Ruth Gledhill’s reflections on reporting about religion

October 23, 2009

gledhillCovering religion is unlike other assignments in journalism, as any reporter on the “Godbeat” can tell you. Ruth Gledhill (photo at right), veteran religion correspondent of The Times in London and fellow blogger (hers is called Articles of Faith), recently gave a short, witty and insightful talk on reporting about faith.

There’s a lot there in only 11minutes and 27 seconds. How about this for an opener: “The only place the press is mentioned in the Bible is in Luke 19 when Zacchaeus the tax collector has to climb a tree to see Jesus because of the crowds. The King James Version renders this: ‘he couldn’t see because of the press’.”

Click here for the audio tape of the talk. And let us know if you sometimes feel like Zacchaeus.

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Are reporters writing stories on a certain religion allowed to be a member of that religion themselves? Or does this compromise their impartiality?

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

Brian, this is a relevant question but, first of all, it should be put the other way around — should members of a certain religion be allowed to write stories about it? Reporters have a constitutional right to freedom of religion like anyone else, so no editor can say they can’t belong to a certain faith.

As for whether they can report on their own faith, there’s no single rule for all of journalism. Editors do ask the question but I don’t know if any news organisations have strict rules on this. One reason for not having such a rule is that, if editors set up such a ban for religion reporters, they’d also have to consider such bans for political, financial or other reporters. Should journalists who vote for the Democrats be barred from covering the White House? Or reporters who support capitalism from covering Wall Street? If the rules were that strict, it might be very hard to find enough reporters to cover some beats. Imagine if U.S. newspapers could only assign non-Americans to cover the State Department, on the argument that Americans might be partial to U.S. foreign policy and open to manipulation by appeals to their patriotism. One could push the argument to the extreme and say only atheists and agnostics should cover religion.

Let’s take a practical case several news organisations have faced. Should they refuse to post a foreign correspondent to Israel because he/she was Jewish or elsewhere in the Middle East because he/she was a Muslim. In such cases, being from those religious traditions might actually help those correspondents understand those countries better than other reporters with no such religious background. If bylines that hint at presumed ethnic and/or religious backgrounds are anything to go by, many news organisations seem to have a mix of correspondents with and without these religious backgrounds. It would take a lot of research to find out if this is intentional or just a coincidence.

So the responsibility lies with journalists to maintain a critical distance to any groups they are linked to and editors to keep an eye on journalists to ensure their copy is balanced. But that applies to all beats.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive