It was almost ten years ago when David Briggs, an American journalist who reports on religion, wanted to start a worldwide association that supported media professionals who focused on faith.
Earlier this month his dream came true when journalists from 23 countries – one from each country – met in Bellagio, Italy, to launch the International Association for Religion Journalists (IARJ). Briggs was elected its executive director to serve alongside a multi-national eight-member steering committee of journalists.
The IARJ treads into largely unchartered territory as journalists who write about religion are a rare breed. If one walked into almost any newspaper’s office worldwide and asked to meet the religion reporter you would very likely be frowned at.
Briggs however has made a career out of reporting on religion for the last 20 years. He has served as a board member and president of the US-based Religion Newswriter’s Association over the last ten years. He has also been nominated several times for the prestigious Pulitzer award for his writings.
Briggs teamed up with the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) in Washington DC, in the United States, and led plans to launch the IARJ. He met with a network of journalists sourced via online and face-to-face meetings and workshops on religion reporting for four days in Bellagio to launch the IAJR.
“I have been working on this for ten years. It’s a dream to see it come to fruition,” said Briggs when the gathering closed.
He said also that cross-border reporting on religion could be improved via the IARJ.
“We are living in a global society and our understanding internationally of religion is weak. With the association, journalists now have contacts in various countries and can work together,” said Briggs.
Maria-Paz López from Barcelona, Spain, was elected chairperson of the IARJ. She has reported on religion for 12 years for La Vanguardia newspaper. Six of these years were spent reporting on the Catholic headquarters in Italy’s Vatican City.
López explained that the IARJ was not intended to promote religions but instead foster better journalism about religion.
“I have seen many alleged religion reporters who do not respect the journalism profession. There are journalists who advocate for religion and not journalism. This association needs to change this and give credibility to religion reporting,” said López.
“Whoever is advocating for a religion, that’s respectful, but that’s not journalism. This association stands for the sake of journalism.”
During her work, López has come to know first hand that “religion is relevant to news; it is a source of conflict”.
“That is why there is a need to cultivate ethical religion reporting internationally,” she said.
Journalists from countries with conflicts shared their experiences at the meeting. Among them was Salman Andary from Beirut, Lebanon, where sectarian violence has led to bloodshed over the years.
“This association is more than important. We have communities that don’t understand each other. Lebanon is a country with diverse communities. We have religious broadcasters and newspapers and they should increase dialogue and respect between communities,” said Andary.
Andary is also a blogger and said that digital media practitioners – with their instant publication ability and wide reach – should be wooed to sign up with the IARJ.
“The role of bloggers is big. We have seen this with the Arab uprising. Bloggers are important where the media is unable to report on governments or events. We need to work with influential bloggers especially,” he said.
Indeewari Dona, from the Western Province of Sri Lanka, is a TV anchor and journalist who has seen “so many journalists who promote their own religion”. Sri Lanka has endured ethic battles for decades.
“There is a certain group of journalists that promote their own religion and discriminate against others. Journalists need to understand that promoting their religion is not professional journalism. It means that you are a religious reporter,” reflected Dona at the IARJ launch.
Patrick Butler, vice-president of programmes at the ICFJ, said they would support the IARJ for at least a year before it stands on its own feet. The ICFJ is a non-governmental organisation started 27 years ago to enhance the journalism profession.
Butler said it wanted to launch the IARJ because “there has been no such international association”.
“Religion has always been important but it has not gotten the media attention that it needs. Journalists mostly focus on religious conflict. That’s important. But they should also write stories that help people understand religion and faith better,” said Butler.
“In many countries there are violent clashes between people of different religions and faiths. The media has played a role in this with bad reporting. Some media have been affiliated with one side of the conflict.”
Butler said that journalists could choose to “encourage someone to attack or understand another faith”.
“Religion is difficult to cover because it’s controversial and sensitive. In some parts of the world journalists don’t want to cover it because it can cause tension. But we believe that it can also relieve tension. It can help people understand different faiths,” he said.
“We want to help journalists around the world better cover a topic that is essential to the lives of billions of people but is also fraught with controversy and conflict.”