When Religion Makes the News −how are we to understand it?

Angela Graham outlines an upcoming event, which will examine the portrayal of religion in the media.






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When religion makes the news how well equipped are journalists to understand it? The notion of a dedicated religious correspondent fell out of favour as Britain became more secular but religion as a force in current affairs has never been so prominent. There is a religion-and belief-sized gap in the training that would-be journalists and practising professionals are receiving. NUJ Training Wales, the training arm of the National Union of Journalists has taken a bold initiative towards filling it.

A one-day workshop When Religion Makes the News will be held in Cardiff on November 8th, chaired by the eminent broadcaster, Roger Bolton (Panorama, This Week, Feedback) and addressed by Aaqil Ahmed, BBC Head of Religion and Ethics.

The workshop has grown from a conversation when I was teaching at Cardiff University School of Journalism. A senior colleague expressed exasperation that there was a noticeable drop in the quality of work of even the best British MA students whenever they had to deal with a story that had religion in the mix. Because they were mostly from secular backgrounds they had little understanding of the nuances within religions or of the complexities of the relation of ethnicity to faith or, crucially, how to negotiate the minefield of claims within any faith as to who authoritatively represents its members. The latter is particularly tricky when it comes to the interaction of religions with the secular sphere, government policy in particular. These lacunae were leaving the students confused and exposed and the institution, she felt, was doing nothing to help them.

I looked for an example of good practice elsewhere in Wales but found that none of the journalism departments in any Welsh university is originating any tuition at any level in this field.

So, what of the working world? Alongside some good work, certain local reporting seemed to me to fail to ask the right questions of some religious groups, presumably because the journalists involved didn’t know the areas to probe. I found that (apart from in-house material within big institutions) there has been no training in this area for working journalists in Wales −  this despite the fact that religion as an element in international and local stories is seldom out of the headlines. It is not that journalists don’t want to open up to resources but, certainly in Wales, the resources have not been pulled together and several key resources purporting to be about the UK leave Wales out.

An inability to understand how religions operate leaves a journalist prey to manipulation. Religions bring together a potent mix of the intensely personal and the political, in the sense of religion’s effect on the public sphere. An understanding of variations within a religion, how authority works within it, how it finances itself and who it does or doesn’t represent is a basic tool for untangling complexities. The issues of representation – who speaks for whom − and of authority are fundamental in the attempt to understand how religion acts on the world. It takes time and resources to address these and time and resources are scarce for journalists. I suspect that there is a good deal of re-inventing the wheel in terms of investment of journalistic capacity.

When Religion Makes the News draws together expertise, resources and networking around religious literacy – the ability to ‘read’ the phenomenon of religion. It’s not about being religious or about specialist religious journalism. Richard Sambrook, Director of the Centre for Journalism, Cardiff University says of the workshop, “Today it is more important than ever to report religion in a well-informed, thoughtful way. Religion has a huge impact on society and understanding it is core to any journalist’s role.”

The Steering Group of NUJ Training Wales responded imaginatively to my suggestion that we take a first step into this field in Wales. They asked me to develop with Project Manager, Anna Wynn Roberts both an introduction to the basics and an opportunity for networking between journalists and members of faiths. ITV Cymru Wales have sponsored the venue.

Eighty people will hear from experts on religious literacy and from the media reps of branches within the three Abrahamic faiths in Wales. There is a session on Islam in the UK and Wales, a self-scrutiny session for journalists and media academics and a workshop for faith members on engaging with the medias well. There is a showcase of work by local journalists and a session on engaging with faith communities by Dr Michael Munnik of the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University. This September he launched the first undergraduate module in Wales to address this topic: Religion and the News: Conflict and Context from the School of History, Archaeology and Religion.

Representatives from across the spectrum of religions in Wales are attending and also those of no religious faith, such as members of the Humanist Association. In my view, religious literacy has to stretch towards ideology and value systems which are not based on the divine because belief is not the prerogative only of the religious. This is an area that warrants careful exploration.

As Aaqil Ahmed claims, “For many years it’s been a badge of honour to say I know and care nothing about religion. That attitude particularly for the media industry is now a chronic failure to understand our audiences and alienating many potential viewers, listeners and readers. Understanding that a lack of religious literacy isn’t an option anymore is important not just for community cohesion today but also for media relevance in the future.”

Resources produced for the day include a Guide to Christianity in Wales by Rev Gethin Rhys of Cytûn; a Religious Literacy Resource list compiled by Dr Munnik and, in the pipeline, a Guide to non-Christian Faiths in Wales by Rev Gethin Abraham-Williams. A resource on Islam in Wales by journalist, Innes Bowen is also likely to result.

Angela Graham is a Freelance Producer and Chair of the IWA's Media Policy Group.