WWROD: When reporters fail to get religion ….

A quick online confession: Yes, I am “Terry in D.C.”

You see, while I am not in D.C. at the moment, I was inside the only Beltway that really matters at the time that I fired off a quick question to veteran religion-beat writer Richard Ostling at his weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions” (for more info click here).

In his format, readers send him basic religion questions and, well, he gives brief, journalism-driven responses. As you would expect, issues linked to religion news and events are going to be common and, once a week, we’ll be pointing readers over to his site for material with strong GetReligion-esque content.

I this case, I rather blatantly primed the pump for Ostling:

TERRY IN D.C. ASKS:

What are the five mistakes that mainstream reporters make most often when covering religion? Let’s assume these reporters are NOT religion-beat specialists.

And the Ridgewood Religion Guy answered:

Good one, especially when a secular milieu in many newsrooms (and classrooms) can foster slant and error. Some Journalism 101 pointers:

Mistake 1 is to suspect religious believers in general tend to be stupid or at least ill-informed (particularly a problem if the reporter has no close friends who are devout).

Mistake 2 is to assume this reporter could not possibly be so ill-informed as to misunderstand the belief or believers being written about. Even those of us who’ve spent decades covering this field know religious topics are usually quite complex. Always check with experts if you’re unclear or uncertain about something.

Mistake 3 is the related tendency to over-simplify. (Do all American Evangelicals subscribe to the colorful End Times scenario in those “Left Behind” novels? Are they all Tea Party enthusiasts?)

Wait a minute (I hear many readers thinking), what about plain old laziness? That has to be in the list somewhere!

By all means, click on over to the Ostling site for the for rest of that post. And please leave some religion-beat questions of your own for the master of the house to answer.

PHOTO: The cover of a rather obvious book related to all of this, which you can buy (hint, hint) with a click right here.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • FW Ken

    I would not have gone for laziness, unless you consider the narrowness of the first three mistakes a matter of intellectual sloth.

    To me it all goes back to what Bobby wrote some months ago: you can disagree with me without despising me. The most convinced atheist can, I believe, write a good religion article if he approaches the subject with respect.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Not sure if this is Mistake #6 or if it’s more related to Mistake #5 — religion is not politics. Along with seeing the world in “materialism” or “naturalism” or “scientism,” secular reporters also see the world almost entirely in political terms. Thus when the U.S. Catholic bishops, for instance, oppose the HHS mandate, it is presumed to be done as a political statement rather than because the administration is violating a sacred principle of our democracy (the First Amendment) and a sacred principle of the Catholic Church (God is the author of life and we cannot deliberately frustrate how that life begins).


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