When Religion Makes the News

wrmn-ekene-and-nage-2wrmn_aaqil-ahmedwrmn-rogerwrmn-handswrmn-laptopwrmn-kesavaniwrmn-patricia-williamswrmn-sitting   Images copyright of: Natasha Hirst @HirstPhotos

Whether it’s understanding the difference between Sunni and Shia, the background to claims of anti-Semitism in UK politics, or the popularity of “hate” preachers in the US and how they contributed to the rise of Donald Trump, religion plays a key role in many of the biggest news stories of our times.  And so it goes without saying that modern journalists need to be religiously literate and aware.  

On November 8th, Sandford St Martin trustee Roger Bolton chaired an NUJ Training/ITV Wales workshop for journalists: ‘When Religion Makes the News‘.   This was a workshop and networking event for journalists and media representatives from various faith groups and the aim was to promote religious literacy by offering participants expertise, resources and the opportunity both to examine their own personal standpoints while honing their professional skills.   

Among those attending the event were three very up-and-coming journalists who worked behind the scenes to support the 2016 Sandford Awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace.  We asked them to both report on what happened and to share their thoughts on the conference’s theme.  This is what they said:

Nana-Adwoa Mbeutcha:  Producer and Presenter for Premier Christian Communications 

“Religion is the single most important factor in our identity.” These were the bold words of Dr Jenny Taylor, CEO of Lapido Media, Centre for Religious Literacy in Journalism. Whether you believe that to be true or not, you can’t argue with the fact that religion ultimately determines why people think and behave the way they do, even subconsciously. Broadcaster Roger Bolton, who chaired the event, made the clear statement that you can’t understand the UK without knowledge of Christianity in this country.

Prior to attending ‘When Religion Makes the News’, organised by NUJ Training Wales, I knew that it made sense to know a bit about the religion you were broadcasting about, but as the day went on, I quickly realised how ignorant and naive I was to not realise that to report accurately, “we need a much more sophisticated understanding of faith” (Roger Bolton).

As the day progressed, both journalists and faith representatives heard from Media Representatives from three Abrahamic faiths and we were educated about Muslim life and communities in the UK by Innes Bowen, author of ‘Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam’, and Hussein Kesvani, Head of Communications at Theos Think Tank. Who knew there were so many different branches of Islam present in the UK…? Such a simple, yet important, piece of unknown knowledge to many.

What was very enlightening was the “opportunity for self-scrutiny” that was given to the Journalists and Media Academics in an afternoon workshop. Regardless of religious beliefs, we all have a somewhat innate bias and a belief that can shape the way we report or perhaps what we even choose to report. “The Catholic Church is always so out of touch with reality…It’s not rocket science that condoms will stop the spread of AIDS in Africa” some may say. But research the communities a little deeper and remove your bias against the “out-of-date Catholic Church”, and you’ll realise that due to cultural practices and many other factors, not just the absence of condoms, AIDS is being spread. Not only do journalists show a lack of research when they fail to report accurately, we do injustice to those we are reporting to.

To round off the day, we heard from Aaqil Ahmed, Head of BBC Religion and Ethics, and Dr Michael Munnick, Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. Dr Munnick covered areas such as Political Correctness, Religion in a Secular Society and Understanding what Motivates Religious People.

The event was such an eye opening experience about something that should be such a given. If you’re going to report accurately about a football team, its players and the way they are playing, you need to have real background knowledge about the history of the team and their players, to do a good and honest job. So why don’t we do the same when it comes to reporting about people and society? After all, you cannot separate belief from society.

Ekene Oboko, Researcher / Assistant Producer, CTVC 

Along with politics and money, religion has been deemed an unseemly conversation topic at the dinner table.  Within journalism, however, money and politics seem to be welcomed enthusiastically at different sort of tables.  These tables are the newsroom desks staffed with dedicated political and economic news editors.  Despite the inestimable value billions around the world place on their beliefs, and the role religion plays in shaping domestic and foreign affairs – constructive or otherwise – religion is treated, at times, like a distraction from the ‘real’ stories and is therefore downplayed or side-lined – denied a seat at the news desk.  This is not to say that news or current affairs does not – to cite a former political press officer – “do God”.  They do.  The BBC’s commitment to religious programming testifies to that.  But religion specialists argue that all journalists, where necessary, should have a deeper understanding of the role religion plays in global and domestic affairs, and also in individuals’ personal lives.

