Belief Beat

If you who missed Friday’s religion reporting panel at Columbia University — either in person or virtually — here are some excerpts from my notes. (These are paraphrased, not direct quotes.)

Moderated by Columbia Prof. Ari Goldman, the panel featured George Vecsey (New York Times), Samuel Freedman (NYT), Jaweed Kaleem (Huffington Post) and Laurie Goodstein (NYT).

Pros and cons of covering religion:

Vecsey: There’s never a dull moment. Lots of interesting sources and different topics every day. Beats covering schools (for him).

Goodstein: Covering religion, as opposed to local politics, gives you a greater reach. Everything has a national/international angle. You have to do lots of research and “overreport” things, especially as you’re learning on the job, but you get to report on a great range of topics and sources.

Goldman: But unlike the sports department, which will have dedicated reporters for each sport, religion reporters tend to be all alone in a newsroom, solely responsible for covering dozens of faiths! Can be lonely, isolated. (That’s where RNA can be helpful…)

On overcoming conflicting feelings about covering your own faith or one you disagree with:

Vecsey: Reporters have to be clean slates. You have to remain professional, regardless of what you personally think about what a source believes. 

Goldman:  It helps if you focus on the commonalities of your faiths, like the emotions and underlying motivations, rather than the parts that seem strange to you.

Freedman: It’s only human to have some bias, but if you feel that it will get in the way of reporting fairly, then tell your editor. But religion reporters have to learn to be comfortable with different belief systems.

On thinking outside the box:

Goodstein: Best religion stories often don’t come from houses of worship; you have to get out into the community. (Houses of worship may present a monolithic point of view, and ignore diversity of beliefs, experiences.) Remember, every religion has different streams and interpretations — especially those without central authorities, like Islam. 

Kaleem: Writing for The Huffington Post, which gets breaking news from wire services, he has to come up with new angles for features and in-depth pieces. For 9/11 anniversary, he talked to Muslim American kids who have had to live in the shadow of the attacks they don’t remember. For Harold Camping’s doomsday prophecy, he decided to play it straight with the true believers, as opposed to the joking way other outlets treated it.

Meet more religion reporters:

If you’re in the New York area next month, there will be another chance to chat with national religion reporters — Religion Newswriters Association & Religion Communicators Council are planning a Dec. 14 networking event at The Huffington Post, 770 Broadway, 6-8 p.m. Check for membership information and more details.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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