As journalists cover America’s war on terrorism and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, demand continues to increase for information about Islam. Panelists attending the SPJ National Convention discussed the gathering of such information during the seminar “The Role of Religion Reporting After the Terrorist Attacks.” The journalists examined the challenges of covering Islam and other religions, as well as the future direction of religious reporting. “People are hungry to know about [Islam],” said Teresa Watanabe, a religion writer for the Los Angeles Times. “They are figuring out that religion is a big part of our daily lives.” One obstacle in reporting on Islam is its breadth. Watanabe said there is no central authority in Islam, and followers range from liberal to fundamental. She’s interviewed liberal Muslims who don’t see any clash between their culture and others’, but she’s also seen fundamentalist Muslims who never share meals with non-Muslims because of their differences. This expanse in Islam makes accurate representation a difficult task. Watanabe said that coverage of Muslims and Islam is much better now than it was during the Gulf War. She’s found that Muslim organizations are better organized – and therefore more communicative – than in the past. Journalists also must get past their own religious biases and educate themselves on Islam and different theologies. Many religion writers aren’t specialists in the field, especially when starting out, but all the panelists agreed that writers should never use this as an excuse. “It is your job to learn about it,” said John McCoy, manager of international media relations for World Vision. McCoy said he once gave an interview to a reporter about Catholicism, and the reporter asked, “Why is Jesus such a big deal to you guys?” Watanabe said journalists could accurately cover religions other than their own, but they must do their homework. “Do you have to be African American to cover African American stories?” she asked. Even outside of stories about Islam, religion has become more important since the Sept. 11 attacks. Steve Maynard, a religion, values and ethics reporter for The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., said he was surprised by a visit to a local Catholic church. The church held an interfaith service that had “a level of emotion and shock and anguish” that Maynard said he’d never seen before. At another candlelight vigil, Cambodian Americans grieved over the attacks. Each held lighted candles, flowers and American flags – and when they ran out of flags, they created makeshift flags. In the search for solace, Maynard said that many people are turning to faith organizations for a sense of community. Even people who didn’t normally go to church have started attending services. Panelists discussed the role of religion reporting in the future. In times of crisis, religion coverage receives extra attention. “Religion is not as contentious as other beats,” said Watanabe. She added that, if it was controversial, people usually felt either attacked or offended. Maynard agreed, especially for smaller towns where minorities are fearful of pointing out religious differences and standing out. All the panelists agreed that it was important to maintain an interest in religion – with or without a crisis. “We still have a ways to go in understanding,” said Maynard. Panelists agreed that the solution lay in making the effort to seek out religious stories and represent – in an open-minded and unbiased manner – an entire community. It’s evident that before the attacks, religion was an unpopular subject. McCoy, manager of international media relations for World Vision, remembers that time. At his first position as a junior reporter at a small publication, he had to choose between three of the least wanted beats: food, the state penitentiary and religion. He chose religion. “Why cover politics when you can cover matters of the heart and soul?” he asked.
Connie Kim is a free-lance writer to Seattle publications such as Metropolitan Living and Tekbug.