Writing about religion really is a landmine. Definitions are difficult to come by, even for groups such as evangelicals. Much of this blog is devoted to exploring the questions about how to identify groups and treat their claims respectfully. Religion writers themselves tend to be thoughtful with their writing, of course. But what of the many editors who are also part of the process. Do they pressure their religion reporters to write only about conflict instead of the daily life of the church? Do they change carefully-worded phrases to save column inches? Do they botch a perfectly good article with a loathsome headline? Do they relegate religion news to the back of the paper? Do they stupidly fire their religion reporters when making staff cuts?
It was nice to see the Knoxville News Sentinel look at the importance of getting religion right in today's paper. Columnist Ina Hughs, a former staff writer for the paper, uses the latest release of the Religion Newswriters Foundation's "Guide to Religion Reporting in the Secular Media" to explore the issue. Here she sums up some of the guide's advice on how to handle hot-button terms:
In answering the question on when it is and is not appropriate to use words like "fundamentalist" and "cult," Don Lattin, religion writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, cautions that the dictionary is not always the best barometer because dictionary definitions are value-neutral. He gives as an example the academic definition of "cult" as being "formal religious veneration" - such as the cult of Mary in the Roman Catholic Church, of which Pope John Paul II was a proud member.
But the dictionary also includes another meaning of the word: "a religion that is regarded as unorthodox or spurious," such as the Branch Davidians and the People's Temple of the Rev. Jim Jones.
The two uses, though both proper in a scholarly sense, show how the word can cause conflicting emotional responses.
Lattin offers the term "new religious movement" rather than "cult" or, perhaps, "sect."
Hughs argues that even if religion is difficult to cover well, it's important to try:
"Why should the secular media cover religion?" is the first question in the handbook, and Gayle White of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution offers as part of her answer the fact that people forced to make hard decisions - whether to end a pregnancy, whether to remove life support, whom to vote for, what laws to enact - more often than not turn to their faith for an answer. Which is perhaps one thing we can agree on in discussing religion.
These discussions about how to handle religious news need to take place in the broader journalism community. It's nice to see one paper engage that discussion.