Putting Religion Stories in a Broader Context

D.C. Chapter meets with Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service

Kevin Eckstrom meets with D.C. Chapter membersFrom the 1940s until the 1990s, about 2 percent of all news coverage was coverage of religious news. In January, the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Religion Communicators Council got to hear from someone leading an organization continually working to increase quality religious coverage in the secular media.

Kevin Eckstrom, editor-in-chief of Religion News Service (RNS) since 2006, visited the chapter on Jan. 29. He gave members an overview of the work of RNS and offered tips for anyone working to garner media coverage for a religious organization.

Religion News Service traces its beginnings to 1934, when the National Conference of Christians and Jews wanted to provide balanced and non-sectarian news about religion to both the secular and religious press. Primarily supported by endowments and churches, Religion News Service continues to provide news on religion to some 200 media outlets today, ranging from religious publications to secular outlets large and small, including The Washington Post, USA Today and National Public Radio.

Eckstrom gave members an overview of how religion is covered in the media by RNS and others. RNS provides stories not for a niche market of ideologues, but for daily newspaper readers. Eckstrom said his organization often creates "explainer" pieces that give a reader the background information one would need to understand a religious issue making news. He also said that, in every religious story, one of the challenges is determining which terminology needs to be explained and which does not. "You can't reference the Immaculate Conception without explaining it," he said, "but maybe you can talk about the trinity and assume people know what that is."

While it might be easier to focus on ideological topics that appeal to those with a predetermined opinion and background knowledge of a certain religion, that is not the goal of RNS. "I believe there is a silent majority out there who wants somebody who can make sense of things," Eckstrom said, explaining how RNS works to shift through some of the "noise" to provide stories that let people make up their own minds.

Eckstrom also shared advice for all religion communicators who work to garner media coverage. His top tip was to make sure anything sent to the media has necessary contact information to easily and quickly reach the contact person – including an email address and cell phone number. He also said that the best way to sell an editor on a story is to put it in a broader context. "If you have a new initiative, show that it is part of a national discussion or movement," Eckstrom said, stressing that anything they write about needs to be "newsy," not just a feature piece on a new program.

Under Eckstrom's leadership, RNS continues to expand its coverage to include international issues as well as the intersection of religion with politics, gay rights, immigration, the environment and the atheist community. To learn more, visit www.religionnews.com.

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