Journalists’ guide on reporting religion in Africa

In the diverse and deeply religious African continent, faith shapes culture, values and politics. Accurately navigating this complex terrain requires that journalist possess a good understanding of varied beliefs and practices. However, obstacles abound. Many media organisations lack dedicated religion desks, often due to historical sensitivities, concerns about religious law, or a tendency to focus on readily available information like pronouncements and activities. This creates blind spots in news coverage, leaving important issues underrepresented.

Furthermore, relying solely on personal experiences or limited understanding of faiths can lead to inaccurate and biased reporting. This risks perpetuating stereotypes and failing to capture the true complexity and diversity of religious life in Africa. Investing in training, resources, and dedicated religion desks is crucial to equip journalists with the tools and knowledge needed to report with insight and accuracy.

Despite these challenges, opportunities for insightful reporting are plentiful. ACME Mwalimu presents below, just a handful of tips to increase the depth and breadth of your reporting on religion.

Key considerations

Find the ‘right’ path: Effective reporting on religion requires a good understanding of the specific faith being covered. Journalists should immerse themselves in the theological underpinnings, historical context, and cultural nuances of the religious tradition. This involves studying key scriptures, familiarising oneself with religious practices, and understanding the evolution of the faith over time.

Go beyond the pulpit: To gain a holistic understanding of a faith, it’s essential to go beyond pronouncements made at religious events and interact with everyday practitioners. Journalists should attend community gatherings, participate in discussions and observe religious rituals and practices. These interactions provide invaluable insights into the motivations, beliefs, and daily lives of religious individuals and communities.

Navigate the ‘faithscape’: The religious landscape in Africa is complex and dynamic, with influential figures, institutions and organisations shaping its trajectory. Journalists should identify these key players and understand their roles, power dynamics, and internal debates within religious communities. This understanding allows for a more informed portrayal of the religious landscape.

Bridge the pulpit and the pew: Religion is not a monolithic entity; it encompasses a multitude of perspectives and interpretations. Journalists should engage with a variety of voices, including scholars, experts, community members, and individuals from different denominations or traditions. This diversity of perspectives ensures a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand and avoids presenting a single narrative.

Balance praise and scrutiny: Faith-based media outlets and religion journalists often feel the need to defend faith and religion against negative portrayals in mainstream media. This pressure can lead to a tendency to present faith as flawless and infallible, overlooking its complexities and limitations. Journalists should approach reporting with a balanced perspective, acknowledging both the positive and negative aspects of religion.

From headlines to hope: Journalism often falls into the trap of portraying religion solely through the lens of controversy and scandal. This narrow focus not only misrepresents the lives of millions of individuals but also obscures the profound contributions that religious communities make to society. Journalists reporting on religion need to move past scandal to engage with the richness and diversity of religious practice.

Be faithful to the facts: Reporting on religion requires sensitivity, respect and objectivity. Journalists must avoid imposing their personal biases or beliefs onto their coverage. Instead, they should strive for neutrality, allowing readers to form their own conclusions based on the presented information.

Acknowledge the limitations: Faith and religion are not without their flaws and limitations. Religious traditions have evolved over time, grappling with issues such as human error, imperfect leadership, and the complexities of interpreting sacred texts. Journalists should encourage honest discussions about these limitations, acknowledging that faith is a dynamic and evolving force in human society.

Where faith meets society: Religious events and practices are not isolated occurrences; they are deeply embedded in the historical, cultural and social context of societies. Journalists should provide context for these elements, explaining their significance and how they intersect with broader social, cultural, and political spheres.

Beyond the established canon: Recognise the challenges inherent in understanding newly emerging religions, which may lack the established history and societal acceptance of older faiths. Use the term “cult” with discretion, understanding its negative connotations and the potential impact on individuals associated with the labelled group. Evaluate each religious movement on its own merits, considering its teachings, practices, and impact on its adherents.

Find the soul of the story: Religion is a complex and multi-faceted topic, and effective reporting requires engaging storytelling techniques. Journalists should use personal narratives, vivid descriptions, and evocative language to bring religious issues to life and connect with readers on multiple levels. This approach fosters a deeper understanding of complex religious concepts and practices.

