Nearly every faith has stories of religious exemplars who have risked their health and even martyred themselves for their beliefs and ritual practices. Amid persecution, plague, and other dangerous circumstances, religious people have taken their lives in their own hands to attend services at churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples alike, and many prescribe specific prayers, adorations of saints with plague patronage, mystical amulets, or other special religious appeals in the face of health emergencies.
But this weekend, like several before it and perhaps quite a few to come, religious people won’t be commuting to their houses of worship for regular infusions of physical, emotional, and spiritual refuge. This is particularly difficult in these trying and scary times, where the faithful need religious community and guidance the most. It also, in turn, poses challenges for reporters who cover religion and faith.
As someone who has covered many faith traditions other than the one with which I was raised, spending time in the pews, or otherwise on sacred ground, talking to the religious—clergy and lay people alike—is imperative. This is an exceedingly difficult beat to parachute into and to cover at a distance. Interviewing a minister, rabbi, imam, pastor, priest, or other leader in a respectful yet appropriately-skeptical manner is a tough challenge under normal circumstances; it’s even harder at a time when even the firmest believers contend with pervasive unknowns. And when many of the faithful are convening online for live-streamed services rather than in person, it is difficult to capture the nuances of their experience.
If a religious leader believes she or he ought to emphasize only optimism and religious belief in a transcendent plan, can and should journalists report that straight, or ought they worry that some in the pews will come away thinking circumstances are less threatening than they are? When some clergy share what they believe to be the causes of the spread and origins of the virus, what are a reporter’s responsibilities upon hearing that? And what about those clergy who see trying times as license for more elasticity in communal norms, while others adopt harder-line approaches; how does one report here without cheerleading bluntly or discreetly for one side over the other?
It’s more vital than ever for reporters covering faith to avoid putting their fingers on St. Michael’s scales, on either side. Religious communities are making tough decisions, and they are looking to their faith traditions for guidance, while making necessarily human decisions of how to understand that sacred roadmap. Some will make prudent and compassionate and innovative decisions precisely due to their faith, and others may err, or act in a manner that reflects their own vanity, greed, or other “deadly” sins rather than their religious tradition. There will be great nobility, and perhaps folly, in the pews.
The opportunity and challenge for reporters who cover faith regularly, or find themselves temporary guests in this space, amid all the necessary distances will be to recognize that religion stories are human-interest ones, where the stakes couldn’t be higher even under healthier circumstances. And just as scientists and medical professionals have views that derive from their expertise, so too do religious people, if one listens respectfully and thoughtfully—although of course affording one’s sources, at the same time, the courtesy and dignity of asking tough questions and not treating them with kid gloves.
Menachem Wecker is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C., and a member of the National Press Club Board of Governors. You can read his work and contact him via his website.
The Religion News Association is presenting a webinar, “COVID-19: Tools to help religion reporters navigate the world’s new normal,” on March 25, 2020 at 12:00 pm EDT.