On Tuesday 8th November 2016, the National Union of Journalists in Wales and ITV Wales took on the challenge to promote religious understanding among journalists.  The media organisations hosted “When Religion Makes the News” – a one day event held in Cardiff bringing together journalists, representatives from faith communities and broadcast researchers, like my myself, to promote religious literacy.

Roger Bolton chaired the event and in his opening commented that religion was often viewed as an “embarrassment” in society.  He suggested that maybe this modern-day puzzlement over religion and those who hold religious beliefs had filtered into news reports, with some mainstream media stories bordering on ignorance when tackling religious issues.  Following Roger’s thought-provoking remarks were a series of sessions jam-packed with engaging and informative advice, including a Q & A with the former BBC Head of Religion and Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed. The day also featured valuable networking breaks.

Highlights of the day included a session delivered by Dr Jenny Taylor, previously CEO of religious literacy organisation Lapido Media. She stressed that when journalists engage with stories of a religious nature, they need to be on guard to avoid feeding into the “dominant discourse” and perpetuating religious stereotypes.  It’s imperative, she said, for news stories to reflect religion with all its “complexities”.

Press officers from Christian and Jewish faith groups revealed the challenges they have faced when attempting to engage journalists in stories related to their respective communities with reporters appearing to show interest only when the story might impact negatively on the faiths’ adherents.  However, Maggie Doherty spoke on the positive media coverage she’d received for The Catholic church in England and Wales’ “The Art of Dying Well” campaign, a digital revamp of the fifteenth century manuscript, Ars Moriendi.

Attendees were treated to a fascinating talk by Innes Bowen, Current Affairs Editor for BBC Radio 4 and the World Service, on the Muslim communities residing in Wales.  Former Buzzfeed journalist Hussein Kesvani, now communications consultant at religious think-tank Theos, delivered a detailed and fantastic talk on his experience covering religious affairs, particularly within Muslim communities.  He urged journalists to look beyond reporting clichéd stories on Islam, not in aid of some kind of re-balancing exercise, but because they’d find powerful stories within Muslim communities.

The last session of the day was led by Dr Michael Munnik, a former religious correspondent on Canada’s public radio.  His talk was targeted at journalists hoping to, or, currently covering religious affairs.  For faith communities to trust and support news stories on religion, he said, journalists need to gain the trust of faith communities and “become a safe pair of hands”.

Not being a reporter myself, the most revealing contributions derived from journalists who were not religious correspondents.  What came across loud and clear was their willingness to fully engage with the religious dimensions of their stories – unfortunately practical factors, such as deadlines and limited resources, sometimes mean it’s a challenge to explore those stories’ religious elements extensively.  Rather than denying religion a seat at the table, it seems journalists, despite wanting to, don’t always even have the time to look for a chair.

You can find out more about When Religion Makes the News by reading blogs from organisers Angela Graham and Anna Wynn Roberts.

And our thanks to Natasha Hirst @HirstPhotos who took the photographs of the event attached to this blog.  You can find out more about her work here.


Can journalists afford to ignore religion? Depends what you believe

On March 18th, Dame Ann Leslie, Roger Bolton, Professor Steven Barnett and Myriam Francois-Cerrah gathered to discuss one of the hottest issues in journalism today in front of a sold-out audience at London’s Groucho Club.  Edward Stourton, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme, chaired the lively debate in which the panelists argued over the importance of religious understanding in reporting world affairs, and, fielded questions from the audience. The event – co-organised by the Sandford St Martin Trust and the Media Society – was described by Roy Greenslade in his Media Guardian blog as “one of the most illuminating Media Society events I’ve ever attended”.  The BBC journalist Cathy Loughran was there and wrote about it the following day. 

This blog originally appeared on the BBC College of Journalism Blog.


Increased religious ‘literacy’ among predominantly liberal, secular media types would be a good thing. Agreed?

Well, yes, but from then on the panel at Wednesday night’s Media Society/Sandford St Martin Trust debate about journalists and religion largely parted company.

Hosted by the Groucho Club in London’s Soho and titled Damned if You Don’t? Why Journalists Can’t Afford to Ignore Religion, this was a packed and pretty feisty affair with an enticing line-up.