Additional considerations:

  • Be mindful of cultural sensitivities and avoid making assumptions about religious practices or beliefs. Respect the diversity of traditions and approaches to faith within societies.
  • Learning the language of the religious community you’re reporting on allows for more effective communication and deeper insights into their beliefs and practices.
  • Recognise the vast array of religious traditions, denominations, and individual interpretations within your context.
  • Approach sensitive topics with sensitivity and avoid sensational headlines or language that could incite or exploit religious tensions.
  • Encourage a more inclusive and diverse representation of religious views within the newsroom. Support journalists with faith backgrounds to cover stories related to their beliefs, while maintaining professional impartiality and transparency.

Story tips and ideas

Religion and society

Religion plays a significant role in shaping individual and collective identities, influencing social norms, and contributing to diverse societal landscapes. Examining the multifaceted relationship between religion and society allows for deeper understanding of social dynamics and cultural transformations.

  • Beyond religion – This story delves into the critique of the term “religion” in African contexts. Report on the interconnectedness of faith, culture, and everyday life. Through interviews with community elders, artists, and spiritual leaders, explore how traditions like marriage customs, political art, and healing practices reflect and embody core spiritual beliefs.
  • The rise of secularisation and non-religious identity – Examine the growing trend of secularisation and non-religious identification in your country, particularly among younger generations. Investigate the factors contributing to this shift, including education, urbanisation, and exposure to diverse perspectives. Assess the implications of secularisation for religious institutions, social norms, and political discourse in your country.
  • Drivers of religious landscape changes – Report on the underlying factors driving the changes in your country’s religious landscape, beyond population growth. Investigate the role of proselytization, de-conversion and changing interpretations of religious beliefs in shaping religious demographics. Cover the impact of social, cultural, and economic transformations on religious affiliation and practice.
  • Cultural fusion – Explore the phenomenon of religious syncretism, the blending of different religious beliefs and practices around the country. Examine how syncretism manifests in rituals, ceremonies and everyday life. For example, report on how traditional healing practices are influencing modern healthcare.
  • The experience of religious minority communities – Feature the experiences of religious minority communities in your country, including their practices, beliefs, and challenges faced. Investigate how minority religious groups navigate religious diversity and societal perceptions. Break down the impact of factors like traditional religion codifications and the lack of representation in school curricula on the lives of minority religious communities.
  • Contemporary expressions of tradition: Immerse your audience in the creative reinterpretations of traditional religious rituals through art. This could involve exploring street art and performance pieces inspired by traditional ceremonies, digital representations of sacred texts, or music and dance that infuse modern elements into centuries-old practices. Highlight how young artists are preserving tradition while pushing boundaries and creating new forms of faith expression.
  • Religion and higher learning – Investigate the growth and impact of faith-based tertiary institutions, examining their unique contributions to education, scholarship, and community development. Explore the historical foundations, educational philosophies, and diverse curricula of these institutions. Explain the impact of faith-based universities on the intellectual landscape.
  • The delivery of primary healthcare by faith-based facilities – Investigate the challenges and opportunities associated with the delivery of primary healthcare by private faith-based facilities. Examine how religious doctrines and practices influence the provision of healthcare services, particularly in areas related to contraception, reproductive health, and LGBTQI+ care. Report on impact of faith-based healthcare providers on rural communities and the overall healthcare landscape in your country.

Religion and policy

The intersection of religion and public policy is a vibrant and often contentious space, where deeply held beliefs collide with the practicalities of governing. News reporting in this arena has a crucial role to play: illuminating the complex interplay between faith and policy, contributing to informed public discourse, and holding decision-makers accountable.

