“It’s important to treat religion like any other beat,” said Monique Parsons, an independent producer of religion stories. “If you wait until there is a crisis, you’re going to miss some things.”
Parsons joined the Salt Lake Tribune’s Peggy Fletcher Stack and NPR’s Jason DeRose in the session on religion reporting at the 2015 PRNDI conference moderated by KUER’s Terry Gildea. The group talked about its decades of collective experience, sharing stories from Stack’s years of covering the LDS church in Utah to DeRose’s coverage of the clergy sex abuse controversy in Chicago. Here are some of their tips:
It's not always black and white.
There can be a temptation to put religious groups in boxes and treat them as monolithic entities, but the truth is almost always more complex. “There are a lot of liberal, progressive, feminist Muslims,” said Parsons. In fact there are people that break the mold in every religion and best of all “they’re easy to find … they want to be found and known for their openness,” she added.
DeRose also warned about painting with broad strokes. “I don’t want to set up a secular people versus religious people way of thinking about this,” he said. “You can’t just do conservative evangelicals versus People for the American Way.”
But Stack noted that individuals who go against prevailing attitudes in their religion often make for good stories. The main rabbi in Salt Lake City used to be a conservative rabbi who was also a lesbian. "It was more likely for her to preside over a same-sex wedding than an interfaith wedding,” she said. “I was like ‘Okay you get a profile, honey.’”
Finding the story
“There’s almost no story that doesn’t already have a religious angle,” said Stack, as she and the other panelists went over the beat’s possibilities. DeRose agreed, saying he doesn’t even like the term “religion reporting.”
“I think of it as faith, values, belief — as a lens through which you can look at all stories,” he said, giving the example of examining the ways different congregations were dealing with sustainability and environmental issues.
“Instead of the religion beat, it’s the ‘what really matters to me most’ beat,” Parsons added.
The panelists also had advice on how to make connections for those starting out on the beat. DeRose suggested finding the local ecumenical associations or chaplains offices at colleges. Parsons said fund-raising dinners are a great place to start. “What’s important to the community, who are the power players, what are they talking about at the table?”
Are you with us, or against us?
Religion is often intensely personal, so religion reporters are sometimes seen with a wary eye. That means constantly being asked about their own faith — a question all the panelists have learned to sidestep.
“I get that question every single day, and my answer is that I take your religion very seriously, but my religion is personal,” said Stack. And if she is pushed further? “I say I’m a person of faith, myself, but I’m not going to tell you.”
DeRose takes a similar path, referring broadly to his own “congregation” when he is on the job, but not giving any more details — after all, a journalist must appear impartial.
“I always compare it to politics, said Parsons. “We all have our own opinions, but I’m a journalist first.”