Marking our fifth anniversary as a worldwide organization, our web team invited some active members to respond in this Forum format to the question: “Why does the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ) matter in today’s world?”
As we raised the question, we wondered whether our original 2012 mission statement was still relevant. Perhaps our individual perspectives on our mission had evolved? We were fascinated—and encouraged—to find some of the first responses from our members clearly echoing that mission statement.
In 2012, our organizers agreed on this mission statement: The International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ) is a global network of journalists promoting excellence in the coverage of religion and spirituality. It provides services and resources to strengthen and support the work of its members. It engages media leaders, educational institutions and communities on the importance of accurate, balanced, and ethical religion coverage to foster understanding.
PLEASE NOTE: If you are an IARJ member, email any comment you wish to add to this Forum to Web Editors Elisa DiBenedetto (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Larbi Megari (email@example.com). 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.
Now, in 2017, here are some of the responses to our current call for comments on:
Why does the IARJ matter in today’s world?
RESPONSES TO THE FORUM QUESTION:
“The IARJ offers a network of highly skilled religion-reporters from around the world and an arena for debate on how to report on sensitive topics in a professional way.”
Astrid Dalehaug Norheim is head of the newsroom at the Norwegian newspaper Dagen.
“The IARJ offers all the means to help journalists accurately and fairly cover religion, which ultimately will promote tolerance among people of all faiths.”
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.
“IARJ’s members are active in their contributions in promoting balanced journalism in general, and religion journalism in particular.”
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.
Like Astrid, J.D. and Larbi, many members echoed the original mission of the IARJ, which is an encouraging sign after five years. In addition, a number of members responding to this 2017 Forum emphasized that the challenges of religion newswriting are larger than covering under-reported issues in the news. In today’s world, members pointed out to us, we are collectively confronting individuals and movements actively trying to skew, control or conceal religious influences. In her comment, below, Rachel mentions the challenge of secularization and even anti-religious movements. Then, in his comment, Martin goes further and describes a common newsroom attitude of anxiety or even fear over tackling religious issues.
A BALANCING INFLUENCE
“The IARJ exists to promote the importance of informed and unbiased coverage of religion-based stories in the media. By encouraging specialization in reporting on religion and enlarging the worldwide network of religion journalists—coverage of developments that effect the human rights and civil rights of individuals and communities will be improved. The IARJ counterbalances the highly secular and often anti-religion journalistic culture that frequently misses important religion stories. Properly covering these stories can contribute positively to society and can foster positive inter-faith relations, especially in high-risk communities.”
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.
EASING NEWSROOM FEARS
“Religion is a subject that many publications are afraid to tackle because they don’t understand that it’s possible to cover religion as a sociological phenomenon with a profound effect on culture and politics. I like to say that religion doesn’t exist on the surface of politics so much as just below. All you have to do is scratch the surface a little, however, and you begin to understand how significant a part of our institutions it is. The IARJ is all about teaching reporters and editors how to scratch those surfaces effectively. Developing that skill is more important now than ever.”
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.
Our most recent IARJ conference was held in Africa and, not surprisingly, our African members especially emphasized the dangers in that continent of leaders who attempt to abuse religious authority, exercise anti-religious bias and even attempt to curb religious freedom. The IARJ’s global networks, strengthened by our annual conferences like the one in Ghana, help journalists across an entire continent to build stronger working relationships. The following are comments from Tanzania, Sudan, Nigeria and South Africa.
SOLIDARITY AMONG REPORTERS
“The IARJ brings solidarity among reporters interested in covering religion issues across the world. Also, religion may sound uniform in theory but it is diverse in practice and members of IARJ appreciate how diverse these issues related to religion are in today’s world. Collectively, we can draw on the association to learn about each other’s experience in efforts to accurately understand global religion with all of its complex dynamics.”
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.
“The IARJ is important in this year 2017 because we all share a common need to accurately report on ideas, issues, problems—and perspectives on such events—that are linked in some form to religion. If we do this, we will contribute to a more conscious and supportive public opinion about religious diversity. In many parts of the world, right now, we are encountering negative perspectives on religion that include abuses of religion, religious bias and even efforts to curb people’s freedom in choosing their beliefs. If we hope to achieve comprehensive and balanced change in societies around the world—moving toward peace and security—then a better of understanding of religion is essential.”
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.
A POOL OF EXPERTS
“The IARJ matters to me in covering Nigeria and West Africa. I am able to draw from an immensely talented pool of expert journalists. I like to refer to this resource as “The IARJ Edge”—a platform for journalists and related media profesionals to gather for the purpose of writing, reading, sharing and exchanging views on religion and reportage.”
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.
