said. “There are these interesting political angles to Catholicism or Evangelicalism or Islam, but there are … humanizing ways to show how their faith has carried them through tragedies; how their faith drives them to live certain ways to do good things and bad things and complicated things; how it helps them navigate family life.”

It starts with respect.

“People who we cover who say they’re religious, or they belong to a certain denomination, they believe it deeply. And it really informs how they live their lives,” Bethel said. “That is deeper than surface reporting. And if you are able to understand that or empathize with it, or even embrace it, then I think you have an opportunity to really have someone talk to you in a real meaningful and honest way about religion.”

Flory points out a natural tension exists when talking about individuals and their individual faiths, and then about institutions and organizations as a whole. “Those don’t necessarily line up,” he said, making it even more important to go beyond surface questions.

And often, all it takes is an extra question or two.

“You can start adding nuance to your stories in simple ways. You know, someone says they’re Christian, ask what kind. If someone says, ‘I voted for this policy,’ and they’re also talking about how their Christian teachings influenced them, include that in the story,” said Meyer. “So I think there are little ways that we can start moving all journalism more towards including how religion is moving the world around us. And so we just have to be aware that that is important, and to move forward.”

This panel was supported by a grant from the Gannett Foundation for programming on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in newsrooms; and by a general operational grant from the Deseret Management Corporation, with a special interest in faith and media.

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Ed of the Florida Heartland
Ed of the Florida Heartland
1 year ago

I ended up here because in a community of a little over 100,000 the local newspaper, single owner, but its management has adopted a “Christian Only” attitude in its local opinions and news. In part its an “Senior Community” that buys into that way of thinking but alternatively relies heavily on “Health Services” provided by ….people of many nationalities. Couldn’t quite rap my head abound the “Local Press” not promoting “Religious Freedom”???