We need a more religiously literate media if we are to build a more harmonious society
Too often media reporting on religion can be sensationalist and reinforce problematic stereotypes. We need a fundamental shift in a media culture to address these disparities and foster a religiously literate media environment.
It is easy to overlook in a year when the news headlines have been dominated by Covid-19, but religion has been an ever present feature of our daily news since the first lockdown in March 2020.
Whether regarding the closure of places of worship, the sudden alteration to the performance of rituals at Easter or in Ramadan, the rise in the number of people attending online religious services – some for the first time – or the growing burdens placed on religious funeral services having to adjust to PPE-compliant burials for the deceased, we have seen a proliferation of stories which involve and impact faith communities.
Not all have been benign. There have been stories erroneously depicting Muslims as violating lockdown restrictions, these later being exploited by far-right groups to perpetuate anti-Muslim attitudes and behaviours. We have also seen the easy elision of Covid-19 with Muslims with picture desks making prolific use of 'visibly Muslim' imagery in stories about the coronavirus. It would be naive to suggest that these do not have an adverse effect on minority religious groups.
We need a media that goes beyond narrow frames when reporting on religion
Last year, we conducted an inquiry into the state of religious literacy in the British media. This week we published our report setting out a number of key recommendations and proposed actions to significantly improve the public debate around religion.
For us, as co-chairs of the APPG on Religion in the Media, the events of the past year have only served to affirm the findings of our inquiry: we need a more religiously literate media environment if we are to build a more confident, harmonious society.
To be clear, journalists must be able to question freely and criticise religious beliefs – such criticism may well be merited. Highlighting shortcomings and exposing hypocrisy is a vital feature of public interest journalism and a responsibility not to be shirked in a democracy that values freedom of the press.
But too often in our evidence sessions, we heard that media reporting on religion can be sensationalising, that it can reinforce problematic stereotypes, commit basic mistakes and use imprecise language, and that it homogenises faith communities whilst ignoring the diversity within faith groups.
We also heard the impact of religious illiteracy with different faith groups commonly agreeing that it fosters ignorance about religious beliefs and faith communities, contributes to discriminatory attitudes and behaviours towards religious groups in society, and, just as importantly, reduces the quality of our public debate and the public’s trust in the media.
Regulation is a key factor here and in our report, we argue for a corrective to the current system of press regulation to enable groups to make complaints on the grounds of discrimination. We also call for government to look again at press regulation arguing that there is a need for greater public confidence that the press is meaningfully, independently regulated.
It is not all bad. There are various examples of nuanced, purposeful coverage of religion be it in news, drama or documentaries. Unfortunately, such examples are the exception rather than the rule.
That is why we recommend journalists and programme-makers explore the ‘lived experience’ of religion as well as its doctrinal, ritual and ceremonial elements. For people of faith, religion isn't confined to religious festivals or significant dates, it is deeply embedded in their everyday lives - in their motivations, outlooks and conduct.
We need a media that goes beyond narrow frames when reporting on religion to bring us the rich tapestry of narratives and stories from within our different faith communities.
We propose religious literacy training be formally incorporated into professional media qualifications and journalism courses. We are not seeking a quick fix. We are calling for a fundamental shift in a media culture that is either too dismissive or disdainful of religion.
Such a shift also entails greater diversity in the media and we propose the government provides Ofcom with more powers to collect information on diversity characteristics including religion, for newspapers and broadcasters to publish full accounts of their religion and belief workforce statistics. This will provide a better sense of who is working in the industry so that disparities can be addressed.
This is a two-way street and we are in no doubt that faith groups have a key role to play in fostering a religiously literate media environment. There are some exciting initiatives being developed by faith groups, such a training opportunities and resources tailored for time-constrained journalists, but religious groups need to go further to understand the demands of modern-day journalism if they are to get their stories heard.
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 judgement. Learning not just what people think, but why they think it, is essential in bridging gaps and crossing social and cultural divides.
As we look forward to a post-lockdown future, let us ensure that our recent experience of "being in this together" is mirrored in a media environment that is diverse, curious and sensitive to the enormous variety of beliefs in Britain today, and attentive to the role it can play in fostering a society that is richer, more harmonious and more confident in itself.
Yasmin Qureshi is the Labour MP for Bolton South East and Baroness Butler-Sloss is a crossbench member of the House of Lords. They are co-chairs of the APPG on Religion in Media.