Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Investigating Religion. 'A Cultural Minefield'

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Investigating Religion. 'A Cultural Minefield'

Article excerpt

Veteran religion reporters offer tips on probing controversial religious groups

INVESTIGATING RELIGIOUS groups is one of of the most difficult and emotionally trip-wired tasks a newspaper can undertake, according to the national projects editor of the New York Times.

Speaking at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in New Orleans, Doug Frantz said serious reporting on controversial religious organizations involves "stepping into a cultural minefield."

Merely asking questions will offend the people you are investigating because, at heart, you are challenging something they hold dear to them," Frantz said.

SACRED COWS AND BIG MONEY

Frantz, who has written extensively about Scientology, said investigations of religious groups inherently deal with sacred cows - and often huge amounts of money as well. The sacred cow syndrome is what often allows "the unscrupulous to pocket the money of the faithful,' he said.

Still, such projects involve standard procedures. Arc records available, will sources talk, can accusations be corroborated, will the subject pressure people to remain silent? But in religion, it's important for reporters to do their homework: research enough to absorb a working knowledge of the faith or organization, Frantz counseled.

NO FOI LAWS IN CHURCH

"It's not like county government or the Pentagon or your local congressman," he said. "It's more arcane. It's likely to be more secretive and there are no freedom of information laws when it comes to religions."

After gathering facts, reading scriptures, and 'quietly" attending services, religion reporters typically seek interviews with church leaders. …

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