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A new study shows that UK journalists are becoming less religious. How is that affecting the quality of religious news?
Last week, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), based at Oxford University, released an insightful report on the state of the British news media.
The report touched on key issues that affect most journalists today: the lack of female journalists in senior positions, the higher barriers to entry that affect the poorest people in society, as well as the significant lack of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) journalists working across Newsrooms.
But there was one statistic which most largely ignored.
The study found that “Journalists are less religious than the general population and a smaller proportion claim membership of the Muslim, Hindu, and Christian faiths.”
Compared with the 2011 census, where 28% of Britons declared they practiced no religion, 61% of journalists claimed no religious affiliation. 31% would identify themselves as Christian, while representation of other major faiths in newsrooms were all less than 5%.
The data comes following the publication of the BBC white paper, part of which suggested the broadcaster should invest more resources into religious programming. Meanwhile, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, told the Sunday Times that the BBC lacked a diversity in religious output, claiming there was too much focus on content aimed at Christians.
In short, the state of the news industry illustrates a decline in religious belief at a scale that vastly outpaces the wider British society it reports on. And for some, this decline in belief may be shaping both the quality and range of religious content generally.
The data is worrying, particularly because of the important role faith and religion play in everyday life : The state of the economy, the refugee crisis, as well as the continued “war on terror”. All these are issues require moral and ethical thinking to inform practical solutions – some of which will inevitably be informed by religion.
An informed knowledge of faith is also needed to understand issues at home too.
Take, for example, current political debate on what it means to be “integrated” into British society. The government has tended to define this using citizenship tests or standards on speaking English.
During my time as a religion reporter, I often found that this question was much more complex, and that even the most ardent supporters of immigration couldn’t really answer this question. Sometimes, they would see integration as an economic argument – mainly, as a means of “contributing to wider society”. But few had actually interacted with the migrant communities they defended politically – even fewer knew about what motivated and created those migrant communities in the first place.
I found that the answer had a lot to do with shared religious belief, and the institutions that were built around those convictions – whether it was a renovated garage turned into a Church, or family houses that also operated as Muslim prayer spaces on Fridays. Knowing how and why these spaces existed, and the role of religion and faith, was a fundamental part of of telling the stories about these communities with nuance.
Good religion reporting is becoming rarer, mostly due to shrinking newspaper budgets and the transition to pay models favouring ‘clickbait’ over reportage. Barring specialist newspapers and magazines, dedicated religion reporters are more of a rarity too.
The consequence is not just an absence of publicly available information about faith institutions, but also a decline in quality of religion content. Quite often, stories about faith that enter the mainstream tend to be largely negative and sensational – just think about the number of tabloid stories you’ve read claiming an impending Islamic take–over of Britain, or discrimination court cases involving conservative Christians.
Efforts have been made by some to increase the quality of religion reporting, however.
Institutions like the BBC and Channel 4 have specialist units dedicated to religious broadcasting. Other independent outlets, including the online outlet Lapido, specialise in religion stories and provide media training in religious literacy.
When it comes to religion reporting, broadcast media still outpaces print. Both the Jerusalem Award and the Sandford St Martin Award are given annually to celebrate the best of Christian–orientated religious reporting.
But more can, and should be done, to improve the overall quality of religion reporting in Britain. A good start would be for journalism schools to be more proactive in reaching out to faith–based organisations when designing courses. Unlike in the United States, no journalism school in the UK teaches a specific course relating specifically to religion. As a result, many junior reporters covering religion stories can find themselves poorly–equipped on the field.
My experience as a religion reporter showed that, while religious institutions tend to be private, the vast majority are willing to work with the media in pursuit of accurate reporting about their communities. Reaching out to faith organisations would also provide an environment in which to collaborate and develop ideas of mutual interest.
Though data shows a decreasing personal religiosity among many Britons, general interest in faith still remains strong. And beyond the superficial headlines you see in your Facebook feed, there is still a real demand for high quality information about the role of faith in Britain and around the world.
For reporters and news outlets, getting the balance right on religion reporting will always be a challenge – but it can be made easier with a conscious effort to truly understand why religion still remains relevant today.
Hussein Kesvani is a freelance journalist and media consultant at Theos | @HKesvani
Image by wikipedia.org.uk, available in the public domain.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.