On the panel were veteran Daily Mail foreign correspondent Dame Ann Leslie, writer, broadcaster and academic Myriam Francois-Cerrah, BBC Radio 4 Feedback presenter and former Panorama editor Roger Bolton, and the author of the Rise and Fall of Television Journalism, Professor Steve Barnett. Ringmaster for the night was BBC broadcaster Ed Stourton, host of Radio 4’s Sunday programme. Here is a flavour of the battle lines:

Religion is understated

For Ann Leslie (pictured above), a failure by journalists (and governments come to that) to grasp the “centrality” of religion to millions of people’s lives had led to serious misrepresentation of world-shaking events like ‘the Arab Spring’. “We have an allergy to religion in this country… and we misreport,” she said.

That had happened first in Tunisia, where the catalyst to ‘the Arab Spring’ had been viewed by the press as religiously motivated when it had really been a protest against corruption – and then again in coverage of the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising when the UK media had been blind-sided, she said, by the election of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Speaking specifically about Islam in the region, she argued: “We have constantly ignored how important religion is to a lot of ordinary people. When they believe that corruption is such that they’ll never get justice, they turn to a fundamental and purer god.”

Religion is overstated

Myriam Francois-Cerrah’s pitch also called for more clarity: it was as important to r ecognise what isn’t about religion as what is. And in the Arab world, for instance, where there were many socio-economic motivating factors, religion was often “by the by”, she said, or else used as “a rallying cry for people power”.

There was a tendency for journalists to look at religion “through a reductive lens”, resulting in some “facile explanations… that avoid picking apart the roots of conflicts”.

Suicide bombing was a case in point, the New Statesman columnist argued: wrongly conflated in the media with religion when it was more likely to be about territorial protest.

She was critical of a “binary” focus that over-simplified a lot of reporting. It was simplistic, she said, to represent the Charlie Hebdo attack as either just about religion or just an assault on free speech – tantamount to saying 9/11 was an attack on US banking, ignoring the much wider context.

And she took issue with what she saw as an outbreak of media breast-beating about young people running away to join Islamic State: “When we discuss theology we miss more substantive points. What [persuades] young people to join IS? What about gangs? What about cults?” There was an assumption there about “Islamic exceptionalism”, she believed, and that was “problematic”.

UK broadcast journalism is “not fit for purpose” 

A direct quote from a passionate Roger Bolton who hit out at the “inadequacy” of “a liberal, secular, metropolitan group” of journalists who “don’t understand what motivates great sections of the population”. The unnamed broadcaster who described FGM as “a Muslim practice” was especially shaming, he said.

Understanding the role of Christianity in the history and culture of Britain was critical to understanding the country we live in, and so explaining some of that, with authority, should be “at the heart of what we do” as journalists, Bolton argued. Separating religion from politics and history was “ridiculous”.

He saw the main broadcasters as “under-powered”, taking aim at BBC News for not having an editor for religion who could be its centre of expertise, comparable to the BBC editors for science, arts, politics, sport and more. “We can’t do our jobs unless we tool up,” he said.

And he warned that lack of understanding about religion would lead to loss of credibility in other reporting: “You know when you read a news story on something you know about and you think, hold on [that’s not right]… If we can’t be bothered to find out what a significant section of the population believe, why should they take us seriously on other issues?”

But other things are more relevant to people’s lives

A quick about-turn from Steve Barnett. He certainly wasn’t against greater understanding of anything, including religion – “it’s knowledge”. But journalism was “a zero sum game” and news organisations could only prioritise a certain amount of specialist roles. Besides, the University of Westminster professor had other ideas.

A dearth of constitutional correspondents was “more dangerous than not understanding religion”, he ventured. And what about a journalism specialism in drugs.

It was a question of relevance in an increasingly secular society, he felt: “More focus on religion would displace stories with more relevance to most lives [in the UK].”

The rise of IS and the rise in anti-Semitism were “huge questions” globally that called for some religious knowledge on the part of journalists, he conceded. But they were ultimately “political” stories, in the way that the Troubles in Northern Ireland had been about politics and oppression more than Catholics and Protestants, he told his very engaged audience.

Damned if you don’t? Not quite the Barnett formula.


You can read the original blog and other articles by Cathy Loughran here: