Investigating Religion: 'A Cultural Minefield' p.73

By: M.L. Stein 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: Are 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.

"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.
"There are certainly cases where you can't do this, but I honestly wish that I had understood Scientology better when I wrote the first story," he related. "By the time I'd spent a year on the subject . . . I was just a lot smarter about every aspect of it."
When investigating religions, expect hostility, Frantz said. "Nobody likes their religious beliefs and practices questioned."
At his first interview with Scientology leaders, Frantz said he faced six lawyers, three top church officials and a stenographer. "They spent the first 45 minutes attacking me," he said. "Needless to say, it got off on the wrong foot."
As nonprofit institutions, religious groups don't have to file public tax forms, but their affiliates do, resulting in voluminous public material.
One pitfall: Stories probing religion may shock readers' sensibilities, and turn them off. To soften the effect, he suggested highlighting activities that are "starkly unreligious ? that demonstrate ways in which this organization is diverging from the accepted norms of behavior for religious organizations and people of piety."

healthy skepticism
Fellow panelist Mike Wilson, of the St. Petersburg Times, said, "It's important to be skeptical but assume nothing." When church officials won't talk, find former church members, who often know a lot.
"Always be prepared to deal with thin-skinned people," he cautioned. n

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