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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Steven Potter

Left out: freelance journalists have no recourse against sexual harassment


Despite high-profile firings and policy changes after the #MeToo movement swept through newsrooms, a subset of news professionals often remains unprotected, largely unheard from and without recourse in cases of sexual misconduct: freelance journalists.

Women are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, unwanted romantic or physical advances and assault. “[These incidents] run the gamut,” says Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, an organization that works to elevate the status of women in media.

When women report on a freelance basis – working essentially as independent contractors – “they don’t have an organization to back them up or provide any kind of resources [like] medical insurance [or] trauma support,” Lees Muñoz says. “They’re really on their own.”

As in other professions, the number of freelance journalists who experience incidents of harassment is likely far more than those who don’t. “I’ve come in contact with hundreds and hundreds of journalists in my 16 years of working with IWMF and less than a handful of them have ever said, ‘I have not experienced sexual harassment,’”  Lees Muñoz says.

She adds that the nature of freelance work can lend itself to less formal situations and problematic out-of-the-office environments.

“What I’ve heard from freelancers is that the way that you build a relationship with an editor who you’re trying to pitch is to meet them face to face,” Lees Muñoz says. “And because you’re not in the office with them, usually these meetings take place outside of work and frequently outside of work hours.”

“So [as a freelancer], I go out to meet an editor who I’m trying to pitch a story to or who I’m trying to just meet for the first time, and it’s over drinks, and then I get asked out, and then I feel like if I say ‘No’ then the next time I pitch, I’m not going to get the [story accepted] and he’s not going to reach out to me when he has a job,” Lees Muñoz says.

And in a case where harassment has occurred, the freelance journalist has to make a potentially detrimental decision – to report it or not.

Elisa Lee Muñoz

“When [a freelancer] feels that there has been sexual harassment, the contracts that they work under offer absolutely no protection whatsoever,” Lees Muñoz says, adding that the women often feel, “I need to make a choice between denouncing the harassment and my professional best interests, which are to maintain the relationship with this [news] outlet.”

The issue becomes more fraught because freelancers almost always have nowhere to turn beyond the news organization itself.

“It is so very difficult for female freelancers to make these kinds of accusations and to denounce that kind of behavior because there is no governing body, there’s no journalism union that they can appeal to,” Lees Muñoz says. “Their only recourse is to go to the employer of that editor and close the door for future employment [with that news outlet].” 


Ample room for new policies 

Anna Therese Day has experienced sexual harassment and worse. 

As a freelance reporter who has worked in dangerous conflict areas for several years, she’s had her boss-clients hit on her and make inappropriate comments about her body. In one case a few years ago, an executive producer followed her into the bathroom and put his hands on her sexually.

“I’ve experienced such a wide range of humiliating behavior,” she says. “[The] sexual harassment from bosses that I’ve had has been probably one of the most deflating and violating experiences because it’s been cumulative.” 

As each new incident occurred, a number of thoughts raced through her mind.

“When these things happen to you, particularly since you know the person [and] you see some of their redeeming qualities from day to day … you don’t realize that they’re doing this to other women, you think maybe it was an isolated scenario, you don’t want to make a big deal about it,” she explains. “It’s such a distraction and disruption from doing your job.”

As a founding member of The Frontline Freelance Register, a membership organization for freelance journalists, Day has heard a number of stories from women. 

She echoes IWMF’s Muñoz sentiments about how “freelancers kind of fall through the cracks and because of that, we’re even more vulnerable.”

But she believes it’s possible especially given the #MeToo movement for things to change. 

Anna Day Long

“If we’re going to finally get equality, this is the moment to do it [because] now there’s more of an openness to have these conversations and really push policy,” she says.

One thing Day would like to see is a database of sorts where women can report incidents and share what happened to them with others. 

“Nobody’s really stepped up to say they will collect stories [of harassment and assault] because nobody wants that liability,” she says. “Nobody seems to feel like they can legally absorb those kinds of complaints without encouraging women to move forward or feeling some responsibility to take legal action against the men, which women might not want to do.”