  • The role of religion in elections – Report on the role of religious affiliation and discourse in elections in your country. Investigate how religious beliefs and practices are being used to mobilise voters, shape campaign messaging, and influence political agendas. Cover the potential impact of religion on the outcomes of these elections and the dynamics of governance in the region.
  • The enduring presence of blasphemy laws – Explore the persistence of blasphemy laws in several African countries, examining the impact of these laws on religious freedom and expression. Investigate the rationale behind these laws, the cases that have been brought under them, and the efforts to repeal or reform them.
  • The influence of global religious movements – What is the influence of foreign religious groups on established faith movements in your country? Consider the financial, theological and political dimensions of this relationship. Investigate how external funding and support shape the agendas and practices in your country. Examine the implications of this influence for religious autonomy, social policies and gender equality.
  • Public and political theology – Explore Delve into the evolving interpretations and applications of public theology and political theology in the 21st century, particularly in the African context. Investigate how these theological approaches are being used to address contemporary social, political, and economic issues such as human rights, justice, and reconciliation. Report on the impact of these theological perspectives on public discourse, policymaking, and social activism in Africa.
  • Navigating religious extremism – Investigate the internal struggles within religious communities grappling with extremism. Focus on individuals wrestling with their own or loved ones’ radical perspectives, highlighting the emotional impact and potential conflicts such views generate. This story can offer a human face to a complex issue and emphasise the importance of internal dialogue and community support in countering extremism.
  • Faith-based finance – Investigate the growing market for financial products and services catering to individuals seeking investments aligned with their religious values. This could involve exploring Islamic banking models, faith-based mutual funds focused on socially responsible companies, or microfinance initiatives driven by religious organisations. Highlight the challenges and opportunities presented by these alternative financial systems.

Religious leadership

Stories linking religion, leadership, and management can explore the fascinating intersection of faith, power, and decision-making. These narratives are crucial in explaining how religious ideals shape leadership styles in diverse contexts, how faith communities navigate internal management structures, or how religious institutions grapple with contemporary ethical dilemmas in managing their vast resources.

  • Governance of religious organisations – How are the governance structures and decision-making processes of religious organisations in your country evolving or changing? What role are key religious leaders, councils and congregations playing in shaping organisations’ direction and policies? Investigate cases of internal governance that address issues of conflict or dissent, and accountability.
  • The changing face of religious leadership – Explore the evolving nature of religious leadership in your country, including the emergence of new leadership styles, the role of women in leadership, and the challenges of succession planning. Investigate how religious leaders are adapting their leadership styles to address the changing needs and aspirations of their congregations, such as the rise of youth leadership or the need for more inclusive leadership roles for women.
  • Religion and money – Are there incidents or the risk of financial misconduct and tax evasion within faith-based organisations, including churches and NGOs? Investigate allegations of money laundering, diversion of funds and non-compliance with tax laws. Explore the impact of such financial irregularities on the reputation of faith-based organisations, the well-being of communities they serve, and the public’s trust in religious institutions.
  • Transparency and accountability in religious institutions – Explore the issue of transparency and accountability within religious organisations in your country, investigating practices related to financial management, resource allocation, and decision-making. Investigate how religious organisations are implementing transparency and accountability measures, addressing concerns about misuse of funds or abuse of power.
  • Religious training: Stuck in time or changing with the times? Examine the processes and institutions involved in the formation and training of religious leaders, investigating the emphasis placed on spiritual development, theological education, and leadership skills. Explore how specific religious education institutions are adapting their curricula and methodologies to meet the demands of contemporary society.
  • Clergy shortage in liturgical denominations – Investigate reports of clergy shortage faced by liturgical denominations like the Anglican and Catholic churches in. Explore the reasons for the decline in vocations to the priesthood or ministry, the impact of this shortage on pastoral care and church growth, and the strategies being employed to attract and retain clergy.

Theology and doctrine

Understanding and reporting theology and doctrine is crucial for journalists covering religion because it unlocks the very blueprint of a faith community. It allows people to decipher the underlying motivations, values and interpretations that drive beliefs, practices, and even social responses. 

