By Ruth Peacock
The challenges and skills required in reporting religion in a rapidly changing society were considered in depth at the fifth Religion Media Festival held at the JW3 Centre in north London on 12 June.
As the British population is changing with fewer people describing themselves as Christians, higher numbers of people aligning with other world faiths and the number of people ticking the non-religion box on the rise, faith leaders, reporters and editors discussed why and how it is important to reflect religion in the media. Watch our highlight video below:
In his keynote address, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, welcomed the challenge and scrutiny of journalists in a world of “misinformation, distraction, and the competition of noise with truth”.
He said he tries to engage with the media, enjoys being interviewed, and it is vitally important to communicate well. He praised local and regional journalism for being deeply embedded in the community.
But he also warned of the disproportionality of social media “pile-ons” when people found themselves to be in the eye of a storm: “There is an absence of forgiveness, there is an absence of the possibility of redemption”.
In an interview with ITN’s Julie Etchingham, the archbishop went on to say that declining church attendance was a personal failure; the global Anglican church doesn’t need to be run by “a white guy from England”; people who fail to welcome the stranger – migrants – will face terrible consequences; and in an illuminating anecdote revealed that he practised crowning the king and queen in their bedroom in the days before the coronation.
His contribution was the culmination of a packed programme of panel discussions, interviews and comment, exploring the relationship between religion and the media.
Daisy Scalchi, head of religion and ethics for BBC Television, said programmes about religion explore life’s biggest questions and understanding the human experience, both as individuals and in relation to one another.
“It really is a subject that taps into the personal, the existential, the cultural, of course, the theological, the metaphysical. It is therefore, I believe, an extraordinary resource.”
Understanding “lived religion” is also a key driver for teachers and academics, said Dr Opinderjit Takhar, president of Theology and Religious Studies UK.
She welcomed a recommendation from the outgoing government faith engagement adviser that religious literacy was vital for organisations, schools and for journalists.
Faith literacy should form part of journalism degrees, she suggested, enabling greater understanding and peaceful coexistence which will make British society a much better place.
A panel of journalists who report religion for a living explained the challenges of reporting a subject that is often overlooked.
Burhan Wazir, editor at Hyphen Online, said the website started as a news service for Generation Z Muslims, because communities did not see themselves reflected in mainstream media.
Justin Cohen, news editor of Jewish News, said they highlighted and celebrated stories from within their communities that would not be expected to run in a national publication.
Kaya Burgess, science reporter and religious affairs correspondent of The Times, said readers were almost fatigued by stories about sex abuse or allegations about leaders, which recur and dominate headlines. But on a story about how religions would react if life was discovered on other planets, his two specialisms combined in a fascinating way.
Madeleine Davies of the Church Times said writing about an institution where there was abuse, corruption and division had a corrosive effect on a journalist and it was important to hold down links with friends and people outside work, especially to look after your own faith.
Amardeep Bassey fell into reporting religion through reporting marginalised communities in the Midlands and has since charted the rise of ethnic and inter religious fractures. Some of his most satisfying moments have been observing the reaction of a community when it sees its story in print for the first time, presented to a global audience online.
The Religion Media Centre launched a community reporting award at the festival, with a £1,000 prize available for a promising young reporter telling a great story with depth and understanding.
Roger Bolton returned to the festival stage to chair a discussion on how faith is centre stage in world affairs, with 85 per cent affiliated to a religion.
The panel discussed how religion is interwoven into major stories and its influence needs to be understood.
Journalist Sheetal Parma explained how in India, the undercurrent of feeling that Hinduism was being pushed aside has led to the rise in popularity of the BJP, but it wasn’t true to say that divisions between people were all about religion. History, politics, the economy and changing societies were also in play.
Muddassar Ahmed, co-founder of the Concordia Forum for western Muslim leaders, described how Muslims in Britain, the United States and the rest of Europe, entirely secular but of a religious background, are shaping politics and the media in interesting ways.
Michael Wegier, chief executive of the Board of British Jews said that their story was so much more than anti-semitism or Israel, important though they were. The media could be telling the story of the diversity, richness, vitality of the Jewish community, he suggested.
And Chine McDonald, director of the think tank Theos, said it was a myth that science has eradicated religion or pushed it into a private sphere. The coronation was one example of this.
It was important to understand, she said, that most Christians in the world are black and brown. Yet the narrative about Christianity being white and European, tends to creep into religious coverage.
“With the rise of the New Atheists in the 2000s, you would have thought what by now, in 2023, religion would have been pushed out of the public sphere – privatised. But we haven’t seen that. It ekes out into the political”.
Films of all our festival sessions can be found on our YouTube channel