“[But] I think that’s the missing piece because we notice their patterns of behavior, we know it’s a predatory pattern,” Day says, while acknowledging the problems with lists like this in the past.

In absence of some kind of list, however, women are helping each other. “I’ve seen a lot of leadership from a lot of women journalists and a lot of it’s behind the scenes,”  she says. “A lot of it’s [women acting as] caseworkers to their friends and colleagues.”


How media organizations can help

Lees Muñoz believes the first step is to add language against sexual harassment and assault to freelancer contracts. 

“Media organizations that have taken on this issue and are grappling with how to handle it internally should definitely make sure that whatever it is that they’re developing applies to freelancers,” she says. “And that people who are on the hiring end with freelancers have really clear guidelines about how you interact with freelancers, including when you meet with them.”

“Just make sure that [freelancers] are part of your overall policies. [If] you hire freelancers, they should be included … in the contracts, talk about how one reports this [behavior] … it should be made very clear,” she continues, adding that the only media organization she’s heard of to update their freelance contracts in such a way was National Geographic following the ousting of a photo editor for sexual misconduct.

In the past, “many women just put their heads down, kept working, pretended it didn’t happen and didn’t make waves because they valued their careers,” says Lees Muñoz.

“Many, many others left the profession altogether or got pushed out because they didn’t have any recourse,” she adds.

That cannot continue. “Freelancers have been left behind [in this] conversation and any attention that can be brought to them, particularly given that the journalism enterprise is more and more relying on freelancers [is needed],” Lees Muñoz says. “If you’re not creating an environment where women can operate safely, then you’re contributing to a less diverse news media and less viewpoints and less perspectives. And so it’s really a critical issue.”


The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.


Be accountable, be transparent – with your data too; A Q&A with Rodrigo Zamith

Photo: Steven Potter


Journalists incorporate data into their reporting for good reason: numbers tell us important, odd and interesting things about ourselves.

Hidden within raw data are insights about our patterns, problems and trends, such as the frequency of our activities, crime levels, how we distribute goods and services, where we have pockets of poverty or wealth, how we use our time and countless other measurable facts.

But as more journalists begin to lean on data as a reporting tool, they need to keep a keen eye on just how effectively — and ethically — they’re using it.

Rodrigo Zamith, an assistant professor of journalism at University of Massachusetts Amherst, does just that.

“[Data-based journalism] has become discursively valuable because a large group of people still — incorrectly, in my mind — view [it] as being more neutral and objective than traditional journalism,” Zamith says. “As a social scientist, I view data journalism as an opportunity to further imbue some of the best practices from science into journalism in order to make journalism more transparent and informative.”

His most recent study, however, found that journalists at two of the country’s biggest and most-respected newspapers were not being as transparent and informative with data as they could have been.

In his study “Transparency, Interactivity, Diversity, and Information Provenance in Everyday Data Journalism” (Digital Journalism, 2019), Zamith found that both The New York Times and The Washington Post failed to be completely transparent about the data they used, often didn’t explain their data collection or analysis methods and usually didn’t give the public access to the data they used in their reporting.

Zamith discussed his study’s findings and the ethics involved in data journalism recently with the Center for Journalism Ethics.

This interview has been edited for length.

What are the ethical concerns involved in data journalism and data-driven reporting?

At the top of my list is probably not taking advantage of this special status that some people grant to quantification. Stories that involve data analysis are often viewed as being more credible, and it can be tempting for a journalist to leverage that perception in order to appear more authoritative or precise. To be clear, I don’t think most data journalists intentionally do this but they certainly could. Moreover, simple misunderstandings of data borne from deadline pressures or lack of training can result in improper interpretation and contextualization, which is a more common problem.

