2018 - Spring

Reporting Belief

Course Number: JOUR-GA 1182-002

Day & Time: Monday, 2:00 pm-5:40 pm

Location: 7th Fl Library

Instructor: Katherine Zoepf

For citizens of a country that, according to global surveys, is the most religious in the industrialized world, Americans in general are oddly reluctant to discuss questions of belief. Among journalists writing for U.S.-based publications, most of whom are trained to prioritize facts and objectivity and professionally allergic to earnestness, this aversion is often pronounced. When confronted with an expressed belief, particularly one that contradicts the journalist’s own values or education, there’s a tendency to report it as stated—“X person or group believes Y”—without directly engaging with it in any depth. The result, often, is reportingthat universalizes, presenting climate change deniers, for example, or followers of political Islam, in a cartoonish, oversimplified way.

Yet a different approach is possible and, at a time when Americans’ collective trust in facts is eroding, may be increasingly necessary; in an NPR interview shortly after the 2016 election, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet suggested the fact that journalists “don’t quite get religion” as a key reason for the growing disconnect between mainstream media outlets and the populations they aspire to cover and to inform. This course is designed for students who are inclined to view the disintegration of our communal public reality as a challenge and, perhaps, an opportunity. In it, we’ll examine the difficulties of reporting beyond reason, and the limitations of conventional methods. We’ll talk about the notion of objectivity and the importance of respect, empathy, and context. We’ll address the practical difficulties of reporting on matters that are both intimate and controversial, and the special challenges of reporting on beliefs that we may personally find abhorrent. We’ll read articles and essays by journalists who have overcome these frustrations with grace, and whose work rewards readers with fresh understanding of complex and unfamiliar worldviews. We’ll discuss best practices for reporting on superstition, prejudice, and political ideology, in addition to religious doctrine, lived religion, and debates among believers. Most importantly, students will apply and hone these techniques through a series of reporting and writing assignments.