The newbie’s guide to covering religion

religions of the worldWith so many different religious sects in Canada, it can be difficult to know what kind of behaviour to adopt when you’re reporting on a tight deadline, especially if you’re new to the game. Suniya Kukaswadia offers a list of need-to-knows for covering four major religions.

Imagine your editor or teacher assigns you a story that requires you to visit a place to worship. You have limited knowledge of the religion in question. You know that rules vary from religion to religion and it’s hard to keep everything straight. You’re on a tight deadline and have no time to do background research. You’re terrified of offending your source and you need to get this story done.  What’s a reporter to do?

Before you have a major panic attack, here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind before visiting any one of the places of worship mentioned below.

Catholic Church
•    According to Ann Keating, pastoral care consultant at the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, it is important to be aware of what services may be going on before entering the Church, and be careful not to interrupt.
•    It is important to call your interviewee by the appropriate title as a form of respect, such as Sister, Father or Bishop, depending on their standing within the Church and their own preference (i.e., Sister Rosalie, Father Peter, Bishop Tutu or simply, Sister, Father or Bishop).
•    Anyone can attend a Catholic mass, but only Catholics who have already received their first holy communion (a rite of passage that typically happens around the age of 6) are allowed to take the communion, a holy sacrament that represents the body of Christ. This is a big one. Slip up and you may just end up on the front page of a newspaper, a la Stephen Harper and the “Wafergate” scandal. If you are not Catholic, you can either cross your arms across your chest and receive a blessing, or remain in your seat until communion is over.

Jewish Synagogue
•    There are many Jewish sects, and many call their synagogues shuls.
•    It is important for men and women to sit separately to respect the segregated seating at many Conservative synagogues and most Orthodox synagogues.
•    It’s best not to schedule interviews during the Sabbath, which starts Fridays at sundown and ends Saturdays at sundown, and is considered the day of rest. If you have to conduct an interview or visit a synagogue during Sabbath, do not use any electronic devices such as recorders or cameras, as Jews aren’t supposed to do anything work related on the Sabbath. Try your best to avoid scheduling any interviews during Sabbath to be on the safe side.
•    The religious leader is called a rabbi, and should be addressed as such (e.g., Rabbi Levin). 

Hindu Temple
•    Some temples have a dress code. To be on the safe side, go with business casual and skip the jeans and sweats.
•    The temple’s religious leader is a pundit (e.g., Pundit Persaud).
•    Many devote Hindus are vegetarian, so don’t wear any leather in the prayer area. If you have a leather coat or bag, leave it in the lobby.

Muslim mosque
•    Be sure to take off your shoes before entering the main prayer hall, and women should cover their heads as a sign of respect. According to a Toronto Imam, women should dress modestly—jeans and pants are okay, and long sleeves are preferred to short.
•    Like the orthodox synagogue, mosques observe segregation of the genders.
•    Religious leaders at a mosque are called Imams and can be addressed by “imam” followed by their first name, or “brother” followed by their first name (Imam Faisel or Brother Faisel). Women can be addressed as the same, switching “brother” for “sister.”
•    Don’t get offended if someone from the opposite sex won’t shake your hand; in Islam, it’s forbidden to have physical contact with a member of the opposite sex who is not a blood relative. This rule is tricky, as not everyone follows this rule to a T, but it’s best to be safe and wait to see if the other person extends a hand first.

When interviewing people in places of worship, don’t be shocked if someone asks to remain off the record. Many may be weary of media coverage, especially after a controversial event, and hesitant to be directly quoted. 

Of course, these are just general guidelines. When in doubt, just call the place you’re visiting and ask. Remember, there are many different sects within these religions, so it’s important not to make assumptions. For example, though both churches are Christian, what may be acceptable in the United Church may not be okay at a Catholic Church, and vice versa.

Most importantly, don’t be nervous. Religious leaders tend to be open and understanding about people who aren’t familiar with their practices and will most likely appreciate the forethought. There are no stupid questions when it comes to making sure you act respectful in a place of worship.