Second, data journalists can sometimes gain access to information that would violate individuals’ expectations of privacy. This sometimes comes via individual-level data that haven’t been de-identified or through de-identified data that can become easily identifiable when combined with other datasets. The desire to be transparent and forthcoming — such as by creating databases or interactive visualizations that allow viewers to explore individual-level data points — sometimes violates the ethical objective of minimizing harm.

Third, data journalists often use data from other (non-news) organizations, and it is crucial that they remain mindful of those organizations’ objectives and potential biases in order to ensure the journalist is reporting truthful (and not just ‘accurate’) information. Journalists don’t often have the luxury of choosing from multiple datasets that seek to measure the same things. Rather, they may have to decide whether a dataset is simply “good enough” — and, in some cases, the available data is worse than having no supporting data at all. These ethical concerns only begin to scratch the surface, though. Data journalism, and journalism in general, is a challenging endeavor.

What did your recent study, “Transparency, Interactivity, Diversity, and Information Provenance in Everyday Data Journalism,” reveal about the practices of data journalism by the New York Times and The Washington Post?

The big takeaway from the study is that the potential many scholars and practitioners see in data journalism are not yet being realized in the day-to-day data journalism produced by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Specifically, the study found that those organizations favored “hard news” topics, typically used fairly uncomplex data visualizations with low levels of interactivity, relied primarily on institutional sources (especially government sources) and engaged in limited original data collection, and were far less transparent than one might hope for in terms of linking directly to datasets or detailing the methodologies used for analysis.

While that may seem like an indictment of their performance, that is not at all what I mean to convey with my study. The study measured their day-to-day work against an ideal — a rather high bar — and I believe there are legitimate structural factors that can help explain the shortcomings I pointed to. I actually think these two organizations do a good job in many regards, and my hope is to see them do even better in other areas.

Why is this lack of transparency and failure to explain methodology exhibited by the Times and Post ethically problematic?

One of the key tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “be accountable and transparent.” This involves explaining to readers the key processes underlying a story, including where the information came from and how the information was analyzed.

My study found that the Times and Post rarely linked directly to the datasets they used. However, they did often link to the organizations they got the information from. The issue is that it can sometimes be hard to find a specific dataset even after being pointed to an organization’s homepage. Thus, if the ethical objective is transparency, data journalists are only partly succeeding.

I believe data journalists should aim to make it as easy as possible for readers to double-check the journalist’s work and perhaps even to build on the journalist’s work. To achieve that, a direct link is preferable. This is especially important if the data journalist has altered the original data in any way, such as by aggregating data or calculating new variables, since it introduces new possibilities for human error and biases. In those cases, sharing their edited datasets is one way to adhere to the transparency objective.

My study also found that journalists seldom provided methodological details separately from an article, such as in methodology boxes at the end of the article, in footnotes that need to be clicked on to appear, or in separate articles devoted to detailing the methodology. While we did not directly measure the inclusion of those details within the article, it is rare to find them there because journalists often view themselves as storytellers and such detail can bog down the narrative.

The lack of methodological details is problematic, though, because it again fails to deliver on the transparency objective. Datasets don’t just produce errors if they’re analyzed incorrectly. They would just tell a story that misinforms. Being clear about one’s methodology provides an avenue for accountability so others can review and, if necessary, critique the journalist’s analytic choices. One of the great hopes for data journalism is that it will help increase trust in journalism precisely because of its many avenues for increasing transparency. Failing to make the data easily accessible or clearly explaining the methodology reduces the likelihood of realizing that hope.

What should these two outlets do to correct these missteps?

I think the data journalists at those organizations, and many others, generally do a good job. I also think that the shortcomings I identified are partly byproducts of journalistic conventions.

For example, the dearth of links to specific datasets isn’t terribly atypical if you consider the traditional analogue: news organizations are more likely to link to the institution affiliated with a human source rather than to the source’s biography page. I don’t think this is an unreasonable practice but I do think that it is a practice that can be adjusted to take advantage of the distinct affordances of data journalism. After all, a human source may not have a publicly available biography page but the data journalist will always have the dataset.

