Nieman Fellow Delves Into Difficulties of Reporting on Religion

Washington Post religion journalist and current Nieman fellow Michelle Boorstein described the difficulties journalists who report on religion face, addressing an audience at the Divinity School Thursday afternoon.

The Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions hosted the event, titled “A Reporter’s Dilemmas: What are the right words for a religiously changing world?” as part of the first in its series on Religion and Media.

According to Francis X. Clooney, director of the Center for the Study of World Religions and co-organizer of the event, the series on Religion and Media focuses on current events in collaboration Harvard Nieman Foundation for Journalism. He said the Divinity School supplements its “long-term events, historical lectures, and study of texts with attention on religion as a lived reality today.”

Moderator Diane L. Moore, Divinity School professor and director of the Religious Literacy Project, said journalists who report on religion face difficult circumstances because they often have to educate readers about the subject.

“I think that reporters are not unlike teachers in school because you’re responsible for communicating about complicated topics in concise ways to general audiences,” Moore said. “It puts journalists in an untenable situation, because it’s not your job to teach Religion 101.”

Boorstein said an issue that comes from lack of education is the complexity of religious language and terminology, citing her recent coverage of Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine as an example.

“One of the last pieces I did before I went on the [Nieman] fellowship this summer was about Tim Kaine’s Catholicism,” she said. “I got ‘Who are you to say that he’s Catholic, he’s not Catholic—and those are very very daily conversations for me. ‘Why am I allowing somebody who does not subscribe to this, who does not ascribe to the definition of Catholic [to speak about it]?’.”

Nevertheless, Boorstein said that writing about religion, while a sensitive topic, is not fundamentally different than other reporting.

“We do feel a lot of responsibility, but in order to write organically and powerfully about something, you have to treat it like you’re writing about anything else. Other major things in life: sports, politics, sex,” she said.

The center will likely hold another four or five events in the series by the end of the year, to reflect on the different ways in which language about religion affects global audiences, Clooney said.

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