Some of the first reports on the Norway massacre fueled speculation Muslims
were responsible. Later reports described the perpetrator as a “Christian
terrorist” or a “Christian fundamentalist.”
Grisly images of the corpse of Moammar Gaddafi quickly made their way on to
the websites of mainstream media outlets throughout the world. Some media tried
to increase newsstand sales with gloating, revenge-oriented headlines such as “Mad
Dog caught as he brandished golden gun” and “Murdering rat gets his just
desserts” from London tabloids.
Welcome to journalism in the digital age.
New technology offers many wonderful opportunities to communicate fair and
accurate reporting on religion to audiences throughout the world. New websites
offering religion news offer more alternatives for writers and readers, and
traditional media outlets are developing greater skills in using the Internet
and social media to expand their influence. Electronic resources and new means
of communication provide journalists with superb access to religion data and
provide the possibility for effective global cooperation among journalists
writing on issues of faith and public life.
Yet there are also many new areas of concern in journalism in the digital
age. No longer do many writers and editors have hours or even much of a day
before publication to consider ethical issues. The rush to be first, or not to
be last, amid the burgeoning competition made possible by the Internet is a
powerful incentive to relax ethical standards.
Making things worse is the fact the perceived quick attention span of modern
audiences means there is less careful, follow-up reporting of major events.
Media interest can disappear in hours or days, leaving the incomplete early
reports as the lasting impressions on reader’s and viewer’s minds.
We can, and we have to, do so much better.
As we have discussed throughout the dialogue, our work starts before major
incidences of conflict take place.
Those media outlets who have accurately reported on their communities would
have alerted their audiences to sources of religious conflict, and presented
fair perspectives of the religious and secular groups experiencing
So once they have to report on an event such as, say, a terrorist attack or
a small church burning Islamic scripture, they are well equipped to report the
significance of the events in a fair manner that increases understanding rather
than panders to popular prejudices.
In an age of instant communication, however, all of us are challenged to
balance the desire to get the news out there as quickly as possible with the
responsibility to make sure the information is accurate.
We have seen how news of a controversial act regarding religion in one part
of the world can be interpreted in another part of the world in a way that
leads to a deadly backlash. Witness the killing of U.N. workers and others in
Afghanistan earlier this year in protests over the Quran
burning in Florida.
We also have to make careful judgments on the credibility of information we
are receiving from various sources, from official government agencies to
representatives of various sectarian groups who may be more interested in
manipulating the news to their advantage than sharing an accurate picture.
For example, in the case of the Norway shootings, it is one thing to say
that the police said a “Christian fundamentalist” was responsible, and another
thing entirely for us to report that ourselves without attribution. Once we
have more information showing this individual was acting primarily on extreme,
anti-immigrant motives, we need to report that as well.
The emotion of the moment may also challenge us to step back and be sure we
neither get caught up with the crowds nor attempt to leave out information by
making our own judgments of what is best for our audiences.
In both headlines and our reporting, we need to report the response to
events such as Gaddafi’s death, but at the same time not abandon our own ethics
by applying different standards regarding how we show his bloody end. And we
need to share how many of the same foreign and domestic parties cheering the
autocrat’s end also were complicit in his reign when it suited their
In the same way, even if we are tempted, for example, to ignore violence
against minority groups because it undermines the hoped-for end of national
unity amid regime changes, it is our job as journalists to present all the
facts. A well-informed citizenry is able to make the best public policy
Finally, our reporting does not end a day or two after the incident when
other media chase after the next celebrity scandal or sensational crime. It is
only as information becomes available in the following weeks and months that we
can present a more faithful picture of the original event.
We should leave our readers with the best reporting, not just with what we
can dig up in the first couple of news cycles.
Reporting on global religious conflict in the digital age is not going to be
easy. Many outlets will take less ethical routes. But upholding standards of
fairness and accuracy is part of our professional responsibility and in the
long term we will separate ourselves out from the crowd as a source our
audiences can trust.