If the dataset is already publicly hosted, it should be easy to link directly to it, perhaps in addition to linking to the parent organization. If it is not already publicly hosted, the data journalist may be able to upload it to any of the many open data hubs out there, and link directly to that. If they’d like a little more control, news organizations should invest in the technical infrastructure for self-hosting datasets. Having said that, there are instances where it is inappropriate to put up a dataset, as in cases where it may violate copyright or a reasonable expectation of privacy. In such cases, journalists should just explain that decision.

I believe the oftentimes inadequate methodological explanations can also be attributed to journalistic norms. Journalists are tasked with simplifying things and writing in an accessible manner, which can promote doing away with technical and methodological details. I think it’s very reasonable and perhaps even a best practice to offload that information to a section separate from the article, provided it’s made clear to a reader how those details may be accessed.

However, writing up those details can be rather time-consuming, presenting a challenge to journalists constantly being asked to do more with less. This is doubly true for the day-to-day data journalism that likely won’t be nominated for prestigious awards. This would require a broader cultural shift within organizations to value this kind of work, which doesn’t typically provide immediate and easily measured benefits. However, it is important work. For the majority of people, who may not fully understand the technical details or have the inclination to evaluate them, the perception of greater transparency increases their trust in the news story and the news organization. For the minority, it allows them to scrutinize and perhaps even suggest corrections to the journalists. And we should celebrate those instances because it means that better, more trustworthy journalism is being done.

With ethics in mind, what are the guidelines and best practices that journalists should follow when working with data?

To better realize the ideal of transparency, data journalists should keep and make public reproducible analysis documents that detail how they analyzed their data. Many data journalists already keep a data analysis notebook, so they’re off to a good start. However, a best practice would be to post the original and modified datasets, as well as the analysis scripts, on platforms like GitHub. In fact, The New York Times and The Washington Post already do this with some of their projects, and they deserve credit for that openness. They’re not the only ones, with outlets like The Boston Globe, FiveThirtyEight and BuzzFeed News doing the same. My hope is that such practices can be extended to the day-to-day data journalism — even if it is not as well-documented as the bigger projects.

Over time, this would hopefully become the norm rather than the exception. However, it requires news organizations to recognize, incentivize, and reward that kind of behavior. Data journalists should also make clear in the body of a story the limitations of their datasets and analyses. It can sometimes feel like such details bog down a story or make it appear less authoritative. However, they’re crucial for ensuring a reader is well-informed, which is ultimately a key purpose of journalism.

What are your expectations for data journalists going forward? How can they use data in an ethical manner?

It is my hope that data journalists will collect more data themselves, or perhaps collaborate in that endeavor. My study found that The New York Times and the Washington Post rarely collect their own data for their day-to-day data journalism, and consequently rely on third-party data that generally comes from government sources but also from different nonprofits and interest groups. That’s not surprising because it’s expensive and time-consuming to collect primary data though there are several examples of news organization doing that for bigger projects.

Nevertheless, there are a large gaps in data collection at the moment, and partnerships between news organizations and academic institutions or civic groups may yield important and timely stories that shed light on important truths within and across communities.

I also think data journalists need to become even more careful with data subsidies going forward. I expect data journalists will be increasingly targeted by unethical individuals and organizations that publish data as a strategic communication tool because they understand that citizens tend to find numbers more authoritative than personal stories. Combating that would require data journalists to become even more adept at evaluating data quality and methodologies. We have many accomplished experts who specialize in data literacy, and it’s important that we get their insights into as many newsrooms as possible.

Finally, I expect data journalism to become even more interdisciplinary in the coming years, with the likes of graphic designers and programmers being more tightly integrated with the editorial side in order to not only “support” data journalism but actively co-produce it. Some news organizations have moved more quickly than others in this direction, and I believe it is an important move to advance the most ethical version of data journalism.

What will you be studying next and what ethical issues might you encounter with it?

I view this study as an opening act because it leaves important questions unanswered. For example, the study’s design limits its ability to answer the “why” questions, such as why specific affordances, like information boxes provided at the end of an article to explain methodological choices, are not commonly utilized. Of particular interest to me is the use different collaborative platforms like GitHub to further “open” journalism, and the extent to which the transparency ideal becomes contested in the minds of journalists who use those platforms. As part of a separate line of research, I would also like to explore the third-party algorithms and tools being adopted by journalists, and how the designers of those tools — many of whom have limited, if any, journalistic background — attempt to engineer greater acceptance of their tools among journalists. I expect that line of research to directly engage with ethical tensions that emerge from the clash of different professional logics, as well as tensions that arise in the merging of commercial and public-service interests.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink: a guide to confidential sources

“Miniature Appliance Detail” by Joe Wolf is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Two trains of thought prevail when it comes to using confidential sources. Some see them as a necessary journalistic tool — to be used sparingly — when a story wouldn’t materialize without them. Others argue that their use and overuse only erodes public trust in journalism.

Often called anonymous sources, confidential — or unnamed — sources are not anonymous to the reporter. The reporter knows the identity of the source, but withholds it from the news consumer. (Truly anonymous sourcing, such as the New York Times’ receipt of an unmarked package containing portions of Donald Trump’s tax returns, is rare).

To help navigate the ethics of this practice, we’ve collected tips and guidelines journalists should consider when using confidential sources, as well as a few resources that caution against them.

Guides to (ethically) using confidential sources

  • According to the Society of Professional Journalists, “Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens.” That said, SPJ also warns, such unnamed sources can also lead journalists down “the road to the ethical swamp.” To stay on the right side of ethics, follow SPJ’s two points.
  • Poynter offers an entire section on using confidential sources, which includes tips for keeping sources on the record, developing editorial standards for when to use unnamed sources and reasons they’re important.

How key national news organizations approach confidential sources

  • The Associated Press sets strict rules for when its reporters can use unnamed sources, including instances where “the material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report” and “is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.”
  • NPR also offers Do’s and Don’ts on using sources who won’t be named.
  • The New York Times has written a fair amount about using confidential sources. Here’s a piece from 10 years ago addressing the issue and another from this year about the newspaper’s updated policy about when sources can go unnamed.
  • Further, this piece from the Washington Post aims to demystify the how and why of confidential sourcing.

Words of caution

  • Poynter offers this incredibly pointed lecture about when unnamed sourcing is a tactic used by “lazy reporters” who are driven only by the need to break news before their competition.
  • And again, The New York Times tackles the topic, suggesting that overuse of unknown sources may cost media outlets some readers.
  • Lastly, CNN ran this conversation between one of its editors and a skeptical journalism professor who says that “news accounts that rely on confidential sources do not contain within themselves the information required for us to trust them.”

How to consume news containing confidential sources

  • Journalists should also keep the perspective of readers, viewers and listeners in mind when using unnamed sources. For that, consider FiveThirtyEight’s advice to news consumers on when to trust sources that are not identified by name.

The ethics and future of freedom of information: a Q&A with Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders

Disclosure: Steven Potter conducted this interview for the Center for Journalism Ethics and later was invited to join the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council board.


Access to government records, data and meetings is critical to good watchdog journalism.

But that access isn’t always guaranteed.

At times, reporters — as well as everyday citizens — must fight to keep access to such information and meetings as open as possible.

For 40 years, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council has been doing just that, seeking to “safeguard access to information that citizens must have to act responsibly in a free and democratic society.”

WisFOIC president and longtime journalist Bill Lueders discussed the importance of open government and ethical concerns involving information access with Center for Journalism Ethics senior fellow Steven Potter.


The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is celebrating 40 years — what was the impetus behind its creation in 1978?

The idea was that the press needed a group to protect First Amendment and media access rights. Over time, the mission of the group has shifted a bit toward dealing with access issues and for a larger constituency than just media.


How do journalism ethics factor into open access to government information and meetings?

