How can a religion writer get more religion news stories into the paper or on air?
By Michael Paulson
The Boston Globe*
In my experience, editors are always hungry for good stories about any subject, and religion is no exception. To get more religion stories into the paper, apply the same rigorous reporting and writing standards you would apply to a story about politics or business: choose an interesting-and with luck, surprising or revealing-event or phenomenon, report it fully and fairly, and write it clearly, cleanly and brightly.
If your goal is to write your way from the features or religion pages onto the front page or other parts of the news section, I would offer several suggestions:
- Take advantage of an obvious news peg, provided either by current events or by the calendar. When Washington politicians are all in a tizzy over cloning, that’s the time to weigh in with a piece about the views of faith groups on bioethics. When the Easter vigil rolls around, that’s the time to figure out whether prospective converts to Catholicism are having second thoughts because of clergy sexual abuse. One Martin Luther King Jr. day, we ran a piece about whether the Catholic Church would include the Protestant preacher on its list of saints. And the events of Sept. 11, 2001, showed us all how understanding religion is an essential part of understanding the news.
Find something or somebody so compelling or counterintuitive that it demands to get good play. I did a long piece about Catholic women who decide to become Protestant clergy, and another about evangelical intellectuals at Harvard and other elite institutions they once shunned. Quirky also works: I once got a database of vanity plates and read the whole thing to produce a story on people who express their faith on their car bumpers (ADONAI, ZEN, DOPRAY, JCSAVZ, VRMARY, and, of course, WWJD, among others.)
- Be alert for real news; hit those stories hard and follow them through. We’ve had a number of news events that cried out for prominent play because of the larger issues they raised, including a nun who got fired for participating in a baptismal rite, a group of Episcopal bishops who joined a pro-Palestinian protest in front of the local Israeli consulate and a broad clergy sexual abuse scandal triggered by the Globe’s decision to go to court to pursue sealed documents explaining how the church had handled cases of pedophilia.
- Be comprehensive, but also know your readers. Our readership is heavily Catholic, and our coverage reflects that, while still acknowledging the diversity of beliefs represented in the area.
- Don’t let the wires do it for you. When the Reform rabbis decide to bless same-sex relationships, tell the story through local gay Jews. Examine faith-based charities through the eyes of local churches. And you don’t need a strong local connection: when Southern Baptists were getting a lot of attention for their views, I did a piece on what it’s like to be a Southern Baptist in New England, where there aren’t many.
Cast a wide net. Read as many religion periodicals as you can get your hands on, surf the net, scan the wires, call people you don’t know and visit places you’ve never been. Potential stories are everywhere.
*This article was written in 2001, at the time Michael Paulson was writing for The Boston Globe. He now works at The New York Times.