The media need to avoid stereotyping religion and exaggerating conflict between faith groups, according to a panel at a recent International Press Institute conference in South Africa in which IARJ members participated.
“The real reason we are not doing a good job reporting on religion is that it is complex and journalists are too lazy to study about different religions in society,” said Endy Bayuni, a senior editor at the Jakarta Post newspaper in Jakarta, Indonesia.
“We stereotype. That’s the shorthand way of explaining something that is complex. Some of us are doing it deliberately because it is part of our agenda, but for others it is done out of ignorance,” said Bayuni, who is on the board of the International Association for Religion Journalists (IARJ).
Bayuni, who took part in the conference along with fellow IARJ director Yazeed Kamaldien of South Africa, made his remarks on a panel on religion at the International Press Institute’s 63rd World Congress, which concluded on April 15, 2014.
The IPI, which advocates for press freedom and the protection of journalists, gathered participants for the Congress from its 120 member countries.
Melissa Chea-Annan, editor of The Inquirer newspaper in Liberia, said conflict in her country of 4.1 million people was exacerbated by the way journalists covered religion.
“Religion played a major role in prolonging the civil crisis. It caused massive destruction. Christians and Muslims were at loggerheads. They were killing each other,” Chea-Annan said.
“One of the main rebel groups was organized by a journalist. He used his profession to raise money. Then he recruited people and they started killing.”
Post-conflict Liberia has now been turned into a secular state, said Chea Annan, “because we do not want to have conflict between religions. All schools used to teach the Bible and all religions wanted to have their religion taught as well. The president then decided to ban the teaching of the Bible in all public schools.”
Despite increased secularism in Liberia, however, Chea-Annan raised a warning that religion is again “creeping into the media,” creating a sense in Liberia that journalists are taking sides in old conflicts.
“As journalists we don’t have to take sides. We have to be balanced in our reporting. We are doing everything we can to unite the media in Liberia,” said Chea-Annan.
“We are trying to bring all religions together. There is a need for us to put aside our religions when we report. We have a code of ethics guiding our reporting. In the manner we report, we can either bring war or peace.”
Australian-Lebanese journalist Mary Saliba, a TV producer with Al Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar, said that too many journalists inject religious ideology into their articles.
“There are a lot of negative images related to religion presented in the media, particularly in the Middle East. We are mixing religious ideology with politics,” said Saliba.
Journalists should think carefully before broadcasting or publishing voices that promote hatred, especially in the Middle East, where volatility pervades politics and the social fabric, she said, adding that people using social media often heighten misconceptions and stereotypes about religion, creating fear.
“Journalists need to report religion in a better way. We can’t stand back and say, ‘I’m a journalist and I’m just here to report the facts’. We need to take more care about what we report on. We need to think about whether we should report on someone who denounces another religious group.”
Saliba was particularly concerned about the way the media often focus on extreme religious voices.
“We know that media practitioners don’t go out intentionally to report those extremist voices. Sometimes they’re just the loudest voices.”
The IPI panel on religion was co-hosted by the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), which, like the IPI, is also based in Vienna, Austria.
Peter Kaiser, communications director at KAICIID, said the “media frames people’s perceptions of religion.”
Kaiser’s hope for the panel was not simply that it encourage journalists to “look for positive coverage of religion,” but that it provide a forum for discussing how reporting affects the public’s understanding of matters of faith.
Khaled Batarfi, a senior writer with the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, said journalists should ask themselves what the reason would be for giving space to extremist voices.
“It’s like starting something that is unethical. We are journalists and we are committed to free speech. But we are also citizens and should be responsible. We should not try to fool ourselves and say we are doing our duty. We could end up reporting stories that incite trouble between groups,” said Batarfi.
“Where you have people who are already sensitive, you can start a war. We need to be responsible.”
For his part, the IARJ’s Kamaldien appreciated how the panel members raised important issues from regions where religion played a much stronger role in politics than in secularized South Africa, where the conference took place.
“Religion is a very private affair in South Africa. It does not play a major role in the way the government is run, although we have politicians that follow various religions,” he said.
“It was fascinating to hear from our colleagues in Liberia and the Arab world about how religion was used to further political interests. This is a largely foreign concept in South Africa, although some politicians in this country have used religious platform to canvas for votes during election campaigns.”
While religion has played a vital role in the life of most South Africans, Kamaldien said it was generally not “used as a tool for division, but rather to help us understand each other better”.
Bayuni stressed that more newsrooms have to emphasize fair and balanced coverage of religion, especially in regions where faith is a central part of people’s lives and there are many different religions.
“The media can’t be concerned just about circulation. We know our industry thrives on conflict. We like those kind of stories. But the media is also part of the society in which we operate. The last thing we want is a religious war and to become a part of the problem. We can be a bridge between religious communities.”