In Today’s Conversation with Leith Anderson, Adelle Banks takes us inside the world of religion reporting. 

Faith and spirituality are a powerful motivation or undercurrent in many stories of our day. Good religion reporting helps us understand these trends and motivations.

In this podcast, you’ll hear a veteran and well-respected religion reporter share:

  • The challenges of reporting on religion, particularly evangelicalism;
  • How America’s changing religious landscape impacts reporting trends;
  • Tips for pastors and others who are interviewed by the media; and
  • Her insight on the coming top religion stories.

Read a Portion of the Transcript

Leith: So Adelle, let’s just start with you. How did you get into this business and this profession of religion reporting?

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Adelle: My whole journalism career, which began right when I finished college, has had a touch of religion — if not a focus on religion — throughout it. I covered religion at every job I have had since I left Mount Holyoke College. My first job was at a paper in Binghamton, New York, and I covered the traditional stuff reporters cover when they start their careers such as different cities and towns and school boards. But I also covered some about religion. I remember writing about clergy couples, and I also wrote about church outreach to singles and stories about various major religious holidays. When I moved on to my next job farther up in upstate New York, I covered towns and schools again, and business stories too. But then I expressed an interest in the religion beat, because I had enjoyed covering that topic previously and am generally fascinated with the topic. And I got the religion beat. And I covered things like the local Catholic bishop and Jews and other faith groups as well. Then I went to my home state of Rhode Island, and at that newspaper, The Providence Journal, my colleague who covered religion had been doing it for a long time and did it for a long time after I left there. And so I knew if I wanted to continue on the religion beat, I would have to do it somewhere else. And I ended up becoming the religion reporter on the Orlando Sentinel for six years before I moved to Religion News Service. So it has sort of been my professional lifeblood for a long time.

Leith: There is a part of me that want to say you must know more religious people and know more about religion than just about anybody in America, but let’s just keep talking about you and other reporters on religion. How does your own faith impact how you report on issues of faith or religion?

Adelle: I think in my role as a church member that it has made me more sensitive to the various trends and issues related to clergy and congregations in particular, as well as to the average person in the pew. But I also think that reporting on this topic is not something that has to be done by a person of faith. There have been very good reporters who had no faith at all who have covered this beat very, very well. And I have sometimes found that just being in a place of faith — not necessarily my own — can trigger story ideas and open up my eyes to things that are going on or things that are coming up. For instance, I sing in local chorale and that chorale happened to have rehearsed at a Catholic church at one time and just going by the bulletin board at the church I got story ideas. So I think that you can be a person of faith, but you don’t have to be. But it helps to be in places where you can see where the stories are.

Leith: So you have an angle or maybe an altitude that is kind of different from everybody else. Most of us live in our small worlds of our church, our parish, people who are like us. And then there are the outsiders, and maybe we don’t even know them personally. So from your view — from this high altitude, as well as close to the ground — how is America’s religious landscape changing? You’ve been doing this for a long time, and how does that impact the coverage of news of religion?

Adelle: I think that America’s religious landscape is sort of widening in some ways, and then it’s also narrowing in others, which actually makes it quite a challenge for religion reporters. When I was first on the beat, covering Christians was basically what you did. Maybe you covered some Jews every once in awhile, but that was usually about it. Then it was Christians, Jews and Muslims. Then it was Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus and then you thought you had it covered. But now it is so much broader as far as people’s attention to the various groups that are out there. And it’s really from Atheists to Zoroastrians, and there is just a growing number of people also who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” And so that is sort of the broadening part of it.

The narrowing is that there are instances where churches that have been covered for years have far fewer people in their pews — which is not the case for some megachurches of course — but it is certainly the case for many of the more historic churches. So there is that challenge, in and of itself, that is the story about some of the decline that has occurred on the religious scene. So I feel like there is also a challenge to not write solely about religion, but write about religion and ethics. Those two have been combined for years in stories by religion reporters, but I think it is getting more and more important to do that because some people are interested in religion, some people are interested in ethics, and some people are interested in both. So all of that affects how you deal with coverage, and I think that over the course of my career there has been more of an emphasis to move from just writing about the institutional religion world to writing about the personal people of faith, people searching, people figuring out their identity as it relates to religion or it does not.

Leith: Let me ask you to sort of critique your profession and your colleagues. Maybe that is sort of a risky thing to do. But just, overall, how is religion really represented well in the news media? What is going very well in communicating to readers and viewers what is happening? And then what are the areas where that is not happening, or at least where there could be improvement in news coverage of religion?

Adelle: I think that there has been a shift over the years from making religion just in one part of a publication — often it was in the B section or the metro section of a newspaper — to a discovery by reporters — both religion reporters and others and editors — that there are stories that belong in all different parts of a newspaper or of another publication. So it could be what the political candidates are saying about religion or the way school districts are accommodating religious holidays to covering the new woman who is going to be the fencer at the next Olympics who is going to have a hijab, who is going to be the first Muslim American woman to do that. So there are ways that religion is being covered now that I think are fascinating and help people realize how much it fits into so many parts of our world. I like to say that the religion beat is religion and fill-in-the-blank: religion and the environment, religion and sports, religion and food, religion and music. You know all those different things come together. So I think that there is an improvement in understanding that religion fits into lots of different places of a publication.

I think that there are times that people have not done the right thing when it comes to covering religion. They have left out groups entirely who may fit into a particular faith group and only maybe talked to heads and don’t talk to average people. I think that is an important part of reporting is to get down to the average person. And then there are times when people don’t get it as far as some specifics of faith, and that’s something that person who has the beat is better at. For instance, there was an instance just in the past couple of weeks, where a prominent newspaper wrote about people observing Ash Wednesday and instead of saying that people had ashes on their foreheads they said that they had coal and that publication ended up having to have a correction. So there is definitely a need to check facts and make sure that you know what you are writing about when you are dealing with this issue.

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