HELPING EACH OTHER
“With global membership that cuts across religious, cultural and social backgrounds, the IARJ plays a significant role in addressing misconceptions of religion and its practice. I appreciate learning about ways to focus in my reporting on commonalities that cut across diverse religious communities, such as themes of peace, equity, justice and truth—and how these values affect the social space. I appreciate this balance, because I find that too many reports on religion focus on negatives as perceived by the public, sometimes forgetting to highlight the similarities or the commonalities in religion.”
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).
A SPACE FOR HEALTHY DEBATE
“The regional networks we are building are very important. Coming together through our association with the IARJ creates a space where journalists can talk passionately about the work we do and share examples of the best reporting in this beat. It is an initiative with noble intentions: to encourage journalists to improve their reporting on religion, something that plays an important role in the lives of people worldwide. The work the association does is essential to ensure better reporting on religion and ultimately bring about understanding within diverse communities.”
Yazeed Kamaldien, based in South Africa, has reported from various countries, including work as a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker.
These perspectives are not limited to Africa, of course—as evidenced by two comments from longtime members in Europe (Germany) and Asia (India) as well as one of our newest members in North America (the U.S.).
“The IARJ matters to me because it is network of journalists from various countries and cultural backgrounds who truly care about religion reporting, thus enhancing the exchange of views and international perspectives on religion coverage worldwide. Such community is important so that we can help each other as journalists in how to deal with newsroom prejudice against religion, or against a particular religion, in editorial decision making both in secular and confessional media. Also important to me is that the IARJ was founded with the goodwill of promoting fairness and accuracy in religion journalism as a means to contribute to resolving global conflicts in which faith is a component. In that sense, providing tools, resources and forums for journalists from every religion, or without religious affiliation, to learn about other traditions and beliefs is essential to our purpose.“
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.
EXPLORING UNIVERSAL EXPERIENCES
“The IARJ encourages journalists in openness and understanding toward religion, which is a universal life experience. Every person, at some point during life, faces questions about religious identity—and the dilemma of so many other religious identities around the world. As journalists, IARJ members open the minds of their audiences to a broader understanding of this complex and diverse life experience. Religion also is a social force and a key part of cultural identity. While religion can promote peace, it also can lead to conflict. Our world today suffers from far too much conflict, some of it related to religion. We certainly need information that can help us to collectively seek peace, harmony and human understanding. Inter-religious news reporting is all about broadening our identities and our understanding of the sacred traditions, social forces and cultural customs of religion. In joining IARJ, I am proud that I am able to work with journalists who strive to do this in a mature way.”
Bhavya Srivastava, based in India, has reported news stories involving religion for TV as well as online and print news publications.
RESEARCH & ACCURACY IN REPORTING
“The IARJ matters because as funding is cut for religion-based journalism in many major and minor newspapers and publications worldwide, the necessity for accurate, knowledgeable reporting has not ceased. On the contrary, it has increased. As more world citizens turn to the web for news, it is the job of professional journalists to publish information that helps to combat the many rumors, biases and hate-filled messages flowing across the Internet. As business becomes more international each day and neighborhoods blend people of differing cultures and religious backgrounds, it is vital that religious news be reported with clarity and with authenticity. The complexities of religion—and, to that end, the meticulous wording and vast knowledge that is needed when reporting on religion—cannot be understated. As members of the IARJ, we share the value of reporting with accuracy, which means that we share the burden of learning ourselves through research and reporting. In an arena of life with such capacity for controversy, it is critical that news be reported by knowledgeable, perceptive and well-informed reporters. One of the great strengths of the IARJ is the wealth of knowledge available from our colleagues.”
Stephanie Fenton has reported the only daily coverage of religious holidays, festivals and milestones for the www.ReadTheSpirit.com magazine.
A FOUNDER’S PERSPECTIVE
A final perspective on this question comes from IARJ Chair Douglas Todd with a reminder of an early ally in the founding of the organization: Best-selling religion scholar Karen Armstrong.
Karen Armstrong responded to the creation of our global association of religion journalists with the word: “Terrific.” Armstrong said it is “crucial” for the world’s religion journalists to promote ethical coverage of the often-divisive and controversial subject. “One of the problems we have is the media who only present very one-sided views of certain religious activities,” said Armstrong, the British author of best-selling books about Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, the city of Jerusalem and religious fundamentalism. “Islam is the obvious example. We hear all about the negative that people are saying. But we don’t have a balance of the positive. All too many platitudes that people assume about Islam—that it’s basically opposed to modernity, that it’s inherently violent. This is all not true.” Armstrong spoke with me during a visit to Vancouver, Canada, as part of her global tour to promote the “Charter of Compassion.” She said, “It’s terrific to have journalists meet together to start to develop an ethic about how religion is reported. It’s absolutely terrific.”
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Larbi Megari (email@example.com). 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.