Every journalist encounters a conflict of interest at some point, but there are special considerations when it comes to religion. In general, reporters don’t join organizations that they cover, but prohibiting a journalist from belonging to a religious group violates that person’s First Amendment right to practice religion freely. Thus, religion journalists can be members of a church or other place of worship and practice a faith without violating any ethical guidelines — in fact, being a member of a religious group will add insight into reporting.
Some editors expect that you do not report on your own faith tradition, but in most cases, it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Whether you’re the religion reporter or the education reporter, if you’re Catholic or Baptist, you may have to do stories that involve Catholics and Baptists.
Some journalists may wonder: If you feed homeless people at a shelter once a month as part of your synagogue, should you avoid writing about homeless people? If you’re in a choir, should you avoid writing about debates over contemporary vs. traditional music? If you’re a Sunday school teacher, should you avoid writing about religious education? The answer is no; it is perfectly acceptable to report on religious activities that you participate in, as long as you are not reporting on your own choir or Sunday school class. There are, however, some things you should avoid:
- Reporting on your own congregation or place of worship in any way.
- Promoting your faith tradition above others or endorsing its beliefs in any way.
- Profiling people you know through your religious life.
- Reporting on issues for which you’re involved in advocacy on behalf of your faith group. It’s one thing to profile a homeless person if you feed homeless people; it’s another if you are representing your church in lobbying the city council to build a new homeless shelter.
- Reporting on issues from which you cannot separate your religious beliefs. For example, if your tradition teaches that homosexuality is a sin and you do not feel you can impartially write about debates on gay ordination, you should recuse yourself from coverage.
- Any leadership position that would compromise your ability to report impartially about a religious tradition.