For Journalists

This page is meant to serve as a resource for journalists looking to improve their reporting on religious issues. It offers terms and definitions to be aware of and outside resources to reference. Most importantly, journalists should be cognizant of the complexity of religion and religious practitioners. No group can be explained in a matter of sentences, and no representative can speak for all the followers of a certain religion. While journalists must condense content to disseminate it quickly and thoroughly, they should always be cognizant of reductionist language and statements. Whether covering large or small religious groups, journalists should carefully consider how the perspectives of their informants shape the information they receive.

This is where speaking with religious studies scholars can prove extremely useful. Experts may be able to provide needed background knowledge, or even simply proof-read articles for mis-reporting. Please visit our “Contacts” page and reach out to Susan B. Ridgely with further questions about contacting religious studies scholars. The UW-Madison Experts Database is also a great resource that provides contact information for many well-informed scholars.

Terms and Definitions

Much time and effort has gone into creating resources for journalists. In particular, the terms and definitions journalists use are important. During the process of writing a story, consider what language you are using to refer to groups, religious practitioners, and their actions, and what that language may imply. Use the following religious dictionaries to find reliable definitions for terms, and always cross-reference multiple sources to ensure accuracy.

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ARDA Religion Dictionary

For all its usage in day-to-day life, “religion” is quite hard to define. Since the genesis of the field, religious studies scholars have proposed varying definitions. These definitions often fail to incorporate the multiplicity of religions in the world, and often are based in “Western” conceptions of religion. The term itself sprung from a colonial context, during a period when increasing intercontinental movement led scholars to search for cultural similarities. Additionally, the term religion is also often used as a catch-all for that which is considered outside of the so-called secular. A shift in religious studies argues that the religious and the secular cannot be defined or separated.

Religious Studies:
Religious studies is a field that focuses on researching religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. It is not the personal study of religion, nor is it a space to criticize or ridicule religions. Religious studies scholars must approach all religions and belief systems with respect and open-mindedness. Scholars generally conduct research in an effort to understand the role of religions in society. Furthermore, Religious studies attempts to further religious literacy by fostering knowledge about the way religions are practiced and the history surrounding those lived practices.


This is a word journalists should be extremely cautious when using. The term is controversial, as it often has a negative connotation. It is used to reference social groups with particular religious practices or beliefs, but is often associated with deviance, counter-culture, and novelty. When journalists refer to groups as “cults,” they may impose a bias towards those religious minority groups, as the word is so sensationalized. Read more about this on our “Workshops” page under the title “Catherine Wessinger: The Cult Narrative and the Branch Davidians.”

Sects are generally defined as subgroups of larger religious groups. Much of the theology of sects can thus be traced back to the communities from which they spring. This term has some bias embedded, as it has been used to denounce offshoots as extreme or heretical.