IARJ Forum: What religion news stories are under-reported?

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IARJ logoFive years ago, the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ) was formed to encourage dialogue and cooperation among journalists covering religious issues around the world. The IARJ’s mission is to offer online tips and news of interest to professional journalists—as well as online and in-person opportunities for staff development through annual regional conferences. The IARJ also partners with the Association of Religion Data Archives to offer a wealth of resources and data to promote better coverage of religious issues.

In this online Forum, IARJ members are asked to contribute their thoughts in early 2017 to the question: What religion news stories are under-reported? We hope this Forum will spark journalists to think about topics that our peers consider important this year. If you are an IARJ member, email any comment you wish to add to this Forum to Web Editors Elisa DiBenedetto (elisadibenedetto@theiarj.org) or Larbi Megari (lmegari@theiarj.org). We invite journalists to respond in any language that is most appropriate.

If you are not a member of IARJ and would like to learn more about our work, please follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RJournalists If you are a journalist interested in covering religion-related news stories, please see the “Become a Member” box on our front page.

RESPONSES TO THE FORUM QUESTION:

What religion news stories are under-reported?

RELIGION AND IMMIGRATION

“In 2017, we are seeing a lot of news coverage of international immigration, but I am finding few stories about the religious side of the experiences of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe. Some asylum seekers are Muslim; some are Christian. We need more reporting on the role their religion plays as these migrant families seek to enter European societies—and what role their religious tradition plays in making it easier or more difficult to integrate into European communities.”
Astrid Dalehaug Norheim is head of the newsroom at the Norwegian newspaper Dagen.

RELIGION IS NOT SOMETHING TO FEAR

“Religious and cultural issues are becoming more volatile in 2017 because unexpected waves of change are reshaping global relationships. Two examples: Brexit and President Trump were not expected, a year ago. Now, religious and cultural groups around the world are fearing new burdens, including new forms of backlash from emerging nationalist groups and also the rise of protectionism in countries around the world. Hate crimes seem to be on the rise again, based on old stereotypes. From my perspective in India, I know that news about anti-immigrant movements and even violence has many people living in fear. In this context, I think we need to see more stories that highlight the identities of men and women from diverse religious backgrounds. As journalists, we can help our readers to feel more confidence and calm their fears by showing how a person’s religious identity is not something to be feared. As journalists, we tend to cover stories of conflict. Our news stories often involve courts and jails. I am suggesting we turn to the homes and communities of ordinary people, opening doors and windows to promote a deeper understanding around the world—not building more walls with our coverage.”
Bhavya Srivastava, based in India, has reported news stories involving religion for TV as well as online and print news publications

LIFT UP DIVERSE RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES

“There are growing interfaith tensions across the world and a rise in intolerance. People do not seem to be making a strong effort to learn from each other’s religion, which leads to a better appreciation of diversity. Instead, the tension tends to isolate people and leads to fewer contacts between religious and cultural groups. That is why this tension can harm world peace. Learning about religion should not be seen as taboo. Journalists play a role in bringing honest stories about the experiences of diverse religious communities into the public square.”
Erick Kabendera is a freelance investigative journalist based in Dar es Salaam who writes for regional and international publications, including the Guardian and the Independent.

HIGHLIGHT COMMON VALUES

“From my perspective in Africa, I find that most reports on religion focus on the negatives as perceived by the public, sometimes forgetting to highlight the similarities or the commonalities in these religions. A simple example is that Christianity and Islam both preach hospitality and good neighborliness, but you can hardly find that issue highlighted in news reports in 2017. As journalists, we should beam our spotlights on commonalities among the religions, rather than using our reporting to emphasize differences.”
Odinga Modesty Nuhu Adiwu was born in Zagun, situated in the Bassa area of Nigeria’s Plateau State. A broadcast journalist and a content producer, she is currently working at Plateau Radio and Television Corporation (PRTVC). She is the author of a recent column in the IARJ website: Can good journalism on religion contribute to peace?

INTERFAITH STORIES ARE OUT THERE

“I appreciate Odinga’s comments from Nigeria about values that are common between religions. I believe there are enough stories being reported that concern religious conflict and faiths in separation. There also is a worldwide movement toward interfaith understanding: accepting, and even supporting people of another faith. That movement needs to be brought into the spotlight more often by journalists. Around the world, the viewpoints of men and women are shaped by what they believe, hear and read, and if more stories of interfaith cooperation are reported, more people may realize that people of differing faiths do not have to agree on their religious tenets to be supportive of one another in a community. These stories are out there; they must be told.”
Stephanie Fenton has reported the only daily coverage of religious holidays, festivals and milestones for the www.ReadTheSpirit.com magazine.

