Why can’t the media properly cover religion?
There are no easy answers, but neither religious leaders nor journalists are happy with the current coverage.
This is one of the main findings of the largest ever study of media coverage of faith and religion, The Global Faith and Media Study.
It took place in August and September. To read the study, click here.
The Faith and Media Initiative commissioned the study and HarrisX, a market research and consulting firm, surveyed more than 9,000 people in 86 countries around the world. HarrisX also conducted more than 30 in-depth interviews with journalists and editors around the world.
The initiative brings together religious leaders, members of the media and content creators. Its goals are to “promote more thoughtful and abundant faith-related stories that inspire healthy public conversation about spirituality,” according to its website.
The study found that the general public wants more and better coverage of faith and religion, while journalists feel that the existing coverage is “poor, inconsistent and increasingly marginalized”.
This is a good place to start.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “RELIGION”?
When we talk about religion, what are we talking about? At least 6 billion people around the world follow a religious tradition, and their beliefs are quite diverse, according to the Pew Research Center.
The word “religion” can refer to Christianity, Islam or Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism or New Age spirituality, folk religions or a number of other faiths.
Beyond the religious, there are the non-religious: the atheists, who do not believe in God; agnostics, who doubt that we will ever know if God exists; and people who do not identify with any particular religion. Even some of these groups are organized.
FAITH IN THE WORLD IS COMPLEX
Consider the complexity of a single religion. Christianity remains the world’s largest religion with more than 2 billion members and more than 40,000 denominations worldwide, according to the World Atlas.
Christianity has two billion members…. or does he? If you Google “number of Christians in the world” you will see what I mean. Some sources put the number of members at 2.2 billion, while others say 2.3 billion, 2.4 billion, 2.54 billion, 2.6 billion, or 2.6+ billion.
The fundamental belief of Christians is the deity of Jesus Christ, but our beliefs and practices branch off in many directions from there.
- The three main branches of Christianity are Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox.
- After just one of these branches, Protestantism, we find three major traditions: the Evangelical, mainstream, and historically black churches, according to the Pew Research Center.
- Within Protestantism are Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, Quakers, and many, many other denominations.
- Within denominations, you find Baptists, who can be evangelical, traditional, or historically black; Pentecostals, who are evangelical or historically black; Lutherans, who are Evangelical or Mainstream, etc.
It would be quite easy for a journalist to offend people by misusing words, making assumptions or perpetuating stereotypes.
I’m a birthplace Christian, but one of my first mistakes as a journalist happened in a story related to Christianity. It happened when I was editor of small town community lifestyles.
I interviewed a new Presbyterian minister and wrote a story that referred to his church as a “Presbyterian church. in America” rather than “Presbyterian Church in the USA,” or such inaccuracy.
I am Methodist. I had no idea that there were many kinds of Presbyterianism, and I didn’t bother to check my “facts”. The pastor was benevolent, but some of his members were unhappy. Needless to say, I learned a valuable lesson.
HOW DO PEOPLE DESCRIBE THEIR FAITH?
Let’s go back to the World Faith and Media Study and see what ordinary people had to say.
- 84% of the world’s population identified as religious, spiritual or believers.
- 74% are associated with a specific religion.
- 72% said they believe in God or other deities.
- 31% identified themselves as generally religious.
- 27% considered themselves witty.
FAITH COVERAGE IS WEAK
People around the world want “better coverage, understanding and portrayal of faith in the media”, according to the study.
- 53% of respondents said news media actively ignore religion.
- 59% want the media to cover various beliefs and religious angles.
- 63% request “high quality content on faith and religion” in their country.
- 61% believe that the media perpetuate the stereotypes on faith and religion.
- 78% think religious stereotype should get the same attention or more than racial and gender stereotypes.
- 85% want to “more diversity and lived experiences religious representatives.
THE MEDIA POV
Journalists believe coverage of faith and religion is inconsistent and becoming increasingly marginalized, according to the Faith and Media Study. They cite several reasons:
- Media professionals do not see faith and religion as topics that engage readers, and reader engagement is vital to them. Media organizations are businesses, after all, and they depend on readers and advertisers to survive.
- Media professionals don’t think religion is appropriate hard news the environment, except when controversy fuels media coverage. They classify “religion” as sweet news if they think about it at all.
- Reduced budgets This means that most media organizations use general reporters rather than religious specialists to cover stories about religion and faith.
- Newsrooms are not known to be particularly religious, and journalists and their editors do not consider themselves experts on faith and religion. Given their lack of expertise, they fear of making mistakes in their cover, and they probably will.
Recent research by McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, supports some of these findings.
The company asked CEO-level media executives to predict the stories that would make headlines around the world in the coming months. Media professionals predicted (in no particular order):
- Climate change
- Big tech
- Fossil energy shortage
- state of democracy
- Economic effects of COVID-19
- Artificial intelligence
- Global challenges related to the evolution of supply
- Labor vs big business / labor shortage
- China-related tensions
- Politics and elections
- Income inequality
- Education policy
There was no mention of religion.
Several Patheos contributors have published articles in response to the faith and media study. Here is what some have said:
“Again, this just shows that what people want hear about, and what the media want speak, are often two very different things“said the veteran journalist Kate O’Hare. “Religion is often positioned as a conservative or extreme force in coverage, which creates a tendency to seek outspoken dogmatic spokespersons on more intermediate religious observers with dominant opinions.
“We can certainly produce more real interactive conversations in the form of blogs, and surely many of us could become more regular podcast spokespeople and conversation partners,” one evangelical writer wrote. Adrian Warnockwho has been blogging since 2003.
Keith Gilles, a former pastor, author and progressive Christian writer, said he was grateful for the global faith and media study. “It suggests that we already know we are separated by social media and are tired of the ‘us versus them’ rhetoric that permeates almost everything we consume… What we need is the opportunity to learn, and it starts with listen to those who may have a new perspective.” See his full article here.
“With such religious diversity in the world, it’s important for the news media to get it right,” said Nadia Ahmed, whose Patheos blog is “The Mu’mina Lifestyle: Reviving Faith in Muslim Women”. Sensationalism creates stereotypes and negative images, which can cause misunderstandings and hatred between people of different religions, she said. “The the media have a responsibility to society and should be aware the impact of their words. See Nadia’s full article on faith and media here.
STORIES WAITING TO BE TOLD
That said, there are in-depth religious stories waiting to be told. An example is the recent divisions within the United Methodist Church (UMC). UMC progressives formed the Liberation Methodist Connection in 2020, while conservatives established the Methodist World Church earlier this year. Gay questions were the catalyst in both situations.
These are two major changes in a major world denomination in two years, and there are several viewpoints and stories that journalists could tell. What specific problems caused the divisions? Why couldn’t church leaders solve the problems? What do splits mean for individual churches and congregations? Is The United Methodist Church Collapsing? Are other denominations facing similar disagreements?
Other story ideas:
- Questioning religious leaders on the relevance or non-relevance of religion in the 21st century and talk about how religions can make themselves more relevant.
- Ask women about their changing roles in their religious communities.
- Talk to Christian pastors about the decline of Christianity in Europe and the United States. Why is it declining and what can be done about it?
- Why is Christianity growing so rapidly in Africa? What lessons can Christians elsewhere learn?
- Asking Muslim leaders about the challenges they face in the 21stst
START THE CONVERSATION
As a former journalist and brand new religious blogger, I hope the Global Faith and Media Study will help faith leaders, journalists and editors better understand each other. Most of us want more balanced stories about faith and religion, and the study is a good place to start the conversation in that direction.