‘Journalists, media trivialise religion’

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Journalists need to improve their reporting of religion, instead of trivialising it, agreed a media panel at this week’s International Press Institute (IPI) meeting in Cape Town, South Africa.

Endy Bayuni, a senior editor at the Jakarta Post newspaper in Jakarta, Indonesia, said simply: “We are not doing a very good job in reporting religion”.

Bayuni was part of a the IPI’s annual World Congress panel entitled “Images of Faith: Clash of Perceptions?” He is a board member of the International Association for Religion Journalists (IARJ) which intends to strengthen and improve journalist’s abilities to report on religion. It presently has 515 journalist members worldwide.

“The real reason why we are not doing a good job on reporting religion is that it is too complex and journalists are too lazy to study about different religions in our society,” said Bayuni.

A panel of journalists talk about reporting religion in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien)

A panel of journalists talk about reporting religion in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien)

“We are not doing our job right. We stereotype. That’s the shorthand way of explaining something that is complex. Some of us are doing it deliberately because it is part of our agenda but for others it is ignorance. We get it wrong and have become part of the problem.”

The King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KACIID), also based in Vienna, Austria, co-hosted the panel on religion.

The panel synopsis read: “Often, religion is only present in the media as a cause of division and conflict. Statistics show the majority of religious adherents value respect, peace and cooperation. When people of faith see their images in the media, do they recognise themselves?

“What challenges do journalists face when they seek to understand and explain the intersection of religion, politics and social tensions? Where good news is no news, what can religious communities and other experts do to ensure that voices of peace have a place in the media?”

Peter Kaiser, communications director at KAICIID, started off the discussion with the observation that the “media frames people’s perceptions of religion”. He said the aim of this discussion would not be to “look for positive coverage of religion” but discuss how reporting affects the public’s understanding of religion.

Melissa Chea-Annan, editor of The Inquirer newspaper in Liberia, said conflict in her country of 4,1 million inhabitants was prolonged by religion and journalists.

“Religion played a major role in prolonging the civil crisis. It caused massive destruction. Christians and Muslims were at loggerheads. They were killing each other,” said Chea-Annan.

“One of the main rebel groups was organised by a journalist. He used his profession to raise money. He recruited people and they started killing.”

Chea-Annan said post-conflict Liberia was “now a secular state because we do not want to have conflict between religions”.

“All schools used to teach the Bible and all religions wanted to have their religion taught as well. The president then decided to ban the teaching of the Bible in all public schools,” she said.

Chea-Annan raised a warning that “religion is creeping into the media” though, creating a sense that journalists were taking sides in an old conflicts.

“But as journalists we don’t have to take sides. We have to be balanced in our reporting. We are doing everything we can to unite the media in Liberia,” said Chea-Annan.

“We are trying to bring all religions together. There is a need for us to put aside our religions when we report. We have a code of ethics guiding our reporting. In the manner we report, we can either bring war or peace.”

Australian-Lebanese native Mary Saliba, a TV producer with Al Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar, reflected: “Religion has always been an issue in mainstream media”.

“There are a lot of negative images related to religion presented in the media, particularly in the Middle East. We are mixing religious ideology with politics. Also social media heightens a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes. It creates fear,” said Saliba.

She said journalists should think carefully before broadcasting or publishing voices that promote hatred of others. She reflected on her work in the Middle East, where volatility pervades politics and by default the social fabric.

“We need to ask whether that’s really a news story,” said Saliba.

“Journalists need to report religion in a better way. We can’t stand back and say ‘I’m a journalist and I’m just here to report the facts’. We need to take more care about what we report on. We need to think about whether we should report on someone who denounces another religious group.”

Saliba added: “The thing that concerns me about the media focusing only on extreme voices is that we avoid other religious matters. We know that media practitioners don’t go out intentionally to report those extremist voices. Sometimes that’s just the loudest voice.”

Khaled Batarfi, a senior writer with the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, said journalists should ask themselves what the reason would be for giving space to an “extremist voice”.

“It’s like starting something that is unethical. We are journalists and we are committed to free speech. But we are also citizens and should be responsible. We should not try to fool ourselves and say we are doing our duty. We could end up reporting stories that incite trouble between groups,” said Batarfi.

“Where you have people who are already sensitive, you can start a war. We need to be responsible.”
Bayuni added: “We have to make religion an important part of the newsroom, especially in countries where religion is part of people’s lives and where we have different religions.

“The media can’t be concerned just about circulation. We know our industry thrives on conflict. We like those kind of stories. The media is part of the society where we operate. The last thing we want is a religious war and be part of that problem. We can be a bridge between religious communities.”

He said journalists also needed to overcome “difficulties in detaching ourselves from our faith” when reporting on religion.

“We can avoid that through training because we want to make sure that we get it right. The biggest problem is the attitudes in newsrooms. Most newsrooms just don’t care. They say religion is too complicated. Religion is on the bottom of their list,” said Bayuni.

Participants at the panel called for a manual to be written with key words and terminologies that could guide journalists to better reporting and eliminating stereotypes in the media.

The IPI, based in Vienna, Austria, concluded on Tuesday (April 15, 2014) its 63rd annual four-day World Congress to discuss issues affecting journalists.

It gathered participants – including editors, journalists and others with interests in the media industry – from the IPI’s 120 member countries.

This year’s panels discussed various topics, including China’s role in the developing world, democratic South Africa, anti-terror and national security laws in relation to press freedom as well as religion and journalism.

IPI advocates for press freedom, the protection of journalists.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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