  • Unravelling the mysteries of doctrinal evolution – Report on dynamic nature of specific religious doctrines within the faith you report on, examining how they have evolved over time in response to changing social, political, and cultural landscapes. Examine how specific doctrines in different religious traditions have adapted to local contexts, reflecting the unique beliefs, practices, and interpretations of various communities. How are contemporary issues being addressed through religious discourse?
  • Doctrinal perspectives on contemporary ethical dilemmas – Investigate how religious doctrines provide frameworks for addressing contemporary ethical dilemmas, examining how different religious traditions approach issues such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, environmental ethics, and social justice. For example, in the face of climate change and environmental degradation, how are religious leaders and organisations advocating for environmental stewardship and sustainable practices based on their doctrines?
  • Modernity meets tradition – These stories investigates the continued presence of African spiritual traditions in the face of modernisation. Examine how communities navigate these beliefs in contemporary contexts, exploring the interplay between science, fait, and social norms. Interview individuals who hold these beliefs alongside modern professionals to offer a considered perspective.
  • African scholars engaging science and religion – Highlight the work of African scholars who are engaging in the intersection of science and religion, addressing topics like gene editing and creationism. Investigate the perspectives and approaches of these scholars, their contributions to public discourse, and the impact of their work on science-religion dialogues in the country.
  • New religious movements – Investigate the emergence and characteristics of new religious movements, often labelled as cults by some. Examine the beliefs, practices, and leadership structures of these movements, as well as the factors that contribute to their growth and appeal. Interrogate the impact of new religious movements on individuals, communities, and religious landscapes in Africa.
  • Doctrine meets everyday life: Investigate how specific theological beliefs or practices manifest in the daily lives of ordinary people within a faith community. Report on how people translate their theological convictions into tangible actions or initiatives that address local needs or contribute to social good. Feature communities that are creatively expressing their theological beliefs through art, music, literature or other mediums.

Religious holidays

Journalists should seek to report on issues beyond the festivities involved in religious holidays. Doing so can foster a deeper understanding of cultural and spiritual dimensions of faith, offering insights into the beliefs and traditions that shape religious communities.

  • Examining sermon messages – Explain the subtleties and impact of messages delivered during religious holidays. What major themes emerge and how do they reflect the broader societal concerns? Explore how these sermons resonate within the congregation and broader communities, shaping beliefs and actions beyond the pulpit.
  • Unpack religious symbolism – Report on the significance of rituals and symbols observed during religious holidays. Collaborate with religious scholars and practitioners to decode the deeper meanings behind these rituals, artifacts, and symbols. Illustrate how these symbols tie into the faith’s teachings.
  • Evolution of celebration – Produce feature stories on how the nature of holiday celebrations has evolved over time. Explore the historical and cultural transformations in the way religious holidays are observed, focusing on changes in traditions, customs and societal attitudes towards these festivities.
  • The socio-economic impact – Investigate the economic repercussions of major religious holidays on local communities. Explore how these festivities influence regional economies, from tourism influx to the market for religious artifacts and traditional goods. Investigate the economic disparities in spending during religious holidays and their long-term effects on various socio-economic strata within the community.
  • Traditions in transition – How are modernisation and globalisation reshaping traditional religious holiday celebrations. Explore how younger generations interpret and celebrate these holidays differently compared to their predecessors.
  • Hidden rituals and sacred spaces – Investigate lesser-known rituals and sacred sites associated with religious holidays. Uncover stories behind rituals that are usually kept private or restricted to specific groups within the community. Explore the historical and cultural significance of these hidden practices and their preservation in the modern era.
  • Human stories behind holidays – Showcase personal narratives of families sharing experiences of celebrating holidays together, exploring how traditions are passed down, traditions change over time, and how these rituals strengthen family bonds and cultural identity. Feature individuals whose lives have been transformed by religious holidays. Share stories of personal journeys, transformations, or moments of epiphany experienced during these festive periods, capturing the essence of spirituality and human connection during these celebrations.

