Religion and the News

Posted by Hattie Wilson, Marketing Executive

We live in an era where social networks and smart phones have made news reporting instantaneous and immediately accessible. In the stories that are emerging from these various mediums, religion is featuring prevalently.

In Religion and the News, edited by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower, journalists and religious leaders consider their role in this rapidly evolving environment, and how religion and the media influence one another.

Each chapter has been written by those in a unique position, studying how stories emerge and develop in the public eye, the relationship between reporting and religion, and the effects of these stories upon religious communities and faith. The list of contributors (below) reads like a who’s who in the field of religious journalism and theology, proving this title is unique in its perspective of the media’s relationship with religion and the friction that is sometimes triggered.

Contributors include:

  • Jolyon Mitchell, Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues Edinburgh University
  • Christopher Landau, Religious Affairs Correspondent, BBC World Service
  • Andrew Brown, The Guardian
  • Professor Lord Harries of Pentregarth, former Bishop of Oxford
  • Dr Indarjit Singh, Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations
  • Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Director, Jewish Information and Media Service
  • Imam Monawar Hussain, Muslim Tutor, Eton College
  • Charlie Beckett, Director, Polis
  • Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent, The Times
  • Catherine Pepinster, Editor, The Tablet
  • Riazat Butt, Religious Affairs Correspondent, The Guardian
  • Professor the Worshipful Mark Hill QC, Barrister and Fellow, Centre for Law and Religion, Cardiff University.

Religion and the News is edited by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower and is available in both Hardback, Paperback and ebook editions.

Here is an edited extract from the introduction to the book:

Over the last three decades the coverage of religious news in the media has radically changed: religion is no longer a ‘soft’ story. Religious issues pervade the reporting of many stories related to domestic politics and foreign affairs alike.

Following the terrorist attacks in Western cities such as New York (11 September 2001), Madrid (11 March 2004) and London (7 July 2005), as well as the invasions of Afghanistan (from October 2001) and Iraq (from March 2003), religion has increasingly broken into mainstream Western news agendas. Some scholars suggest that this process began even earlier with the Iranian Revolution (1979), the global performances of a ‘media friendly’ Pope, John Paul II (1978–2005), and the rise of the ‘religious right’ in the USA (from the late 1970s).

The cumulative result is that religion is less commonly marginalised, and is sometimes used as an interpretative key for making sense of many news stories. Even if a religious story seems self-contained, its ramifications often generate comment from unrelated parts of what is sometimes described as ‘the secular press’.

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK in 2010, for example, generated a huge amount of coverage from commentators and reporters not normally associated with religious news. Indeed, comparing the coverage of the papal visit in 1982 with the 2010 visit sheds light on the changing relationship between religion and the news: there is now more comment on the plurality of faith traditions in Britain (with a particular emphasis on Islam); the marginalisation of Christianity is a recurring theme; and the rise of ‘aggressive secularism’ has been especially notable.

While it is more likely than ever before for religion to be in the news, it is also more likely for the coverage to focus on conflict, threat and scandal. Despite many religious leaders wanting to see their faiths represented as being harmonious, reconciliatory and profoundly ethical, many news stories pick up on disharmony or highlight failings.

Why is there this contrast between what religious leaders want reported and what journalists feel is newsworthy about religions in the UK?

Many religious representatives often feel misrepresented in the press. Likewise, many journalists believe that religious people do not appreciate how the media operates: it does not exist to provide free publicity or to evangelise. On the contrary, reporters investigate, uncover and analyse, and that often leads to the coverage of stories that embarrass members of faith traditions.

This book offers a rare opportunity for journalists and faith leaders to express, to explain and to analyse their frustrations with one another, and to offer their views on how to create a more engaged relationship between religious representatives and journalists.

These perspectives are framed by analyses of the current state of reporting on religion in the UK, along with chapters on significant issues such as the law, blasphemy, violent conflict and the role of technology in shaping both beliefs and the news coverage of faith traditions. Many of the contributions to this book are characterised by the personal experiences of the writers with the interaction between religion and the news. These reflections are sometimes marked by anger or disappointment and illustrated with examples of mistreatment by one side or another.

There has been no attempt to downplay these personal sentiments or to try and develop a consistent analysis across the different voices in the book. We considered calling this book a ‘reader’, but in reflecting carefully on the range of contributions realised that it could also be called a ‘listener’. Several of the authors write more commonly for the ear than for the eye, others write more regularly for general audiences rather than specialist readers. Their distinct voices, accents and styles have been intentionally preserved, reflecting the multiplicity of ways that religion and the news are both interpreted and covered.

Listening carefully to the different voices in this book will reveal fresh ways of reflecting on both old and new arguments. The different authors found in this book disagree about fundamental issues, such as the nature of free speech, the correlation between demographics and coverage, the role of truth in journalism, whether different religions require different treatment by the press, what is wrong with religious press and public relations departments, the 24-hour news cycle, the standard of religious education among journalists and so on.

Seeing these fault-lines close-up provides a valuable insight into some of the difficulties faced by journalists as they attempt to cover news about religion and by religious leaders who are trying to articulate and to embody the beliefs and the practices of their own religious tradition. While tensions are certainly present, all contributors agree that the relationship between religion and the news can be improved. A constructive vision of the relationship between religion and the news does emerge from the contributions, but it emerges gradually, through an account of the mistakes and frustrations of the past as well as hope for a future where journalists and religious leaders have developed a clearer understanding of each other’s crafts and callings.

Owen Gower and Jolyon Mitchell

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