The topic of reli­gion is cen­tral to many news sto­ries today, and the sub­ject is always a del­i­cate one. Whether exploring the con­tro­versy sur­rounding the mosque some want to build near Ground Zero or the mis­un­der­stand­ings around Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s reli­gious affil­i­a­tion, how, exactly, should the media tackle the sub­ject of religion?

In this Q&A, Pro­fessor Stephen Bur­gard, director of the School of Jour­nalism at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, and editor of the new book “Faith, Pol­i­tics and Press in Our Per­ilous Times” (Kendall/​Hunt, 2010), offers his thoughts on this com­plex issue.

How should jour­nal­ists approach reporting on religion?

My book has some good advice for today’s jour­nal­ists and those who will prac­tice jour­nalism in the future. Even with the elim­i­na­tion of spe­cial­ized reli­gion beats at many news orga­ni­za­tions, good reli­gion sto­ries are every­where, awaiting the atten­tion of alert journalists.

Debra Mason, the head of the Reli­gion Newswriters Asso­ci­a­tion, in her chapter coun­sels reporters to prac­tice a mea­sure of humility and prac­ti­cality. She writes, “People who report on reli­gion can be sure of two things. Sources will ask about your own beliefs, and you will have to report about people whose beliefs you dis­agree with.” The key lies not in trying to prove or dis­prove the validity of a par­tic­ular faith, she says, but in approaching the validity of someone’s faith in a respectful way.

After working with this won­derful group of experts [who con­tributed to the book], I’ve con­cluded that the task for jour­nal­ists today is deeper than simply cov­ering reli­gion. Today, it is much more about under­standing religion’s place in reg­ular news reporting.

At the moment, at least four news sto­ries con­firm this view: The con­tro­versy over the Muslim center pro­posed for lower Man­hattan. The poll that asked Amer­i­cans whether they believe Pres­i­dent Obama is a Muslim. The with­drawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, a sub­ject whose reli­gious com­plex­i­ties are cov­ered in depth by Jack Miles in the book. And the ini­tia­tive by the Obama admin­is­tra­tion to find a solu­tion to the Mideast crisis and the ques­tion of a Pales­tinian state, an intri­cate topic touched on in the book by Rami Khouri.

In the preface, I write: “For jour­nal­ists, reli­gion is a force to be reck­oned with unavoid­ably, even as it intrigues, informs, con­founds, and hum­bles. It poses a chal­lenge at the very core of their pur­pose, to under­stand and explain our world.”

What is your take on the cov­erage sur­rounding the mosque pro­posed for a site two blocks from Ground Zero?

The cov­erage has been gen­er­ally good if some­what cur­sory. One excep­tion has been the polit­i­cally moti­vated bel­lowing that Fox News has allowed Newt Gin­grich and other par­ti­sans to indulge in without much con­text or explanation.

This is a very rare instance in the Amer­ican expe­ri­ence in which the cor­rect thing to do is not nec­es­sarily the wise thing to do. It’s very hard for the press to come to this story cold and get all the nuances right. There are dif­fer­ences of opinion among news con­sumers and opinion leaders, mostly on how best to advance freedom of reli­gion in a society that encom­passes com­peting values and inter­ests. These dif­fer­ences occur even among people who under­stand the U.S. Islamic com­mu­nity and wish it well. It’s sim­ilar to argu­ments about con­sti­tu­tional law, in which people of good will dis­agree on whether an impor­tant prin­ciple should be pressed for­ward with a test case that may not be the best one.

I believe the pro­po­nents of the Islamic center could score impor­tant points in their journey toward accep­tance and assim­i­la­tion if they could find a way to move the center to a place not so close to Ground Zero. I say this even as I’m attracted to the notion that the United States could show the world the power of its ideals by advancing them even in the face of an unspeak­able atrocity. The United States, for better or worse, knew little about the Islamic world before Sept. 11, and is still on a very con­sid­er­able learning curve.

And the Islamic com­mu­nity at large did not respond to Sept. 11 with a clear and unequiv­ocal voice, and this has pro­longed the process of under­standing. In a recent inter­view with NPR, Akbar Ahmed, a pro­fessor of Islamic studies at Amer­ican Uni­ver­sity and the author of “Journey into America: The Chal­lenge of Islam,” talked about the expe­ri­ences of U.S. Mus­lims and con­cluded, “The Muslim com­mu­nity and lead­er­ship really need to do a much better job of bridging this gap of misunderstanding.”

A recent poll found that almost one in five Amer­i­cans believes that Pres­i­dent Obama is a Muslim. What role, if any, has the media played in this perception?

I don’t believe the press is respon­sible for the con­fu­sion out there. The con­ser­v­a­tive talk-​​show host Dennis Prager took on this topic recently and appeared to con­clude that the problem lies with Obama him­self, for not clar­i­fying more directly that he is a Christian.

But even if Prager’s point is cor­rect, we need to remember that we don’t elect a pres­i­dent to be a reli­gious leader and, indeed, many Amer­i­cans expect him not to ven­ture too far into that arena. Ben Hub­bard has a won­derful dis­cus­sion of the 2008 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in his chapter, and I rec­om­mend it to anyone wanting to know more about Obama and religion.

One thing is cer­tain: Obama broke sig­nif­i­cant ground with his Cairo address to the Islamic world in 2009. Jack Miles in his chapter offers some great points on what a U.S. pres­i­dent can and should say to the Islamic world. For instance: “Ours is a country in which a Muslim could someday be elected pres­i­dent; the same is true of a Jew, a Hindu or a Buddhist.”

What is the greatest chal­lenge in writing about reli­gion?

Miles, a former col­league of mine on the L.A. Times edi­to­rial board, knows about the chal­lenge of writing on reli­gion. He won a Pulitzer Prize for going through the Bible and writing a biog­raphy of the God described in its pages.

In his chapter on Iraq in our book, he has the best obser­va­tion in answer to the “greatest chal­lenge” ques­tion. He writes, “The news media may prop­erly take pride in the extent to which they are reviled for never get­ting any­thing right. Their myriad critics betray the high hopes they still enter­tain for jour­nalism and their depen­dence upon it. Its only duty is to the truth, the truth pure and simple.

But as Oscar Wilde wryly put it, the truth is rarely pure and never simple.”