Why you should cover religion
By the numbers, religion may be the most undercovered news beat in America. The numbers — and some tips — are below. But first, an anecdote that may help you overcome your reluctance to tackle this beat on campus.
I once challenged students at a training seminar to come up with the most boring story assignment they could imagine. One of the “winners” was something like, “Cover the chicken dinner for students at [Name Forgotten] Church.” It was my job to make that a good assignment.
I said something like, “Here’s a good story: How many students go to church? Some are dropping out of church, others are forming powerful beliefs. Is it cool or not on this campus to be openly religious? Talk to students at the chicken dinner and get a good scene for a story that will have national figures, local quotes and a subject everyone has an opinion about.”
But almost every editor is more likely to assign a religious story after a tragedy like the shootings at a Sikh house of worship. Do you really need a “news peg” like that to justify a religion story? Have a look at the numbers:
Gallup polls for years have consistently found more than half of Americans consider religion is “very important” in their lives. And more than 90 percent believe in God, including 84 percent of the 18-29 age bracket, Gallup reported last year. (If a television series had those numbers, you’d be writing about it.)
However, “religiosity” is declining in some places and atheism is rising. How about on your campus? Does religion come up in science classrooms? Do professors on your campus make the argument in “A Universe from Nothing” by Lawrence Krauss that science can explain creation without divine intervention? That ought to stir up some debate, and here’s a philosophy professor’s rebuttal to get you started.
Meanwhile, a new Pew study says Muslims in the United States are much more open to the idea that Islam can be understood in more than one way than their counterparts in other countries. Wouldn’t it be nice to talk to Muslim students in a context other than “what do you think of the latest violence?” How about asking them about the future of Islam? Do they agree with Reza Aslan that an “Islamic Reformation” is under way? If some of the next generation’s leaders of the Islamic world are on your campus, ask them what they think will happen in the next 25 years.
Here’s a challenge: find someone willing to try to develop religion as a beat. Maybe the first step is just to plug into Twitter and Facebook accounts of religious people and organizations — and people who advocate against religion. And go to a chicken dinner — not because it’s exciting, but because it is part of a good story.
By the way, a track of sessions on religious topics will be offered at the National College Media Convention in Chicago Nov. 1-4. Be there!