Amid violent protests and provocative films, religion journalists find understanding

Muslims pray in a Mosque in Syria. (Antonio Melina/Agência Brasil)

Muslims pray in a Mosque in Syria. (Antonio Melina/Agência Brasil)

By David Briggs

Prince Charles Dickson goes to work each day knowing the price paid by colleagues for independent reporting in Nigeria. Colleagues such as news editor Nansok Sallah found lying face down in a shallow stream in Jos earlier this year and TV journalist Zakariya Isa shot in the face at his home in Maidiguri in 2011. And still, even as militants claiming ties to faith groups openly threaten journalists, Dickson provides several Nigerian newspapers with religion journalism that gives insight into both the importance of faith in the lives of everyday people and its manipulation by different factions to fuel conflict.

Just as each day hundreds of my colleagues and friends in Iraq, Spain, Germany, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Australia, Lebanon, Mexico, Israel, Canada, Jordan, Algeria, Syria, Turkey and throughout the globe show the same courage and integrity in challenging national stereotypes and prejudices with excellence in religion reporting.

What is unfortunate is that in an age of globalization their gifts often receive scant attention. The recent events where the release of a crude anti-Islamic film made by extremists was associated with violent actions by extremists in other parts of the world shows how issues relating to faith can cross borders with startling speed and consequences.

Now is the time for the type of knowledgeable, on-the-ground reporting that provides careful international perspective regarding the complex motives behind these events and places in context the actions of small groups of radicals amid the public and private lives of people of faith throughout the world.

Yet too often, limited by our own cultural biases and limitations, this broader understanding gets lost at home and abroad amid advocacy journalism and pack reporting that reinforce popular misconceptions or fears of religious minorities and religion in public life.

So at our own extremes mosques are set ablaze and a gunman opens fire in a Sikh temple in the United States. European countries attempt to legislate the assimilation of religious minorities. Sectarian conflicts roil nations such as the Sudan, Iraq and India, leading to violence that undermines efforts for peace and in too many cases around the world contributes to the suffering of millions.

But here is the great news: Change is coming.

More than 400 journalists from 90 nations have banded together in a professional association committed to transcending national and regional biases to provide excellence in religion coverage.

The International Association of Religion Journalists is going to make a difference. It’s just not going to be easy.

Challenges ahead

Over the last three years, I have met with hundreds of journalists around the world to listen to their needs and to learn their ideas about how to serve global writers and editors covering religion. This included leading five six-week courses – more accurately called dialogues – on international coverage of religion with 200 participants for the International Center for Journalists. At the IARJ’s founding meeting earlier this year in Bellagio, Italy, journalists from 23 nations gave me the honor of serving as executive director.

The challenges our members face are considerable.

Historical tensions, popular prejudice, ignorance, fear of immigrants, all work against the depiction of minority faiths. Many editors and reporters, particularly in times when media outlets face economic pressures in a challenging and shifting global economy, are not eager to address religious issues in a way that may evoke reader backlash.

The personal challenges can range from having to travel half a day from a remote African village to an Internet cafe where the power may or may not be on to traveling in the wrong neighborhood in conflict zones in nations such as Iraq and the Sudan.

In Cairo, journalists spoke of the day-to-day uncertainty of reporting in a time of transition when religious and political freedoms can be temporary. In New Delhi, many journalists spoke of almost a fear of tackling religion, which is often seen only as a source of conflict that upsets the national myth of a fully-realized, pluralistic democracy.

What is so striking, however, is the degree to which so many editors and reporters are increasingly aware of the critical role faith plays in the lives of their readers and nation, and are eager to improve religion coverage.

There was overwhelming consensus on the need for trusted resources to help them navigate this complex topic. With our partner, the Association of Religion Data Archives, the IARJ website features deadline access to excellent international statistics on believers and public attitudes, national legislation on issues related to religion, background on religious and ethnic conflicts and information on scores of religious traditions.

Data included in the more than 600 major research projects available on the ARDA are submitted by the foremost religion scholars and research centers in the world. ARDA also shares related research on any topic and points readers to scholarly books and articles exploring the subject in greater depth. A corresponding IARJ website in Arabic will be announced soon, marking another historic achievement.

Journalists who write on religion also said they need both the financial support to make it practical and an increasing awareness of the value and the necessity of accurate reporting on religion among media leaders in their regions. All of these goals are at the heart of IARJ’s mission statement.

But what makes this all work is that this effort must be international. Resources seen as coming from one country or one bloc of nations are viewed with suspicion. The idea of having resources created by and trusted within international communities of journalists and scholars was received with great anticipation and excitement.

What sets the IARJ apart is its commitment to being a true global effort where journalists can learn from one another in a forum of mutual respect and understanding. The seven-member Steering Committee includes representatives from six continents. The working committees and membership are similarly diverse. No more than 5 percent of the membership comes from any one nation.

Just how ready global journalists are to embrace this historic opportunity to work toward excellence in international coverage of religion can be seen in the response to the IARJ. The founders set a goal of 100 members by the end of 2012, but the association already has approved more than 400 members, and the number of applications is increasing weekly.

We need one another to provide the finest international coverage on religion.

A better future

And that type of coverage matters.

A growing body of research shows that civil societies that respect religious diversity not only have the greatest potential for peace, but they are associated with better health outcomes, higher incomes and better educational opportunities, among other things.

In their comprehensive study of global religious persecution, sociologists Brian Grim of the Pew Research Center and Roger Finke of Pennsylvania State University found nations where societal attitudes toward other religions are mostly tolerant are nearly three times less likely to report high levels of violent religious persecution.

The ideals of our profession include a commitment to telling the truth without favor, the integrity not to manipulate our audiences but to be trusted, impartial communicators and the courage to bring injustice to light. Realizing those ideals requires us to confront our own biases and limitations.

What excites me beyond measure is that so many hundreds of my colleagues are committed to this path of excellence in religion coverage, some even to the point of risking their lives and livelihoods.

Journalists like Prince Charles Dickson and Maria-Paz Lopez, the senior religion writer for La Vanguardia in Barcelona and the chair of the IARJ, give each of us new ways of understanding different faiths and new ideas for reporting on a variety of religious groups and experiences.

The members of the International Association of Religion Journalists inspire and learn from one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect and dignity. We are committed to fair, accurate coverage of religion that enables people from all nations to know the truth about their neighbors and make informed decisions on how individuals of diverse faith backgrounds can live together in peace.

Just what the world needs today.