Spotlight on: Peggy Fletcher Stack from the US

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Peggy Fletcher Stack meets with the Dalai Lama as part of her coverage of religious issues for The Salt Lake Tribute.
Name: Peggy Fletcher Stack

Title: Senior Religion Reporter

Publication/news media: The Salt Lake Tribune

Length of time reporting on religion: 21 years

Why is religion journalism important to you?

To me, it is the best journalism beat there is. It touches all the important topics – values, ethics, communities, rituals, philosophical underpinnings, politics, meaning. It has some of the most compelling narratives as well as the richest ironies and an extraordinary cast of characters.

What is the main philosophy that guides you when you go out to cover stories about religion?

I want to make sure that my writing is respectful and fair to any faith. I may have a bias, but I work very hard not to let that show. I try to treat a tarot card reader or polygamist with the same dignity I would afford a Catholic archbishop or a Tibetan nun. There are scoundrels and saints in every tradition, so I try to begin every story with an open mind. Let people tell their experiences and fight the tendency to roll your eyes and not write down the “miraculous elements.” In this case, that often is the story.

What are the key issues affecting your nation and region when it comes to religion?

Our nation is awash in religious faiths and no faiths. It has to be among the most pluralistic countries on earth. Since this country’s founding, it has been tough to maintain the separation of church and state. Today, one of the biggest American stories is the loss of faith among the younger generation.

Regionally, the big news story is Mormonism. Its headquarters is here in Salt Lake City, which means we write about that faith a lot. The second largest faith is Catholic, which we write about locally and globally, including immigration and capital punishment issues, birth control and abortion, among others. But most other faiths exist in our region, too, so we have to be sure to cover all of them from time to time.

What challenges have you faced reporting on religion?

I feel like I am constantly having to move from faith to faith in my coverage and can never get quite as deep a knowledge base as I would like. It would be like a sports writer having to cover all Olympic events, knowing the rules, the players, the history, and memorable games. It’s both exciting and overwhelming at the same time.

Tell us about a story you wrote or edited that challenged stereotypes and contributed to religious understanding in your country?

Here are a few: 

Last spring, I wrote about young Muslim women from Somalia, in particular, deciding to wear hijab, not a passive obedience to male authority but as a proud badge of female Muslim identity.

I compared notions of infallibility in Mormon and Catholic teachings and how neither doctrines are well-understood by outsiders.

I also wrote about mental illness and religion, showing how often religious believers misunderstand the nature of the disease and think of it as “sin.”

I profiled a Conservative Jewish rabbi, who happened to be a lesbian, and how she and her partner felt about moving to Utah to take over the largest synagogue in the state.

I interviewed a young Catholic priest candidate who was being ordained an 2002 at the height of the sex abuse scandal. Why did he want to jump into the frying pan?

How can we, as a community of international journalists, improve reporting on religion?

Given contemporary communication, events in one part of the world immediately reverberate across the globe. Having reliable colleagues in many countries helps us all to add context and depth to our reporting. We can produce joint reporting; we can increase our understanding of the way religions we know play out elsewhere.

How do you think we can encourage news media to place more importance on religious coverage?

The best way is to point out how often the stories of the day touch on matters of faith and having an expert in those faiths provides more thorough, even-handed reporting. It is increasingly essential to have someone on the team who knows what the central faith issues are, rather than just send reporters with little knowledge to cover controversial topics.

Can covering religion only be done in a sensationalist way? How do we keep it accurate and interesting?

Again, the key for me is research, understanding and respect, while maintaining the skills of lively journalism. No beat is better than religion for amazing storytelling.

How do you think new media and the spread of information today via the internet impacts your work and the stories that you cover?

The Internet affects every story I write. It provides background information, while speeding up the time for responding. I can find great sources in diverse places I never before thought to look. It shows me what other papers are doing on some big event, like the 50th anniversary of Vatican II and helps me promote my own work.

What do you hope we can accomplish in the IARJ as a community of journalists from some 100 nations working together?

I hope we can help set the standard of excellence in religion reporting for the whole world. I have already been inspired by reading the work of this group of amazing reporters. I hope to do many more joint writing projects on religion in the future. I even believe that our collective output may bring some understanding to warring sides in religious battles.

Peggy Fletcher Stack’s top tips for reporting on religion:

  • Go with an open mind.
  • Read all you can before interviewing a subject.
  • Find reliable guides to every group you cover. (They are usually believers, but with an ability to analyze their own faith, rather than just promote it.)
  • Note the sights, smells and sounds of a religious ceremony. Religious rites are typically the most sensory of any events you might cover.
  • Don’t neglect the minority faiths; they are often the most interesting!
  • Watch out for those who would promote an agenda, either to tear down a tradition or to extol it beyond recognition.
  • Use the same instincts all journalists have – the story is often in the conflicts, or in the power leaders, or in the margins. Keep sorting through the details until you find it.