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National Identity and Religion

When covering issues of national identity and religion, as with all issues, apply the basic principles of good reporting: accuracy, fairness, objectivity and balance.

Best Practices and Current Guidance

  • Do not confuse national identity with ethnicity or religion. In many situations, they are distinct from each other. National identity may refer simply to the people inhabiting a particular country. In this case, geographical territory encompasses people of different ethnicities and religions. For example, “Arab” refers to someone who speaks Arabic and is not understood as a nationality or an ethnicity.
  • In an increasingly diverse world, do not assume people’s backgrounds based on appearance or perceived ethnicity, race or religion. Always ask yourself if the identity in question needs to be part of the story and defer to your interviewee on how they want to present themselves.
  • Many people may hold multiple national identities. Defer to the way they describe themselves.
  • While some countries have an “official language” or “official religion” in their constitutions, these issues may be contested and may be seen as oppressive by groups that don’t belong to the official religion or speak the official language.­
  • Geopolitical conflict is common and more than one state may have claims over certain territories. Some countries are facing separatist movements while others are still struggling with decades-old occupations. When talking to people from regions facing geopolitical conflict, make sure to be sensitive to these issues and afford them the appropriate respect and representation as they see fit.
  • Conceptions of national identity are seen differently around the world and even within a single country. A study by the Pew Research Center showed that some countries see language as a more important marker of national belonging while others see birthplace as more significant. These issues will continue to evolve and vary widely across the globe.
  • For some, citizenship status could also be a sensitive issue. Be cautious when referring to someone’s citizenship in the story and require their consent first. Examples of this issue include the situation of “stateless people” in Kuwait and “undocumented immigrants” in the United States.
  • A person’s religion should not be cited unless it is relevant to the story.
  • Be aware that many people fall into more than one category at the same time. Don’t assume they identify as or another.
  • Always consult with your interviewee or subject about how they identify and whether or
    how it may be part of the story.
  • Avoid negative labels and derogatory stereotypes.
  • Always be aware of the news cycle and avoid blanket or stereotypical depictions of individuals, groups or nationalities.
  • Portray people as human beings, not just representatives of religious or ethnic groups.


Words can mean different things and vary within different communities.

Best Practices When Using Religious Terms

  • Avoid charged words and judgmental labels such as extremist, militant, radical or fundamentalist. They could be offensive and are often out of context.
  • Always capitalize Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. but do not use them as a substitute for a precise name of a denomination or subgroup, if applicable. When possible, be specific and let practitioners speak for themselves.
  • Avoid using the terms cult and sect, which have negative connotations. Consider the phrase new religious movement to describe groups outside the mainstream.
  • Denomination may be used for some Christian churches, often Protestant churches.
  • Avoid terms such as devout and pious to describe religious communities and individuals; these terms are subjective and lack precise meaning to all readers. Use practicing or observant. Ask the subject how they describe themselves.
  • Avoid the term fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself. The word has pejorative connotations.
  • Avoid the term Islamist. We do not speak of ‘Christianists’ or ‘Judaists.’ The term Islamist is contentious and is never used to describe ordinary Muslims.
  • Instead of ‘Islamist’ use the specific name of the political group, movement or institution you are referring to and explain who they are and what they represent.
  • Avoid the term Moonies to describe Unification Church members.
  • Avoid the term proselytize, which often has negative connotations. Ask people what they are doing and use their words.
  • Sharia refers to the body of laws based on Islamic jurisprudence. Avoid the phrase Sharia law, which is redundant.
  • Capitalize Sheikh when used before a name, but lowercase otherwise. This term, also a secular title, has different meanings across the Muslim world. In some cultures, it may refer to an older person, while in others, it applies to a religious leader. Avoid the phrase Oil Sheikh, which is an offensive stereotype of the Arab Gulf region.
  • Lowercase skullcap as the preferred generic term for a small religious headpiece known as the Jewish kippa, Catholic zucchetto or Muslim kufi. Avoid yarmulke, which is a Yiddish term used mostly in the United States.
  • Capitalize Vodou as the correct spelling for an Afro-Caribbean religious tradition with roots in Africa and Haiti; do not use the term voodoo.
  • Do not assume that because someone lives in a specific country, region or territory that they practice the dominant religion of that area.

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