It is our ethical obligation as journalists to get to the truth. Documents and meeting access are key avenues toward that end. [Information] helps us verify what we report and it helps us source it appropriately.

Also, it’s important to note that the [Society of Professional Journalists] code of ethics specifically states that journalists have an obligation to advocate for access to public information.


Are there other ethical dilemmas journalists face when obtaining records and access?

Yes. There is a separate ethical obligation on the part of the media to make responsible judgments about what they report, which is independent from the issue of what they are allowed to see.

Most reporters have come across information that we decided was not something we felt comfortable using for a story. Even though it may have been scintillating, [the information] wasn’t illuminating or it may be a bit invasive or unfair.

Years ago, I came across a police report about a domestic situation involving a local person. It was just sad and heartbreaking and lurid. I didn’t see that the news value justified the amount of embarrassment it would cause to this individual and his family. Sure, I was able to get the police report with no redactions and I had no doubt about the accuracy [but] it just didn’t seem to be the right thing to run a story about what happened in their house that night. It was a part of that family’s private life.

You don’t use information that can cause unnecessary hurt.


How have advancements in technology changed the work WisFOIC does?

Advancements in technology have changed everything; the open meetings and open records laws were both passed in the 1980s, well before the advent of PCs and the Internet, and records production and management is now largely electronic. But while the laws could use a few updates, they have held up remarkably well. That’s because they essentially affirm an ideal — that citizens in a democracy are entitled to a maximum amount of public information.


Many records are public, but not all are. What should a journalist do if a government agency mistakenly releases information it shouldn’t?

It can and does happen that authorities mistakenly release information. One example were botched efforts at redaction in the Wisconsin John Doe probe. The information was reported, as I believe it should be. Another example was a recent Wisconsin State Journal story that named a security guard involved in a fatal shooting; his name was not successfully redacted, and the paper was able to confirm his identity through other means. And I recently heard of a case in which authorities botched what I believe to be an improper attempt to black out a serious allegation of employee misconduct from a report. I hope the reporter uses it, as this should not have been blacked out. But I do believe most media would not publish information that they believed would put people at unnecessary risk.


Government officials must also follow ethical guidelines in responding to public records requests and open meetings laws. What should we expect from them in response to our requests and following open meetings laws?

I expect all government officials to respect the right of the public to obtain information about what they do, and to be as transparent as possible. I believe it is in their own best interest to do so, as public officials usually behave in responsible ways.


What should journalists — and citizens — do if government officials are denying the release of public records or aren’t following open meetings laws?

If they fail to provide information, my advice is always to fight. Ask for reconsideration, seek outside support, publish any refusal to release info, sue if necessary.


What future challenges, difficulties or hurdles do you see for journalists and citizens in regards to public records and open meetings laws?

In the future I expect to see more of what we have seen in the past: continual, small efforts to chip away at records access. In recent years, we have seen the state restrict records access to inmates, remove data from websites, eliminate the requirement that donors to campaigns identify where they work, and exempt most UW officials from financial disclosure rules. In the future, we could see new efforts to restrict access to records about university research, further efforts to curtail access to online court records, and a new push to let lawmakers shield records regarding the creation of law and policy, as well as to shield the names of people, lobbyists included, who contact them.


The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism, and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Audio: Amber Hunt and the ethics of the Aftermath podcast

Amber Hunt, Cincinnati Enquirer

Over two decades of reporting, Amber Hunt has covered a lot of crime.

In that time, she’s reported on a number of shootings, the conflicts that proceeded them and the prosecutions that came after. But rarely has she been able to follow up and see how life has progressed for the victims of gun violence she’d written about. That led her to wonder, ‘what’s life like for gunshot survivors?’ and ‘how have they coped with the trauma of being shot?’

To answer those questions, she teamed up with the non-profit news organization The Trace to create ‘Aftermath: A Podcast About Gun Violence Survivors,’ which began in May and ran for eight episodes.

