The WHY of religion newswriting, from the source

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by Meghan Mangrum, graduate student in the University of Florida’s College of Journalism & Communications who is enrolled in #UFreligion’s “Religion and the News” class.

The halls of inner-city Chicago Catholic schools, gay-rights events in Havana, the Mexico-American border and refugee communities in Italy – Megan Sweas’ work has taken her all over the world.

She has met with Cuban gay rights activists who are only partly out of the closet, disadvantaged youth striving for a better life in Chicago’s Cristo Rey Catholic Schools, a Nigerian-American student studying the Quran and her faith, nuns and priests who provide safe houses for refugees caught up in Europe’s refugee crisis in Italy, and so many more.

Sweas is a self-proclaimed “writer, editor and student of life,” based currently in Los Angeles, California, and predominantly covers social and economic justice issues, as well as world religions.

Raised Catholic, her coverage of religion was not happenstance.

“I think I’ve always had an interest in [religion] personally and understanding how the world works,” Sweas said. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Sweas double-majored in journalism and religion, had friends of many different faiths and credits Sept. 11, 2001 as having an impact on her path to cover religion.

“I started class a week after 9/11,” Sweas said. “It was sort of a big conversation back then.”

Yet, it was her own curiosity about faith, purpose and some of the major questions of life, and the multitude of answers, that has inspired Sweas work.

“I was more interested in how the world works…and that often comes from the study of religion,” Sweas said. “I think I is very fascinating to talk to people from different perspectives.”

Her career since those days at Medill has included working as a writer and editor for U.S. Catholic, freelancing for other publications such as GlobalPost, Religion News Service, National Catholic Reporter, Religion Dispatches and the Washington Post, an International Reporting Fellowship in Italy and graduate studies at the University of South California, where she now works as an editor with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. She also wrote, Putting Education to Work, about Cristo Rey Network’s work transforming schools (and students) in Chicago, Illinois.

Throughout all those experiences, she has been able to meet wonderful people working in faith-based organizations working towards social issues, and explore complex issues surrounding conflict, philosophy and people’s motivations, Sweas said.

“The reason I do this is because I like to ask why,” Sweas said, which she believes is fundamental to religion writing.

Religion writing can often encompass complex, controversial topics, which Sweas is not a stranger too. It can also be challenging in today’s news environment.

“You can criticize a lot of how religion is covered today,” Sweas said.

Sweas attributes difficulties with religion newswriting to the quick-paced media landscape, the lack of religion writers and the complexity of such topics. Her advice: never make assumptions, especially about what a label means, ask better questions and connect with all different communities and people.

“You can say [that] you’re Catholic, what does that mean?” Sweas said. “A challenge is communication that people from the same religion are different to your readers…these things are so complex.”

Despite the challenges, Sweas has enjoyed the people she’s met and the stories she has covered so far in her career.

“I’ve met people who are dedicating their lives to other people, which is pretty cool,” Sweas said. And as far as figuring out the answers to “why?” Sweas quoted a former professor, “journalism is the field for life-long learnings…I’m interested in so many different things.”