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The media really don’t do God

27 May 2016

New research suggests lack of faith among journalists, says Christopher Landau

Assessing diversity: the head of religion and ethics at the BBC, Aaqil Ahmed, with the Archbishop of Canterbury

Assessing diversity: the head of religion and ethics at the BBC, Aaqil Ahmed, with the Archbishop of Canterbury

A CARDINAL rule for journalists is to avoid “becoming the story”, but some new statistics about the atti­tudes and beliefs of British journal­ists unavoidably create a story worth telling. The stark headline is that journalists appear to be less than half as likely as the general population to identify themselves as Christians.

A decade ago, the then Bishop of Southwark, Dr Tom Butler, told a House of Lords committee that “the standard mindset of the media . . . is the mindset of metropolitan secular humanism.” Such statements have largely been supported by anecdotal evidence rather than hard statistics — until now.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, at the Univers­ity of Oxford, has released figures drawn from a representative sample of 700 UK-based journalists, and com­pared various answers with equiva­lent data from the 2011 Census.

Although the Census figure of Christian affiliation is 64.4 per cent, among journalists it is only 31.6 per cent. Among Muslims, the disparity is worse: Muslims represent 4.8 per cent of the population, but only 0.4 per cent of journalists. The figures for those journalists choosing to cite “no religion” depict a secularised media trend: 61.1 per cent of jour­nalists cite no religion, compared with 27.8 per cent of the population as a whole.

OF COURSE, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics — and, as with all such studies, these figures need to be seen in context. When I dis­cussed them with a group involved with planning a new Religion Media Centre, which, it is hoped, will seek to improve journalists’ access to impartial information about reli­gion, Professor Linda Woodhead, of Lancaster University, argued by email that the accuracy of the Census statistics on religion was being debated.

Even when such qualifications are taken into account, however, the Oxford figures offer a compelling snapshot that underlines a hunch that has long been felt by many in the Church: that journalists are disproportionately unlikely to be religious, and that this may well contribute to the patchy and some­times poor journalistic coverage of religious issues.

WE LIVE in a society that values tolerance and diversity as two of its foundational goods. Businesses and public bodies increasingly recognise the need to be diverse, and to be seen to be diverse. Journalists, it follows, need to be diverse in order to report the diversity of the society they serve. But religion does not — yet? — seem to make it into the top tier of diversity requirements.

The auditing firm KPMG com­mit­ted itself to targets on diversity across gender, race, disability, and sexual orientation in 2014. Religion is the one category that gets men­tioned in its diversity literature but that is not subject to targets.

The BBC issued its own diversity targets last month — pledging that women would make up half the workforce by 2020, and that ethnic-minority, LGBT, and disabled di­­versity would be improved.

At the recent launch of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Reli­gion in the Media, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, was challenged on the corporation’s commitment to covering minority faiths (News, 20 May).

A Sunday Times front page sub­sequently reported that an internal report had concluded that the BBC’s religious output was “too Chris­tian”, and must diversify. Mr Ahmed issued a statement that said: “Christianity remains the corner­stone of our output, and there are more hours dedicated to it than there are to other faiths. Our output in this area is not static, though. It has evolved over the years, and we regularly assess it.”

Determining programme con­tent or the make-­up of a workforce purely in response to disputed levels of religious adherence would be counter-productive, and I am not convinced that targets for religious diversity among journalists are desir­able, or workable. But media organisations should be aware of the potential for missing the signific­ance of religion if their employees are proportionately less religious.

This is not to say that the non-religious cannot report effectively on religion, but that a religious “blind spot” is more likely to occur in a workforce that is less religious than the population it serves.

THERE is, then, all the more reason for the Church to encourage Christians to engage with the media. This may involve something as simple as contacting an organisation when an obvious mistake has been made (the BBC, for example, re­­sponds to every such communica­tion), or offering positive feed­back after a good example of religious coverage.

There is a need to en­­courage younger Christians to con­sider using all forms of media to com­mun­icate their faith. The “Gabriel Collective”, for example, is a promising innovation helping to reach a digital generation (www.gabrielcollective.org).

In the London diocese, a group of largely young lay Christians have taken part in a pilot programme, London Witness: a series of training sessions and workshops to encour­age confident media engagement. Whether writing a blog or as radio interviewees, participants have been equipped to think through how they can communicate Chris­tian faith in mainstream media con­texts that otherwise tend towards sensational­ising coverage of it, or ignoring it altogether.

These are the sorts of initiatives that should be extended if, through its own positive action, the Church is to encourage more people to interact confidently with the media, and even to see it as the primary focus of their Christian vocation.

Those with a faith who do such work will often admit to the inher­ent challenges: sometimes, the need for compromises that make them question their presence in the in­­dustry, and yet, on other occa­sions, opportunities to inject an example of Kingdom-shaped living where it would have been lacking.

Christians who choose to work in such a hazardous mission field de­­serve our support. I wonder, how­­ever, for how many of us the Church and Media Network’s day of prayer for the media earlier this month was a priority. Perhaps, next year, it should be. I suspect that Christian journalists’ work will be enhanced more by prayer than by any diversity quotas.


The Revd Christopher Landau is Assist­ant Curate of St Luke’s, West Kilburn, and Emmanuel, Harrow Road, and is a former reporter for Radio 4’s World at One and PM.

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