Getting Religion  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2004

Getting Religion   

Reporters are tapping an online resource to find expert sources for stories about religion.

By Melissa Cirillo
Melissa Cirillo is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


You're a journalist, not a scholar on Shiite law or an expert on translations of the Torah. However, in this post-9/11 world, accurate and thorough information about religious issues is of amplified importance. But hold off on the crash course on the history of world religions.

Experts from around the world are at your fingertips with ReligionSource, the self-proclaimed "journalist's shortcut to 5,000 scholars." Before the online source began in 2000 no single place existed that grouped religious sources for journalists to contact.

With a $1.2 million grant from Pew Charitable Trusts, ReligionSource is commissioned to "establish a referral service that would link members of the news media with academic experts on religion and public life issues." The service is the brainchild of Steve Herrick, director of external relations for the American Academy of Religion, which has run the service under this name since 2002. "To their credit, Pew has allowed us complete freedom in choosing what scholars to include," Herrick says.

Searches are confidential and can be conducted either via the Internet at www.religionsource.org or by personal contact with administrators. Additional assistance is also available beyond what can be found online.

According to Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, the database is a valuable tool. "For many journalists I've spoken with, it's one of the first places they go to try to find a source," Mason says.

The service strives to ensure its credibility. First, journalists must register for the service to protect the listed sources from targeting by special interest groups. Also, ReligionSource has no agenda to promote aside from helping writers connect with "useful sources," Mason says.

The advisory board of ReligionSource's Web site includes E.J. Dionne Jr., a columnist for the Washington Post, and Margot Adler, a correspondent for National Public Radio, in addition to other journalists and professors in the field of religion.

According to Herrick, it is rare that ReligionSource cannot fill a request, but sometimes a journalist is researching a topic for which there are no experts. "For example...years ago a journalist requested an expert on church recreational baseball," Herrick says. "At least at that time, we were unable to identify one."

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