As the options for obtaining news multiply, what separates one newspaper or one website or one television station from another is the quality and interest of the stories they tell. All of the technological opportunities offered by new media come to nothing if outlets do not have content that is meaningful to readers.
Journalists who can tell compelling stories on religion will find all the work they can handle.
Here are a few areas to consider:
Organize, Organize, Organize: At each stage of writing, from your first idea to your final draft, think about what information you want to present to the reader, and how you can best tell your story in a gripping and understandable format.
One way to help yourself focus your story is to early on develop your “nut graf,” one or two sentences that tell the reader what the story is about. Once you decide the idea you want to communicate, then you can build your story in a way readers can understand the issues.
Often, it is effective to use an anecdote, or an account of how individuals are affected by an issue, to begin a story. But remember not to take too long backing into a story. New media users are less patient than traditional readers and it is particularly important early on to give them a convincing reason why they should invest their time in your story.
People love great stories: There are basic principles of all great stories to keep in mind in nearly every article. The best stories involve interesting characters encountering a challenging situation, and being changed by that encounter. Ideally, the reader will care about the people you are writing about, be interested in the issues they have to face and want to stay with you to find out what happens.
For example, you could write a story about racial tensions among white and black Christians based on the opinions of religious leaders. But how much more would your neighbor want to read a story about two people like you and her who found their racial attitudes changing after meeting one another in unexpected ways over a period of time.
Embrace people’s humanity: Too many stories, and it can be a particular temptation in writing about religion, try to fit people into categories of saints and sinners.
But what is true, and what makes people fascinating, is we are a mixture of good and bad. It is the doubts and fears, the prejudices that have to be overcome, that help readers identify with the subjects of our stories.
What can be most helpful in changing public opinion about members of a different religious group is not a false portrait of uncompromising goodness, but the gentle understanding of how much we are alike in both our hopes and fears.
Show, don’t tell: Wherever possible, move the action along by showing the reader through the description of scenes and the actions of characters the points you are trying to make.
You can tell the reader that it is meaningful for Muslims to go on Hajj or that participants in a Christian revival in Africa are enthusiastic. Or you can place them on the road to Makkah, experiencing the journey through the eyes of a first-time pilgrim, or allow them to feel they are standing alongside men, women and children singing and dancing at 3 a.m. in an open field in Zimbabwe.
Journalism in the digital age still comes down to finding great stories and telling them well.
That’s also what makes it so much fun.