A CONVERSATION WITH … Deepa Bharath
When asked about her experience as a religion reporter, Deepa Bharath has a unique perspective: She’s “covering minority communities as a minority reporter.”
Grown up in India, she is based in the Greater Los Angeles area. Her work is focused on how religion and faith, values, race and ethnicity shape Americans and how religion in particular helps influence public policies, laws and a region’s culture. She explores a number of topics such as hate crimes against religious groups; domestic terrorism involving white nationalism that affects religious groups; the intersection of religion and health; and religion and sexual orientation/gender identity as well as immigration.
Q: What are the most prominent issues of religion in your region?
A: In the last three years, I’ve covered hate crimes, antisemitism and Islamophobia in particular. I also cover people of diverse cultures and religions who call this region home. I’ve covered issues relating to migration and refugees in the Orange County area where agencies and non-profits help refugees from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve also written extensively about the schism in the United Methodist Church, which is splitting over the issue of homosexuality. Recently, I’ve focused on the issue of security in houses of worship, particularly after a spate of terrorist attacks in churches, synagogues and mosques worldwide.
Q: How did you become interested in covering religion?
A: I grew up in Southern India in a traditional Hindu Brahmin household where religion and spirituality were not just the subject of dinner table conversations, but were practiced with sincerity. I became curious about world religions from an early age (when I was about 8 or 9) and read extensively about religious and spiritual practices. As a journalist and as an immigrant who has covered a conservative part of the United States for a majority of her career, I gravitated toward immigrant and ethnic communities and relished telling stories about cultures and traditions unique to these communities, which were often inextricably tied to religion.
Q: Why do you think religion reporting is so important?
A: Religion intersects with almost every aspect of human life – healthcare, education, gender, sexuality, politics, the environment – even death. When news organizations ignore this area of coverage or deem it unnecessary, they are doing their readers a disservice. Faith communities and faith leaders wield significant influence in politics. In the United States, evangelical Christians hold a lot of power. Donald Trump, for example, has the strong support of Pentecostal/Charismatic church leaders such as Paula White. At the local level, religion touches so many aspects of our readers’ lives that it is our job as journalists to provide context.
Q: At a recent IARJ’s conference on Journalism and Religion in Salt Lake City, Utah-USA, you shared the disadvantages and advantages of being a migrant when covering minority communities. What challenges have you faced as a religion reporter?
A: I have been the sole crusader for religion coverage in my company, which owns 11 daily newspapers in the region. I wear many hats in a newsroom with depleted resources. As far as the reporting itself, I’ve faced challenges when I investigated church finances. I broke the story about financial strife in the Crystal Cathedral, a megachurch in Orange County founded by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller. Since religious organization are not required under the law to file tax forms, it was challenging for me to dig into their finances. I did manage to obtain a lot of inside information from the deep sources I cultivated within the church.
Q: Tell us about a story you wrote that was particularly meaningful to you.
A: I enjoy writing about peace-building efforts, forgiveness and reconciliation between people, communities and races, which allows me to capture the flashes of positivity seen in our world during a time of division and polarization. Amy Biehl’s legacy: freedom, compassion is one of those stories. It all started when American student Amy Biehl, 26, was stabbed and stoned to death on Aug. 25, 1993 by an angry mob, in South Africa. Instead of demanding death for their daughter’s killers, Amy’s parents founded the Amy Biehl Foundation, a non-profit empowering township youth and serving the community in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Covering their story changed my life as a journalist and as a person. It gives me hope that a positive change can happen.
Q: How can we, as a community of journalists, improve reporting on religion, making it accurate and interesting while avoiding sensationalism?
A: Religion stories are interesting and powerful on their own without embellishment or sensationalism. My goal is simple. To give readers the facts without inserting my opinions into the story so they can make their own determination – based on those facts. I try to make my stories interesting by going to sources who are not often heard or featured in mainstream media. For example, when I wrote the story about the United Methodists splitting over the issue of homosexuality, I reached out to the Korean American Christian community, which is conservative compared to a majority of other United Methodist congregations in Southern California, which are progressive.
I think as religion journalists, we have the opportunity to give voice to those who aren’t always the loudest voices in the room. We have the opportunity to lift up the marginalized.
Q: What could IARJ do to support you in your work?
A: Salt Lake City was my first IARJ conference. I learned so much from fellow religion reporters from around the world. It was such a wonderful sense of camaraderie and understanding that you cannot put a price on. I think where IARJ can be extremely valuable is by connecting reporters with one another to facilitate collaborative projects. IARJ can also provide valuable resources to reporters such as update them on religious issues around the world and provide in-depth explanatory information about events/issues.
Deepa’s adivce for reporters interested in covering religion:
More than any other beat, religion reporting requires us to be empathetic, sensitive and respectful. When people allow us into their religious space, they are willing to be vulnerable and we need to respect that.
An open mind is imperative for the religion beat.
Deepa Bharath has received fellowships from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International Center for Journalists to report stories about reconciliation, counter-extremism and peace-building efforts around the world.
The best way to see Deepa’s ongoing work is to follow her Twitter account: @reporterdeepa