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Why journalism needs to get religion

July 25, 2017   4 mins

Any high school essay would be challenged by an examiner if the writer claimed that people respond to each event in isolation, taking no account of the history, traditions and beliefs they have lived with for years. But some of our news coverage is guilty of the same error.

Beliefs affect people’s behaviours, and we risk misunderstanding a news event if we fail to explore the underlying drivers which influence people’s responses to it.

All beliefs. Including unbelief, which is by no means uniform but is the second highest category of religious identification in studies like the British Social Attitudes survey, where the No Religions category has remained steady at around 48% of the British population for the last few years.1 In Britain, that is. Not the UK: the picture in Northern Ireland is very different, where 19% of people identify as No Religion.2

And the No Religion category doesn’t always mean atheism. At ComRes, we surveyed just over 2,000 adults on behalf of the BBC earlier this year and found that 21% of people who claim no religion believe in some form of life after death.3 It appears that many people are adopting a syncretic understanding of the world which works for them, and perhaps they don’t want or need to subscribe to specific doctrines or belong to religious institutions.

But if you watch a news bulletin, you wouldn’t know that there’s all this interesting thinking going on under the surface. Perhaps that’s because newsrooms don’t always employ people with the time or lived experience to follow a religious thread to a story.

High though the No Religion response is, it’s still less than half of the British population. More than half of us, when completing a survey, tick a box aligning us with a religion. And whatever that might mean in practice for each of us, if we’re still ticking the box there’s something still there which means that this matters.

For the most part, journalists are a different breed.4 61% of them identify as No Religion and, when asked ‘how important is religion or religious belief to you?’, 52% said Unimportant and 22% said Of Little Importance.5

None of which matters at all, surely, given that the job of a journalist is to reflect the views and experiences of a wide range of people, including those with whom they have nothing in common. That is fundamentally a reporter’s job. Interviewing the survivor of a violent crime or terrorist incident doesn’t require experience of the same; empathy and listening are core skills for any journalist.

But to write about the motivations of someone with a particular faith requires some knowledge and understanding of the subject, to appreciate the believer’s particular dilemmas and joys and to identify their deeply held motivations. Perhaps it just doesn’t occur to some reporters that faith might form part of their interviewee’s viewpoint, if that reporter doesn’t give much credence to religious belief.

As we read in Lionel Shriver’s confessional last week, news is biased to the superficial and current rather than the historical and profound. We only hear about religion in the news when there’s a story about a specific faith community, rather than exploring the place of belief and unbelief in people’s behaviours. Excellent pieces like the BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme which looked at religious affiliation and voting patterns are sadly few and far between.6

But if we miss these connections, we miss out. In the UK, since last month’s General Election, we’ve heard all sorts of claims made about the DUP which fail to realise that some of their socially conservative policies reflect a religious landscape which is completely different to the rest of the UK and which is mirrored in many of the policies of other Northern Ireland political parties. And in the US, David French called out his colleagues last December for not ‘getting it’ when reporting the motivations of jihadists or the role that some white evangelicals played in the Presidential Election.7

These political stories are too big to get wrong, but if we misunderstand the faith traditions which influence them we risk losing the important histories which bring us to this point.



Some journalists and commentators who ‘get it’ and explain it well on Twitter:
The Atlantic’s Emma Green crafts beautifully written explainers, and her Twitter is a helpful curation of religious and cultural analysis
Josh Lowe is an unusual and encouraging phenomenon: a young British mainstream journalist who understands and describes theology well
Expect humorous, irreverent and challenging comments on religion, identity, race and culture wars from Sunny Hundal
Sarah Pulliam Bailey is one of today’s best religion writers, and often sets the agenda for religion debates as well as reporting on it
Hussein Kesvani writes about some of the biggest issues facing multicultural communities, with self-deprecating British humour and compelling insight
Jack Jenkins’ Twitter threads are thoughtful accessible guides to politics and religion, referencing data and heavyweight scholars
  1. British Social Attitudes Survey is managed by research agency NatCen. Their own analysis of the religion questions finds that No Religion responses peaked in 2009 and have plateaued since then http://www.natcen.ac.uk/news-media/press-releases/2016/august/british-social-attitudes-religious-decline-comes-to-a-halt/
  2. Life and Times is the Northern Ireland social attitudes survey. 2016 religion data: http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2016/Background/RELIGION.html
  3. ComRes interviewed 2,010 British adults by telephone between the 2nd and 12th February 2017. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all GB adults http://www.comresglobal.com/polls/bbc-religion-and-ethics-survey/
  4. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism interviewed 700 journalists online in December 2015: http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Journalists%20in%20the%20UK.pdf
  5. Full questionnaire here http://bit.ly/1nvaQxZ
  6. On Sunday 26 February 2017, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first of two documentaries presented by Professor Rosie Campbell of Birkbeck University exploring motivations for voter behaviour, in which she interviewed Professor James Tilley of Jesus College Oxford about correlations between religious identity and voting patternshttp://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08ff18d
  7. In December 2016, National Review carried an article by Republican commentator David French, quoting Dean Baquet of the New York Times and calling for greater religious literacy among journalists, especially those who report on politics http://www.nationalreview.com/article/443044/religion-american-media-why-religious-reporting-so-dumb

Katie leads Faith Research Centre at ComRes, helping public, private, non-profit, academic and media clients to gather data and insights about religion and belief, and worships at Riverside Vineyard Church.


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