Chapter 33: Religion

Chapter 33: Religion

In this chapter, we look at how to report on people's spiritual lives. We look at how to report on religious organisations, and on the things which they and their members do.


News is about people. It is about everything which people do and everything which affects people.

There are three parts to people's lives - physical, mental and spiritual - and it is important that journalists take an interest in reporting all three. In this chapter we shall look at how you should report the spiritual part of people's lives: what is termed religion.

Many faiths

There are many different religions throughout the world. They differ in many ways and it is not easy to write about them all in one chapter. Nevertheless, despite their great differences, they do have in common Man's search for the meaning of life and (in most cases) Man's response to a Creator.

In this chapter, we shall try to cover the principles of reporting religion. You must apply those principles to the faith or faiths in your society.

The words which we use will tend to be Christian terms. However, we hope that Moslems, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and others will be able to translate the ideas into their own words. For example, when we use the word church, we mean the body of all believing people; but the principle of what we say applies to a body of faithful Moslems as well as to a body of faithful Christians.

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Three areas

There are three aspects of religion which need to be reported. They will all produce things which are new, unusual, interesting, significant and about people.

Church organisation

The business of the churches goes beyond this world; but to carry out that business they have to organise themselves in this world. They acquire religious leaders, who may be elected or appointed; religious communities, to dedicate themselves to prayer and study; financial and business sections to look after the money which is needed to run the church and maintain buildings.

They hold councils or synods, to discuss and debate the way in which the church is run. In some churches, these councils may take decisions which are binding; in others, there will be one leader (such as the Pope or the Dalai Lama) and the role of the councils may be to guide and advise him.

Whatever the constitution of the church which you are reporting, such meetings are significant. Even meetings of councils of elders or church councillors, who help to organise and represent the church in one small place, are significant to the people in that place.

They may affect people's spiritual lives in the same way that meetings of parliament or local councils may affect their physical lives. They should be reported, along with news of retirements, appointments, reorganisations and all the other aspects of organising and directing a large number of people.

To this extent, the churches should be reported in just the same way as any other organisation.

Church activity

The organisation of the church is the means to an end; it is not an end in itself. The purpose of the church is to bring people to their God and to encourage them to grow in the faith. That is what church activity is all about.

For example, Mother Teresa and her Little Sisters of Mercy worked among the homeless poor of Calcutta and in many other parts of the world, demonstrating their faith in their work. That was church activity.

Each year, many devout Moslems make their pilgrimage to Mecca, perhaps from as far away as Indonesia. That, too, is religious activity.

At many times of the year there will be special feasts and festivals - Easter, Ramadan, Diwali. Although aspects of all these festivals may become secular, they remain for the faithful examples of church activity.

Some church activity will be of a practical and seemingly physical nature, as the faithful attend to the material needs of other people. Other church activity will be practical but not material, such as the work of Bible translators. Other will seem to be neither practical nor material, such as days of prayer and fasting.

However, all of these, and many more, are forms of church activity. They are the outward signs of people's faith.

Church opinion

In some countries, the moral standards are so firmly based upon religious teachings that the law itself is taken directly from scripture. This is especially true in certain Islamic countries.

Even where the link between church and state is not so strong, the views of the churches on moral issues are important and influential. It is important to ask their opinions whenever you are reporting social issues with a moral dimension.

In some cases, you will need to speak to church leaders, to find out what the established doctrine is on certain issues. The churches generally have clearly formulated views on such issues as euthanasia, abortion and in vitro fertilisation, and you can find out what it is by asking a church leader.

In other cases, the church may not yet have made up its mind on its moral position, because the issue is a new one - such as stem cell research; or recent debate may have begun to cast doubt on long-held views, so that church members no longer all agree - such as homosexuality; or the church may always have found an issue too complex for it to formulate a simple view - such as the acceptability of war. In all these cases, it will not be easy for a church leader, however, well-intentioned, to give you a statement which accurately sums up the view of the whole church. To do this, you would need to do a vox pop of church members (see Chapters 22 and 23).

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Every week, in churches, mosques, temples and synagogues everywhere, somebody stands up and delivers a public speech. Usually this speech deals with at least one of the three areas we have just listed as being worth reporting - church organisation, church activity and church opinion.

These sermons can be reported in the same way as any other public speech (see Chapters 19 and 20 on speeches and meetings). The more people in your society who attend public worship each week, the more popular reports of sermons are likely to be.

Reporting sermons has other advantages, too:

  • People who do not usually attend public worship have the opportunity to hear what preachers are saying. This may be instructive to these people, and even win them back to the faith; or it may just allow them to monitor who is saying what.
  • People who regularly worship in one place have the opportunity to hear or read what preachers are saying elsewhere.
  • Preachers have the opportunity to hear or read what other preachers are saying, to gain new ideas and insights.

In general, decisions on when, where and how you report sermons will be made using the same criteria for judging the newsworthiness of other issues and events (as discussed the Chapter 1: What is news?):

  • Is it new?
  • Is it unusual?
  • Is it interesting or significant?
  • Is it about people?

You must decide whether to inform a preacher in advance that you will be reporting the sermon. You do not have to do so - it is a public speech - but if you think it would be considered rude in your society to report the sermon without saying so in advance, then you may tell them.

Keep in touch

If you want to be a good reporter, you need to keep in touch with the people who make the news. If you are reporting politics, you will keep in touch with politicians and public servants; if you are reporting education, you will keep in touch with teachers and educationists. If you are reporting religion, you must keep in touch with church leaders and members.

That means making contact with leaders of churches which you do not usually attend. It means making contact with other sects or denominations, even though you may not personally agree with all their beliefs.

It means finding out about at least the basics of other faiths in your community, to avoid giving offence and to encourage greater understanding.

By keeping in touch, you will know when things are going to happen and you will be able to report accurately and well on an area of people's lives which is of fundamental importance to them. See Chapter 26: Rounds for more detail on this.


Report on the spiritual part of people's lives, as well as the physical and mental

Look out for news in three areas:

  • The religious organisation as a political unit
  • The religious activity of the members
  • The views of religious organisations on moral issues

Report sermons for their news value

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>>go to next chapter

Index to Chapter 33
  1. Many faiths
  2. Three areas
  3. Sermons
  4. Keep in touch
  5. To summarise
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