By Anna Averkiou
A media bias towards presenting faith and religion in a negative way has resulted in faith communities not trusting reporters working at a local level, according to a BBC religion reporter.
Alex Strangwayes-Booth was speaking at the Religion and Media Festival “Exploring Belief”, about the need to build trust and a bond with communities.
Alex Strangwayes-Booth, who has a brief for BBC local and regional output, said: “News needs headlines and stories that people are going to read, be interested in and click on. National news is willing to do stories about religion — if they’re negative stories about child abuse, illegal schools, sex education and the like. This then has repercussions for reporters working at a local level, because those faith communities do not trust you and it is very difficult to build a bond of trust with them.”
Stuart Thomas, head of BBC Midlands, agreed: “A lot of the time the only time you will see a national journalist is when something bad has happened. We then go in as regional or local journalists wanting to tell the good stories, but we don’t get trusted to tell them because we’re from a particular news organisation — and this is not just about the BBC, it is across the board.”
Debbie Luxon, a community reporter with Reach — a news group with nine national papers and 110 regional titles — described how hard it was during her first year working in Cambridge because no one wanted to talk to her. It wasn’t just because of who she worked for. She recalled her experiences trying to get the local homeless, Jewish and Roma communities to trust her after they had been betrayed by other journalists in the past.
“I went to my editor and said I wanted to do positive stories to balance all the negative ones. The response was that we can’t just be doing positive news as we’re not a charity. It was really hard to get that balance and it continues to be an issue,” she said, adding that her job has probably been the hardest of her life, but one she would definitely do again.
Luxon is part of the Community News Project (CNP) which was launched in 2019 with £4.5m in funding from Facebook shared between a number of news publishers. It is administered by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ).
Helen Harper, regional head of communities at Reach, describes the CNP as “brilliant” in the way it increases representation and gives a voice to under-represented communities whether geographical where newspapers felt they weren’t making a difference, or certain demographics such as LGBTQ+ or young people.
“The project is different as it is also about increasing diversity in our newsrooms. It’s open to people with absolutely no experience of journalism, people with some experience, with perhaps a media base degree, and to those who already have their NCTJ diploma. During their time on the project, they receive training in their qualifications.
“Crucially, their main role is to build a relationship and trust with these communities. It’s not just writing a story and moving on. It’s developing it and keeping in touch with those contacts,” she added.
Thomas recalled the fear over seeing a reduction in the ability and resources of all local news organisations, including the BBC, to hold people to account — particularly some of the smaller councils and decision-making bodies.
As a result, the BBC agreed to fund 150 local democracy reporters from the last licence fee settlement. They work for local newspapers and create a feed of news stories about democracy and holding people to account in their areas. The feed is then shared between 900 organisations across the UK who have chosen to subscribe to these feeds — from micro blogs covering one small part of town to, in some cases, ITV and the BBC, as well as the local newspapers.
“I think they’ve done and extraordinary job over the past few years breaking stories that would not have been heard without this scheme. It’s absolutely making a difference,” he said.
The panel’s discussion was chaired by Leo Devine, a journalism lecturer at Plymouth University and former head of BBC South West, who observed that pandemic lockdowns had resulted in many people rediscovering what it meant to be part of a community.
“Community is much more than a geographical position or a postcode. It can be all of those bonds of culture, ethnicity, sexuality, faith. But it can also be a very challenging task for the media reporting on that intricate mosaic of community because it’s always changing,” he said.
Adnan Rashid, another Reach community reporter, agreed, saying his idea of community was now very different from when he started out.
“I just thought community was race or religion, and that was it. But with the pandemic and also identifying different aspects of my role I realised that business owners, pub landlords, football teams and cricket clubs are all communities within communities.”
Luxon added: “Religious communities are a great way of accessing people who just wouldn’t otherwise really talk to you.”
Asked what the future held for community reporting, Harper said Facebook had extended its project for another year: “All the newsrooms benefit from having our community reporter there, so I think the CNP is just an absolute step in the right direction. Hopefully going forward, the reporters will continue to make a difference in the work that they do.”
Thomas is very excited about the BBC moving key services such as Asian Network and Newsbeat to Birmingham because it means that journalists and aspiring journalists can have a whole career moving through different parts of the BBC without having to leave the Midlands.
“I think every journalist on every national broadcaster and newspaper knows that, actually, we didn’t get the tone of the country right around Brexit. The outcome was a surprise to a lot of national journalists, but not necessarily those of us working locally.”
He concluded: “We’ve got to be better at having our tentacles, those networks out in different places that are not London. I think spreading it out now across the whole of the UK is going to be important to get better stories out of more communities.”