For journalists covering gun violence, there are a number of ethical landmines to consider. Hunt, a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer, discussed how she navigated these ethical issues with Center for Journalism Ethics senior fellow Steven Potter.

Listen to the audio story here.

Needed: Empathy and an open mind; Religion reporters face unique challenges

Manya Brachear Pashman (left) of the Chicago Tribune, and (right) Bob Smietana of Facts & Trends.

Religion is a topic of conversation many choose to avoid, especially when talking with people they don’t know.

Religion reporters, however, must do just the opposite.

As they dive into different cultures and broach highly sensitive subjects with complete strangers, they face a number of unique ethical challenges.

The primary goal of religion reporting, says Manya Brachear Pashman, who’s been the Chicago Tribune’s religion reporter for 15 years, “is to teach people about religions they may not be exposed to.”

To do that within an ethical framework, journalists must keep a few things in mind.

“The big one, of course, is being able to put your own religious beliefs aside in order to cover other religions, to keep an open mind and not let your own beliefs get in the way or influence what you’re writing about,” Brachear Pashman says. “We’re professionals for a reason, [so] we set aside our own personal beliefs to cover things objectively.”

Being a religious person may confer some advantages in religion reporting, whether journalists are covering their own religion or someone else’s. “Religious people do things that are hard to explain sometimes, but if you’re religious yourself, you just have a little bit more of a grasp of why,” she adds.

Another challenge is that the subjectivity of religion may require a reporter to talk to more sources than usual to understand a particular tradition or event.

“If you want to know what a particular ritual means, you better ask more than one person … it can be a very personal, very personal thing, so you want to be sure to talk to multiple clergy, multiple teachers, multiple practitioners and believers of the faith,” says Brachear Pashman, who is also the current president of the Religion News Association. “Understand going in that religion is not homogenous. No religious tradition is homogeneous homogeneous — there’s a spectrum of belief in every tradition.”

And, she adds, reporters must be there for major events. “Being present for those ritual moments is very important. I always advise writers to include a ritual moment or a teaching moment in every story because that brands the story. It tells the reader, ‘This is a religion story; this is what’s going on here for these people.’ That’s an important signal to send to readers,” she says.

Emphasizing that it’s difficult to report religion stories by telephone, Brachear Pashman says,  “We’re not talking about casting a vote at the ballot box or going to a town hall meeting. We’re talking about a transcendent moment for these people. That scene is packed with meaning.”

Access to information is also a unique challenge, says Bob Smietana, who has covered religion for secular and religious media outlets since 1999 and is currently a senior writer with Facts & Trends, a quarterly Christian magazine.

“If I’m covering city council or a school system, everything is public record. But religious groups in general, don’t have to make anything public,” he explains. “So you have to have a respectful relationship with them and that they trust you, because everything you get is voluntary.”

Smietana, who is a former Religion News Association president, also warns about taking things like scripture verses literally. Instead, he says, ask sources to explain them in common, contemporary language. “When they’re talking to an insider audience [of believers], they all know what they mean,  so ask them what they mean. Otherwise, you can misinterpret things,” he says. “You want to get people to explain their beliefs — and even their titles, whether it’s minister or pastor or elder or preacher — in their own words.”

Reporters must also keep things relative. As one example, Smietana points to the time he covered a group of cat worshippers. “Worshipping cats may sound weird at first but then, just think about some of the stories in the Bible — God talking to a burning bush, walking on water, etc. — those things sound weird too, if you’re an outsider,” he says.

A great place to start, Smietana advises, is with consideration, empathy and a simple question: “How did these people begin believing these things and what do they mean by them?”

One final challenge to keep in mind is news judgment.

“How you decide what is and isn’t a story is also an ethical consideration,” he says. “What’s the difference between just what’s an internal dispute in a house of worship and a news story?”

Smietana says that, with these things in mind, religion reporters can fulfill the most important ethical principle, “to report as concisely and accurately and fairly as possible.”