Religion and Belief in the News – training and resourcing journalists

Posted by Angela Graham

Former School tutor, Angela Graham describes how a staff-room conversation inspired the first ever session on Religious Literacy in a Welsh school of journalism and an innovative workshop for working journalists #ReportingBelief16

Many mainstream stories have religion in the mix. The conjunction of religion and violence, the clash of ethnicity, faith and culture or controversy around the relation of secular ideology and faith-based values – these, and more, feature regularly on the news agenda.

Who takes responsibility for ensuring that journalism students and professional journalists are well-equipped to interpret the powerful impetus of religion at home and abroad – and not only religion but belief in a wider sense?

The answer has been almost no one.

But that is changing, and the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC) is at the forefront of efforts to improve journalists’ ability to ‘read’ the signs of the impact of religion and belief in local and world affairs and to resource their interest.

On January 23rd I delivered, to the Broadcast Journalism MAs, the first session in any school of journalism in Wales on ‘Religious Literacy’ for journalists. This term refers not to specialist religious journalism but to mainstream journalism in its intersection with religion and belief.

The seed of my interest was sown at JOMEC in the autumn term of 2014. Emma Gilliam, then Course Director on the MA in Broadcast Journalism, told me how exasperated she was that the standard of student work fell every time there was religion in the story mix. She was concerned that students were offered no particular assistance in this area despite the fact that religion is seldom out of the headlines.

I looked for an example of good practice in teaching on religion/belief and journalism but established that no journalism or media department in any of the seven other Welsh universities was providing any input at under or post-graduate level; nor was there any training on offer to working journalists despite repeated claims that inadequate professional reporting damaged social cohesion.

NUJ Training Wales backed my proposal for a workshop on religious literacy for working journalists. ITV Cymru Wales offered a venue. The result was When Religion Makes the News, a day-long workshop held on in Cardiff on November 8th.

Richard Sambrook, Director of the Centre for Journalism, Cardiff University said of the workshop, “Today it is more important than ever to report religion in a well-informed, thoughtful way. Religion has a huge impact on society and understanding it is core to any journalist’s role.”

Eighty-two people attended, both journalists and representatives of faith and secular belief systems.

This blog  gives an overview of the day and access to resources prepared for it:

Important new work on Islam in Wales was presented by BBC Radio 4 Current Affairs journalist, Innes Bowen.

Innes Bowen and Hussein Kesvani - @HirstPhotos
Innes Bowen and Hussein Kesvani – @HirstPhotos

Her ground-breaking book, Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent – Inside British Islam, written to fill a gap in resources for journalists, is an invaluable source of information on the ideologies, funding, composition and international relationships of 8 main branches of Islam in (it has to be said) England.

BBC Wales promptly brought Innes back to Cardiff in December to speak to fifty more staff.

The workshop was a chance to hear other informed speakers, such as Lapido Media’s Dr Jenny Taylor who published a kindle handbook on religious literacy for journalists in December and Hussein Kesvani from the Theos think tank. It also offered a session on self-scrutiny for journalists, exploring neutrality, orthodoxy and blind spots.

Professional media reps from five branches of the three Abrahamic faiths shared what they have to offer and the challenges they face in working with journalists. The overlap in their experiences both highlights problems and indicates solutions. One such is the training programmes open to journalists – the Vatican’s Covering Catholicism in the Age of Francis, for example. But these opportunities need to be better publicised.

Despite the prominence of religion in the event’s title, the true scope of this work is belief more widely, hence the event’s hashtag #ReportingBelief16, because belief is not restricted to religious faith. Secularism and other ideologies deserve attention in the training of journalists. I feel that the term ‘Belief Literacy’ is more accurate than ‘Religious Literacy’. The religious and the secular should not be held in an artificial separation.

The workshop helped us establish priorities in the area such as the need to grasp the importance of authority structures, of accountability within a faith, of the legitimacy of public representatives, of understanding nuances of belief within a denomination and how orthodoxy and heterodoxy relate in practice. These fed into my session with the Broadcast MAs.

The workshop’s Resource List shows where the energy around this topic is situated within British academia. It is an area of journalistic practice and research which is likely to increase in prominence.

Also launched on November 8th is the Religious Literacy Partnership’s online training programme Religious Literacy for Organisations which emerges from Goldsmiths, London University. (I strongly recommend Prof Adam Dinham’s Religious Belief in Policy and Practice ed. Dinham and Francis, Policy Press, 2016).

This autumn Cardiff University launched its first undergraduate module, Religion and the News: Conflict and Context via its School of History, Archaeology and Religion. It is designed by former radio journalist, Dr Michael Munnik of Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. More than 50 students have opted for the module.

There is an appetite for more in this field.  Aaqil Ahmed, till last November BBC Head of Religion and Ethics, will speak about religious literacy in a guest lecture at JOMEC on February 16th. There are plans for an ambitious collaboration shortly between NUJ Training Wales, BBC Cymru and the JOMEC’s Centre for Community Journalism involving journalists and representatives of faith and belief communities.

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