FAMILY-LEVEL RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY

“Interfaith efforts definitely should be highlighted more, showing that compassion brings people together despite their religious differences. However, there are a number of ways to approach this story and one that is often overlooked is on the personal or family level: Consider covering interfaith marriages, for example. The world needs to be reminded of the good and not only the bad news. Interfaith efforts very often show that there is hope in our world despite what seems like a crumbling situation.”
Yazeed Kamaldien, based in South Africa, has reported from various countries, including work as a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker.

IMPORTANCE OF RELIGION & SPIRITUALITY

“The press in general should do more to report on religion and spirituality. I believe that our work in reporting on religion promotes tolerance of all people, which is greatly needed in the years ahead of us.”
J.D. Vital is a Brazilian journalist from Minas Gerais who has reported for major newspapers and via television. He is the author of two books, including The Making of a Catholic Bishop.

STORIES IN HIGH-RISK COMMUNITIES

“The IARJ counterbalances a highly secular and often anti-religious journalistic culture, which frequently misses religion stories that contribute positively to society and can foster positive interfaith relations in high-risk communities. I believe there are many under-reported stories journalists could pursue in the years ahead. Among them:
“How are Muslim youth in the West relating to Islam in the wake of ISIS? There is a lot of coverage about their radicalization, which is a real and present danger in Australia, but what are the other developments on the spectrum of faith to secularization?
“How are Syrian and other Middle Eastern Christian refugees ‘settling in’ to their new countries? How do they relate to Western Christian communities and denominations?
“In the wake of the Australian Royal Commission Inquiry into Institutional Responses to child sexual abuse, is there an unprecedented and unfair backlash against the clergy as some have claimed?
“Child marriage, forced marriage, plural marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) in Australian (and other Western) migrant communities from the Middle East, the Indian sub continent and Africa remain significantly under-reported.
“Progressive, innovative, and collaborative ecumenical strategies have been implemented successfully to revive church life in rural and small town communities in Australia and elsewhere, countering the stereotype of the ‘dying church.’
“How does Christianity play a vital role in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island indigenous Australians, who identify as Christians at a much higher rate (73%) than the general population. This would be true for other indigenous peoples, such as Canadian First Nation and Native American communities.
“How are Western Buddhists reacting to militant Buddhism in Myanmar?
“Anti-Semitic conspiracies in the Middle East are pervasive and unquestioned yet there is silence on the systematic human rights abuses practiced by Hezbollah and Hamas.”
Rachael Kohn is founder and voice of The Spirit of Things, Australia’s go-to program on the ABC Radio National (RN) for in depth stories about the role of religion in society, the arts, community relations and personal life.

MORE COMPREHENSIVE COVERAGE

Like Rachel Kohn, María-Paz López (who chaired the IARJ from 2012-2016) challenges journalists to think more comprehensively about the full spectrum of religious experience when planning stories over the coming year. María-Paz writes:
“Since religion and politics often overlap in controversial ways, I would encourage stories that explore tensions at the local, regional, national and international level. We know that some editors, especially in Western countries, seem to have tired on stories about interfaith cooperation. But I think that such stories remain relevant, especially in the world of 2017 (as earlier comments in this Forum are reflecting). Today, solid reporting on interfaith cooperation can foster understanding and that can contribute to world peace.
“Globally, I also recommend more comprehensive coverage of religious freedom in the world—and the other side of that issue: persecution of religious groups. To name a few cases where minorities experience persecution:
• Christians in some countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia
• Shia or Sunni Muslim depending on which is the minority group in a country
• Anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews worldwide
• Islamophobia in Western societies
• Rohingya in Myanmar
• Falun Gong in China.
As we report such stories, it is important to explain to the public how often we may assume a conflict is about religion, when there actually are many other factors in the conflict such as political, economic, sociological or demographic ingredients.
“There are many topics that need more journalistic attention this year, including:
• Women as main characters of stories about religion, as motors of development and change
• Religious leadership beyond clergy
• Values in atheism and agnosticism
• Tensions between secular society and religious values: bioethics, sexuality, LGBT rights, scientific research
• Growth of Pentecostalism within various Christian denominations
• Religion and spirituality in cinema and theatre, and in contemporary art and music”
María-Paz López is the religion columnist and foreign correspondent in Berlin of La Vanguardia, a Spanish national daily based in Barcelona. She remains an IARJ board member.

BREADTH OF STORIES

“This diversity of religious stories is not limited to the U.S., Europe and Asia. In Africa, particularly in Nigeria, there are loads of stories that remain untold. Among the topics that journalists may want to cover:
• Secularism in ‘religious’ Africa
• Religion in politics and government
• Dangers of hate speech”
Prince Charles Dickson is a Nigerian journalist and founding member of the IARJ. He is published in several Nigerian newspapers as well as international publications.

