WASHINGTON – Reporters strive to be fair,balanced and accurate. However,falling short of these standards can be especially problematic for journalists covering faith.
“There is a reluctance in newsrooms to talk about religion,” Kelly McBride,senior faculty of ethics at the Poynter Institute,said. McBride led a discussion about the best ways for reporters to cover religion as part of a conference,Politics and Religion: Getting It Right in 2012,Thursday held by the Poynter Institute.
One participant,Clark Gilbert,CEO of Salt Lake City-based Deseret News Publishing Company,said there is a need to diversify newsrooms for religion as much as newsrooms have diversified for gender or race.
In McBride’s experience,newsrooms in different geographical areas of the country differ widely in the percentage of reporters they have who practice religion,she said.
Religion reporting is especially susceptible to the problems that commonly plague other areas of journalism,McBride said. For example,the tendencies to over simplify complex issues or to rush pieces due to deadline pressure can inaccurately depict issues of religion. Sometimes,journalists tend to paint issues as “black and white,” when really there are many more nuances,such as between different denominations.
Conveying an honest depiction of followers of a faith or a specific religion is vital,Ari Goldman,a Columbia University journalism professor,said. The advantage of religion beat reporters,or journalists who specialize in the topic of religion,is that they can form a connection with whom they are covering.
“The people you write about should be able to see themselves in the story,” he said.
Another problem is the issue of “false balance.” Journalists,in their quest for objectivity,often aim to pursue both,or all,sides of a story,McBride said. This can imply that there are two equally prominent sides or arguments,when in fact there are not.
McBride gave the example of a story about a gay couple seeking to adopt children. In this hypothetical situation,the reporter takes the feature story to her editor,who asks for more balance,or the other side. The reporter obtains a two-paragraph comment from a local pastor who has opposed gay couples’ right to adopt children for many years. This tactic isn’t fair to either source,McBride said.
With religion constantly being featured in the news – for example,the faith preferences of candidates in the presidential race – McBride emphasized that it is especially important to “get it right.”
Reach reporter Ariana Stone at [email protected] or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.