Pastoral care

Pastoral care, the often unseen support offered by religious communities, deserves journalistic attention. Many people, even within religious communities, don’t fully understand the intricate workings of pastoral care. Journalists can act as bridges, shedding light on its diverse practices, from counselling sessions and hospital visits to grief support groups and community outreach programs

  • The changing face of pastoral care – How are religious leaders are utilising online platforms, virtual counselling, and even AI-powered tools to reach their flock and provide support in the digital age? Report on how pastoral care is extending beyond traditional religious settings to reach marginalised communities. Investigate how different religious communities are collaborating to provide pastoral care to those in need, regardless of their faith background.
  • Pastoral care in action – Go behind the scenes to uncover he unique practices of pastoral care within a particular religion. This could involve shadowing a priest as they visit congregants in their homes, attending a Buddhist compassion meditation session, or observing a Muslim imam offering guidance during Ramadan. Explore how a particular crisis or challenge, such as a natural disaster, a pandemic or a social justice movement, has shaped the way religious communities provide pastoral care.
  • Challenges and controversies – Investigate the ethical challenges faced by religious leaders in providing pastoral care, such as confidentiality issues, handling sensitive personal matters, and balancing religious beliefs with individual needs. Explore the changing landscape of pastoral care, particularly in traditionally male-dominated religions, as more women are entering leadership positions and offering unique perspectives on spiritual guidance.

Religion and technology

The intersection of religion and technology is a vibrant and dynamic space begging for insightful reporting. Here, journalists can explore how faith communities harness digital tools for outreach, engagement, and even theological discourse.

  • The rise of virtual religious communities – Report on the booming virtual congregations, analysing how online spaces redefine faith practice and connection. Investigate how these communities bridge distance, offer spiritual resources and build belonging for dispersed believers.
  • Preaching beyond the pulpit – How is social media reshaping religious leadership in your country? Investigate the rise of digital megaphones as religious leaders use Facebook, X, WhatsApp and Instagram to amplify their voices, expand their reach, and rally their flocks. Explore how platforms influence religious conversations, shape public images of leaders and redefine religious authority in our hyper-connected world.
  • The rise of the religious influencer culture – Interview religious influencers across various faiths and platforms to understand their motivations, challenges and approaches to engaging their audiences. Review the content these influencers create. What themes resonate? Consider the potential downsides, reporting on disinformation, echo chambers, and any other concerns in the context of religious influencers.
  • Tithing in the digital age – Investigate how religious communities are adapting traditional practices like tithing to the digital age. This could involve investigating online giving platforms, mobile payment options for offerings, and innovative fundraising campaigns harnessing social media. Explore the ethical considerations and potential benefits of these technological advancements for supporting religious institutions.

Even more resources

In addition to the resources above, several websites offer valuable guidance for journalists reporting on religion. Here’s a list of some helpful online tools:

ReligionLink reporting guides – ReligionLink has a long list of resources, guides and tips for journalists on how to report on religion. The page includes a list of frequently asked questions about religion reporting, a guide on how to report on religion, and a list of religious festivals and holidays.

Reporting on religion: A primer on journalism’s best beat – This manual published by the Media Diversity Institute is designed to help media professionals report on religion in a more accurate and discerning manner.

Religion Stylebook – This is an authoritative guide for journalists who report on religion in the mainstream media. The website provides a comprehensive list of terms and definitions related to religion, including religious references, religious titles and religious symbols. The website also offers guidance on how to report on religion in a fair and accurate manner.

Tips for pitching and covering stories about religion – Published on the website of the International Journalists’ Network, this article provides advice for reporters assigned to cover a religion story or for reporters who want to deepen their coverage of the topic.

The do’s and don’ts or religion reporting – This article provides advice for reporters covering religion stories, including tips on how to approach religious topics, the importance of religious literacy, and the need to place the story on a mental map for readers.

3 tips for covering faith when you usually don’t – This article provides advice for journalists who are not familiar with covering religion stories. The tips include being aware of the importance of religion in people’s lives, avoiding stereotypes, and engaging with people to understand their perspectives.

Reporting on Religion: Everything You Need to Write Proper Religion Articles – Written by the Religion News Association and published on their website, this article provides a comprehensive guide for journalists who report on religion.

Tips for writing compelling religion stories – Published by the International Association of Religion Journalists, this article includes tips on how to unpacking religious topics in the news in engaging and interesting ways.

ACME Mwalimu

The African Centre for Media Excellence's training unit, known as ACME Mwalimu, scours news platforms and online resources to curate the best training tips and resources for journalists and media organisations, empowering them to become impactful contributors to public debate and development. If you have a training tip or question, you can reach out to ACME Mwalimu at training[at]acme-ug.org.

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