Religion writer Bob Smietana talks with our team about the challenges and opportunities of telling stories with data. Here are some highlights from our interview with Bob.
Bob Smietana: I am a long time religion writer. Since 1999, I’ve made my living writing about religion. I was a freelancer for a long time. I spent six years at “The Tennessean.” I’ve written for USA Today, Christianity Today, The Washington Post, all kinds of folks.
You’re always looking for a story in the numbers. You see those numbers and you say, “OK, what does this mean?” What does that tell us about the way that people think about religion? You think, “OK, what do the numbers here tell us?” We had a story recently about domestic violence. You look for contradictions in the data. Churches say, “Boy, we really want to be helpful to domestic violence victims.” Do you have any programs? “No.” Are you prepared? “No.” Do you think it really happened? “Maybe not.”
Cautions when writing about data
“I can get a survey to say, as you know, whatever I want. When you’re reporting on it, what you want to do is say, “What does this data tell me?” I can find it out. If you are a pastor, or a blogger, or an opinion writer, you go, “I have this idea. What data can I find to make me look like I’m smart and right?”
You can misuse the data to make that point. The data doesn’t tell you what it means. It just tells you information. You have to sort out what it means. You always have to be careful. Am I using this data to promote an idea that might not actually be true? I always fact check our pastor’s sermon.
We have an annual meeting of religion writers, called the RNA, Religion News Association. Annual conference, maybe seven years ago, our old friend and former boss did a presentation on how you deal with data. He said the first question you should ask is, when somebody gives you a statistic is, “How do you know that?”
Data and Stories
Numbers can tell you certain things, but they can’t tell you everything. When you’re a reporter, you find these numbers and then you go out and talk to a bunch of people. I’ve got a story that’s posted on our site today that is about people who don’t go to church on Sunday, who sleep in.
(See the full transcript for the episode –with links–on next page)
Bob Smietana is senior writer at Facts and Trends magazine. He previously served as the religion reporter at The Tennessean and is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, and Christianity Today.