Writing on religion in the digital age
The digital age offers many wonderful opportunities to communicate fair and accurate reporting on religion to audiences throughout the world. New websites offering religion news offer more alternatives for writers and readers, and traditional media outlets are developing greater skills in using the Internet and social media to expand their influence. Electronic resources and new means of communication provide journalists with superb access to religion data and provide the possibility for effective global cooperation among journalists writing on issues of faith and public life.
Above all else, religion journalists should be encouraged. Even as technology automates many other media jobs, original content is more important than ever.
Below are some ideas to keep in mind:
Content rules: 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.
Stories matter: The first question all writers need to ask themselves is why this story matters to their audience. Before you start to write or even pitch your story to an editor, determine what about your article is new, interesting or important enough that a reader will need to open it up and spend her time with your work.
Start by asking yourself: Why would I want to read this story? If you cannot come up with a compelling answer, be assured neither will other people.
Quality is Job 1: One trap to avoid in the digital age is the temptation to emphasize quantity over quality. The Web makes it easy and inexpensive to deliver unlimited amounts of information. But readers have more choices, and they will choose the stories that effectively command their attention.
Use your creative imagination: A major reason traditional media have struggled in recent years is they have not recognized the fundamental shift in power toward the consumer of news media. Media such as newspapers and television that could once offer the same stories in the same ways are finding their audiences abandoning them for other sites that provide them with the content they want.
Few people will read a story describing a new mosque or synagogue program, or the internal decisions of a religious organization. But religion journalists who find ways to make stories about faith compelling will thrive in the new media age.
Find ways of connecting religion to readers’ daily lives. This can be done by reporting on new research showing the relation between religious practices and happiness or a longer lifespan or articles documenting the relationship between religious persecution and terrorism.
Even if editors insist on “calendar journalism” – doing stories to mark religious holidays such as Ramadan or Passover – use these opportunities to lift up expectations by showcasing compelling stories of faith.
Be aggressive: As indicated above, there are many people, newspaper editors among them, who would reduce religion journalism to ceremonial coverage of major faiths. It is easier to avoid controversy by setting religion to one side than it is to risk offending or inflaming the passions of readers by tackling such a personal and emotional subject.
But it is also dangerous and an abdication of our professional responsibility.
As the recent upheaval in the Middle East shows, burying the tension will not make it go away. Nor does it serve the public interest.
What does serve the public good is fair and accurate reporting on issues such as the persecution of religious minorities, the complex relationship between religion and politics and the way faith motivates social and personal change.
Personal but not partisan: From the opposite end, another challenge facing religion journalism today is the tendency to adopt an advocacy role. The decline of mass-market publications and the development of smaller periodicals targeted to specific audiences increases the temptation to feed the popular attitudes of core readers rather than challenging them with independent reporting.
Some cable news networks see the way to increased revenue by increasing their appeal to liberal or conservative audiences. Each step down this road has the potential to be self-destructive. What we have to offer, as imperfect as we have always been, is an institution that strives to report the truth, and places faith in individuals to interpret information for themselves. Each time we alter the news to cover over, avoid or manipulate the truth we violate the public trust.
Fairness matters: Reporting all sides involves much more than the all-too-typical approach of finding extremists on either side, and allowing them to the spokespersons on an issue. It means doing the hard work to illuminate the struggles experienced by majorities of the population on issues from sexuality to religious freedom.
It also means being sensitive to the many different expressions of faith in each of the world’s major religions. Religion journalists need to be aware of different movements and various interpretations of doctrine to help readers understand why this matters in their community.
Be smart: Being aggressive does not mean taking undue risks. We all respect the courage of journalists reporting in places like Iraq, Libya and the Ivory Coast. Your personal safety, however, must be taken into consideration.