Religious literacy: essential for the media to produce great journalism

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By Ruth Peacock

A parliamentary report has recommended that religious literacy should be embedded in journalism training.

The report, Learning to Listen, says a media that is diverse, curious and sensitive to the enormous variety of beliefs in the UK today can play a key role in fostering a more harmonious society.

It says religious literacy is essential for anyone who seeks to understand society today and it highlighted our work at the Religion Media Centre, in helping to develop journalistic skills with greater knowledge and understanding of religion .

The report was produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religion in the Media, in response to faith groups, academics and journalists who believe the misrepresentation of religious people and beliefs has become widespread in the media.

It sought to understand the institutional factors that determine the shape and character of the media and to explore what changes could help to foster a public debate about religion that is “more informed and empathetic, rigorous and respectful”.

Its recommendations are:

  • Journalists and programme-makers should aim to explore the “lived experience” of religion as well as its doctrinal, ritual and ceremonial elements.
  • Newspapers and broadcasters should audit and publish full accounts of their religion and belief workforce statistics to provide a better sense of who is working in the industry so that disparities can be addressed.
  • Religious literacy training should be formally incorporated into professional media qualifications and journalists’ continuing professional development.
  • Newspapers should take greater care with the pictures and headlines they choose, recognising that this is all that most viewers will see.
  • Independent regulation should be looked at again by policymakers because there remain significant issues around access to regulatory redress. In particular, groups should be able to make complaints on the grounds of discrimination.
  • The current religious programming hours required of the BBC should be protected in future reviews.
  • The remit of public service broadcasters should be redrafted to include the purpose of promoting religious literacy and all public service broadcasters should explore how they can use the full width of their output to increase religious literacy.

In an online launch, Yasmin Qureshi MP, who co-chairs the all-party group, said there was a recognition of the complexities of the media industry, but “we can all do better”.

The foreword says the report is directed both at the media and faith groups which have a responsibility to understand how best to tell their story and the constraints of modern-day journalism.

“Today, the UK is characterised by an incredible variety of beliefs, histories and perspectives. Complete agreement and uniformity are neither possible nor desirable. To live together well, it is beholden upon all of us to learn to listen to our fellow citizens and to do so with respect and curiosity before we move to judgment.”

The launch included academics, journalists, media executives and faith leaders who had contributed to its creation.

Alison Phillips, editor of the Sunday Mirror, Daily Mirror and the People, said she had detected a genuine heightened desire among journalists to listen and to make newsrooms more diverse and inclusive.

“Without truly listening to what a person is saying and knowing what the next question is to ask, and to really be able to empathise, you’re never going to get good journalism,” she said.

“The polarisation of debate throughout the world created by social media, is a huge issue. Built on screaming, shouting, swearing and threatening violence, this polarisation can probably only be healed by listening.”

Gary Jones, editor-in-chief of the Daily Express and the Sunday Express, said he felt guilt about the past in the way the media had misrepresented communities, especially Muslims, with Islamophobia and elements of racism.

He said the media was behind the curve in achieving religious literacy and it was crucial that the media got it right and its stories were absolutely accurate. The future should include journalists being held to account for every word that appears under their name.

“If we make a mistake, if something needs to be corrected, if there is imbalance, I want to be told because I want to put that right. I feel that’s part of my duty as a communicator.”

He said trust was a hugely important tissue and journalists had to earn the trust of the public. “The more as a society we can bring faith, religion, and viewpoints together without being overtly offensive and misrepresent a particular viewpoint, the better our society will be.”

Lord Faulks, QC, chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), made the point that much of the news that people consumed was not through regulated sources such as newspapers, but through social media.

Faced with suggestions that there should be tighter press regulation, he said Ipso engaged regularly with all sorts of faith groups and had recently published guidance on reporting in relation to Muslim matters and Islamophobia.

“I’m sure we all share a loyalty to the idea of a free press, but to do so sensitively and particularly in a well-informed way on religious matters. And I think your report will make a major contribution to that.”

Submissions to the report included written and oral evidence from us at the Religion Media Centre, which offers training for journalists in the reporting of religion, weekly briefings on stories in the news and contacts to help journalists navigate unfamiliar terrain.

One training course highlighted in the report was our session organised by the NCTJ for Community News Project journalists, working in regions throughout the UK. Mention was also made of our weekly zoom briefings.  

The report concluded that a more formalised approach building on our work and other organisations “could have a significant impact”.

To find out more about the training, briefings and contacts the Religion Media Centre can provide, email [email protected] and please browse through our website

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