COMBATING HATE SPEECH

“Many journalists around the world already are responding to the final problem highlighted by Prince Charles Dickson: the growth of hate speech over the last year or so. I recently participated in a workshop on countering hate speech through ethical reporting that took place last month in Algiers, Algeria.
“IARJ’s members are active in their contributions in promoting balanced journalism in general, and religion journalism in particular. Countering hate speech is one of many goals shared by the IARJ members.
“The workshop was held under the auspices of several major international media organizations. The meeting was devoted to methods and choices aimed at countering hate speech through ethical reporting, developing guidelines for proper use of terminology, language and sourcing in news coverage. During the conference, I expressed my views on the topic. I explained that the first thing to consider in fighting hate speech is not only acknowledging the existence of ‘the other,’ but also accepting this other without trying to make an acceptable version of him for us. In other words, we have to accept each other as we are, without trying to change each other.”
Larbi Megari is a founding member of IARJ and one of the two Web Editors who we invite IARJ members to contact if you have additional comments to add to this Forum.

NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS

“I want to echo María-Paz’s call in this Forum for a broader approach to the subject of ‘religion’ in 2017 and the future. In the U.S., now, 1 in 4 Americans decline to give a religious affiliation, which is big news in our country where religious identity has always remained very high compared with other parts of the world. Of course, Europe and some other parts of the globe have experienced high levels of secularization for many years. However, within these populations of seemingly non-religious people are fascinating stories of spiritual values. I agree with JD Vital’s call for more coverage of this rich area of daily life for millions of people. Beyond that, we are seeing the birth of new religious movements in many parts of the world, every year. Here in the U.S., the radically inclusive Pentecostal Blue Ocean movement is launching in early 2017. Many other religious groups are popping up around the planet. If we only cover official religious leaders and traditional religious topics, we may miss a rich array of stories.”
David Crumm is a longtime journalist, editor of www.ReadTheSpirit.com online magazine and Media Consultant to the IARJ.

SPOTLIGHT ON AFRICA

Mona Abdelfttah welcomes greater global attention—by journalists with a background in religion newswriting—on important emerging stories in Africa and the Middle East. As journalists, we especially “need to confront some of the visions and perceptions that include abuse of religion or distortion of people’s freedom in choosing their beliefs,” she writes in response to the forum question.

Among the specific stories she wishes to highlight:

  • Explore links between social media and terrorism—as well as connections between ISIS and university students.
  • Within her native Sudan, she calls for more reporting on the conflict between Sufism and Salafism and, in general, issues involved in converting between religions in Sudan.
  • Beyond that, more reporting is needed on extremist groups like Boko Haram and the ways such groups persecute women.

Mona Abdelfttah, based in Sudan, is an author with a doctorate in political science who has reported on religion for many newspapers and also is active in the Sudanese Journalists Union.

REINVENTION OF RELIGION

“We are seeing many stories on the death of traditional religion, but very little on how religion is reinventing itself. I recommend you see some of the stories reported by G. Jeffrey MacDonald for examples of how to do this. We also need much more reporting on evangelicalism—from its subculture/cultish practices, to how it has managed to turn many against the Enlightenment.
“As has already been pointed out in this Forum, I agree that we need much more reporting on the religious lives of average people. On balance, there is too much focus in our reporting on leaders and theological issues, which have little impact on grassroots politics. For example, the Pope gets lots of press, but it’s conservative Catholicism (such as that practiced by the governor of Kansas in the U.S.) that is tearing apart American democracy. Many people do not understand what this movement is and how it has become so effective. That’s a role for solid journalism.”
Martin Davis is the IARJ treasurer. His long career in journalism has ranged from teaching to writing and editing. Currently he is Senior Editor for Autos at US News and World Report.

BALANCE, ACCURACY AND FAIRNESS

“It’s been a privilege to get to know journalists around the world who are writing about the challenging and sometimes divisive subject of religion. Many are inspiring. While a portion face physical threats, many others are under pressure to conform to various ideas or ideologies. The IARJ supports religion writers around the globe in their pursuit of balanced, accurate and fair journalism. Good journalism leads to deeper understanding.
“As we consider these many ideas raised by IARJ members around the world, we plan to use these important issues to guide our choices as we highlight news on our Twitter feed. We also invite journalists to contact us with news items that touch on these emerging issues so we can further highlight them through our website, newsletters and Twitter.”
Douglas Todd, based in Vancouver, is the Chair of the IARJ. Mainly writing for The Vancouver Sun in Canada and the Religion News Service in the U.S., his work as a journalist has been honored internationally.

AND, A REMINDER: SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS …

We hope this Forum will spark journalists to think about topics that our peers consider important this year. If you are an IARJ member, email any comment you wish to add to this Forum to Web Editors Elisa DiBenedetto (elisadibenedetto@theiarj.org) or Larbi Megari (lmegari@theiarj.org). We invite journalists to respond in any language that is most appropriate. If you are not a member of IARJ, and would like to learn more about our work, please follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RJournalists If you are a journalist interested in covering religion-related news stories, please see the “Become a Member” box on our front page.