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No excuses for negative portrayals of religion in the media

26 April 2019

Don’t blame journalists for covering religion badly: help them, argues Michael Wakelin


THE Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, talks to journalists in 2010

THE Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, talks to journalists in 2010

TEN years ago, in the leafy surroundings of Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, there was a gathering of media professionals and religious leaders. After 24 hours of discussion, they came to a conclusion that they must all have known before they started talking: the media did not cover religion very well.

Of course, that is a very broad generalisation: there are some excellent religious programmes and podcasts, and some highly religiously literate journalists; but, overall, at the very least, the annual report still says “Could do better.”

There are several factors that make religion and media uncomfortable bedfellows. One is the nature of news. Religion would like to think that it is about good news, by and large; but good news is not necessarily terribly interesting. “Plane lands safely at Heathrow”, while happy, is not such a striking headline as “Jumbo jet crashes in the South China Sea”. “Bishop preaches interesting sermon on the three persons of the Trinity”, while engaging for some, is not as interesting as “Bishop found in three-people-in-a-bed romp”, for example.

Also, the news agenda likes soundbites and the “12 golden seconds”, whereas religious types like their words to be abundant, and to contain sub-clauses and nuances. While journalists are, on the whole, keen to tell a truthful story, they have deadlines to hit, and only a certain number of minutes and words to play with.


RELIGIOUS communities often assume that negative coverage is the fault of the media: “They don’t understand us”; “They are out to get us — make us look stupid.” In the training that we offer through the Religion Media Centre, we are trying to reframe this and ask the religious communities to examine their part of this relationship.

There is often a naïve assumption that, somehow, religion will be covered with respect. But religion will be given the same treatment as every other part of human life, with its hypocrisies exposed and its leaders held to account. We suggest that religious communities pay attention to their own communications strategies, become much more media-savvy, and work out what the stories are that they are trying to tell.

What we discover is how, so often, religious communities fail to communicate their stories outside their own circle. There are many good stories to be told, but do the gatekeepers really want to communicate with the world outside? It is extraordinary how little thought seems to go in to this “storytelling” or “key messaging”. The media cannot be expected to cover religion well until religion has sharpened up its communications.

But, acknowledging all that, it is also true to say that journalism, like other aspects of society, has found itself increasingly lacking in religious literacy. It is a subject much addressed these days, although ways of combating it are not so numerous. One positive tool readily available is Coexist House and Ernst & Young’s online Religious Literacy for Organisations programme. But journalism and the media need something more bespoke.

One of the outcomes of the Cumberland Lodge consultation was that a scoping exercise should be undertaken to assess the viability of a Religion Media Centre (RMC) — modelled on the successful Science Media Centre — funded by numerous stakeholders and beneficiaries, with no editorial line.

Similarly, the Religion Media Centre would have no editorial imperative other than that religion matters to a large proportion of humanity, and should be covered with fairness and accuracy. Ten years on, and an RMC does now exist — still fledgling, but with an informative website, a huge resource of contacts, committed trustees, and a strong advisory board. Limited funding means that we cannot yet operate as we would like to — i.e. a 24/7 one-stop-shop offering journalists all that they need to cover a religious story — but that remains our ambition.


ANOTHER aspect of our work is to put on training and events, including, on 30 April, the second Religion and Media Festival, which will be held at JW3, a community centre in Finchley Road, London. This is an opportunity for engaged religious leaders, academics, and campaigners to understand the media world better, and for some key media stakeholders to engage with the religious mindset.

This year’s festival will feature contributions from the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks; the BBC’s Director of Radio and Education, James Purnell; and the leader of the global research programme Understanding Unbelief, Dr Lois Lee (Comment, 3 November 2017).

Through this focus on the religion-and-media context, we hope to encourage both sides of the relationship, celebrating what is good while challenging lazy perceptions and attitudes. I frequently tell training groups that there are no excuses for bad media coverage; we are all broadcasters now, and “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.” The media are not something to criticise, or shy away from, but an opportunity to be grabbed with both hands.

Michael Wakelin chairs the Religion Media Centre, is an executive producer at TBI Media, and is head of programmes for Coexist House. He is a former Head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC.

For information and tickets for the Religion and Media Festival, visit www.jw3.org.uk/events.


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