The 5 Commandments — How To Report, Edit Stories on Religion

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“My mother said never discuss religion and politics, and that’s all I do,” said Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein, leader of Congregation Kneseth Israel of Elgin.

And so began one of the most fascinating training events ever put together by the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association.

For me, the biggest takeaway from the April 12 event at NIU might have been the simple fact that journalists and leaders of varying faiths could come together for a civil discourse.

As Islamic Center of DeKalb President Mohammed Labadi put it, “We have more in common than we have differences.”

That said, if you listened hard enough, there was some criticism in the commentary — enough, in fact, for a “teachable moment.”

What follows is a short-stack of five journalist-focused takeaways from the exchange that featured Klein, Labadi, Catholic Diocese of Rockford Bishop David Malloy and Christ Community Church Communications Director Todd Hertz.

I’m calling it, “The 5 Commandments of Religion Reporting.”

(1) Keep Opinion on The Op-Ed Page

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Several panelists said they see too many religion articles that express opinion. In a world in which we’re accused all-too-often of proliferating “fake news,” we’ve got to do a better job of sticking to the facts.

Klein said all she’s seeking is honest reporting.

“There used to be a hard and fast rule that opinion is for the op-ed pages,” she said, adding that honest reporting doesn’t always happen these days.

Klein said bias might not be intended, but most reporting is “slanted toward Christianity.” That’s a filter you should examine closely before you write or file a story.

Malloy said reporters who write about religion need to examine and evaluate the body of their work.

“My idea of professional journalism is to be objective and to be fair,” he said. “That has to be constantly reviewed.”

(2) Stop Stealing From Other News Sources

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In this day of crowd sourcing and aggregation, it’s possible and even likely that journalists are perpetuating bad information.

Klein noted a news story in which President Donald Trump was said to have called a Trump Tower fire victim a “crazy Jew.” (Check out this Newsweek story as an example.)

“(That report) was picked up word for word (by other media),” Klein said. “It’s hearsay. It’s spreading gossip. It may be fueling a political agenda. And it’s all in a headline.”

Labadi said he’s seen similar instances when inaccurate information is picked up and promulgated.

“When searching about stories, don’t get your information from other news sources,” he said.

So there you have it. If your rabbi says she loves you, check it out.

(3) Get The Language Right

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If you’re setting out to write a story about religion, take the time to understand the terms.

Labadi pointed out that media often misuse, hijack or hyperbolize certain words that have important meaning to people of faith.

Two examples, he said, are “sharia,” which translates to “my way of life” and includes kindness to family, co-workers and neighbors, and “jihad,” which means “to do your best at anything you do.”

If you study hard for your physics exam, Labadi said, that’s jihad. If you work long hours to improve yourself or to get a raise or promotion, that’s jihad. “It is not the bad word the media makes it right now,” he said.

Hertz, who has held several media positions and has a journalism background, remembered interviewing a religious leader who kept using the word “charismatic.” Hertz thought it meant “compellingly charming,” not realizing at first that it’s a form of Christianity that emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit.

“It’s like The Princess Bride,” he said. “I remember saying to myself, ‘I don’t think that word means what you think it means.’ “

(4) Understand That No One Person Speaks For a Religion

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Reporters often ask a religious leader’s opinion, then use that quote to speak for an entire congregation or religious group.

Each panelist, to a person, said that’s an unfair approach.

Klein said that, in a group of five rabbis, you’ll get five different answers to any question.

Hertz said the same thing is true at Christ Community.

“I represent a non-denominational evangelical church, and even among our own staff, we have different theological views,” he said.

Malloy talked about the “complexity of religion” and the “subsets of the reality” that exist even in the Catholic Church. Too often, he said, reporters want to know, “Is that the conservative response or the liberal response?”

“The Catholic faith is not a policy program,” he said.

(5) Just Be Human

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Journalism is a human interaction.

Understand that when you’re interviewing a person of faith. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions or challenge concepts, but remember the advice of Bishop Malloy.

“It’s a human dialogue,” he said. “We have to do well on our side of the table. But the humanity has to come from the other side, as well.

“It’s right in the middle that we meet.”

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