British media lack religious literacy

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British media lack religious literacy

British media and journalists are poorly equipped to cover religious issues. In a global media landscape that rewards sensationalist content, is measured and sensible coverage of religion possible?

A UK parliamentary group has called for the UK media industry to improve its religious literacy. Their report, published on 14 April 2021, cites grave concerns about the misleading and harmful content being produced about religion in Britain.[1] According to the report, “religious illiteracy in the media has a clear, negative effect on the wider public,” by fostering ignorance, contributing to discriminatory attitudes and actions, and damaging the credibility of media and public debate.[2] The report is based on submissions from leaders and believers from all major religions, academics, broadcasting regulators, as well as journalists and media themselves.

What is the problem?
The UK public is exposed to “a lamentable quality of conversation about religion,” according to academics.[3] While a number of factors – such as cultural and educational – have contributed to this sorry state, the media bears much responsibility. The report defines religious literacy not only as having “knowledge” about faiths and their history and practices, but also having a capacity to engage with them respectively, and to represent their diversity, complexity, and lived experience.[4]

It is evident that the media in the UK lack religious literacy through a number of critical observations:

  1. British media frequently cast doubt upon the legitimacy of religion as a source of guidance and knowledge. As we see below, the media are at odds with a large proportion of the British public, and fail to appreciate their own biases arising from being (overwhelmingly) university educated, and subscribing to secularisation narratives.[5]
  1. The report speaks of the media’s “failure to recognise the many traditions within religions.”[6] This leads to journalism which suggests that “all Christians believe this,” or “all Muslims do this.” Even leaders or representatives of a religion can only speak from their own particular point of view, which the media currently ignore.
  1. Another problem the report highlights is the media’s tendency to “narrow” the definition of religion. Religion is viewed only in the simplistic sense as “propositional beliefs, historical events and rituals,” and not to understand how it can in fact shape the entirety of believers’ lives.[7]
  1. Connected with this point is the existence of a binary within the collective mind of the media between “religious stories” and “all other stories.” Religion is therefore implicitly portrayed as an exception and something only occasionally relevant, and further division is built up between “religion” and “normal people.”[8]
  1. The media is also guilty more generally of misrepresenting religion, including: reducing “religion to its visual, liturgical and doctrinal facets,” “sensationalising” religion, the “reinforcement of problematic stereotypes,” and “basic mistakes and imprecise language.”[9] The media also tends to over-report stories highlighting conflict within religions or depicting religions as a source of violence; but under-report stories which demonstrate collaboration and good works.[10]

Why does it matter?
As the report notes, the media “is the mechanism through which public opinion is shaped and society is reflected back upon itself.”[11] The public relies upon the media to present fair and true portrayals of the world. The general public suffers when journalists and editors have inadequate or incorrect knowledge of religions, or even import their own biases into their content. Ignorance and prejudice is amplified across the airwaves, on social media feeds, and in shop windows. This can lead to discriminatory views against religious people becoming further entrenched.[12] Furthermore, if religious believers feel poorly represented in the media, they are less likely to engage in or trust the media. Besides decreased viewership and profits for the media, this naturally results in society becoming increasingly fragmented, as well as potentially leading to more radicalised views.[13]

The 2021 census will determine the exact figure, but surveys suggest that nearly half of the British population describe themselves as ‘religious’.[14] Moreover, the proportion of the global population that identifies with a faith group is 84% and growing.[15] Faith is clearly not a minority pursuit; it is a very modern reality. Not only is it irresponsible for the media to present religion as irrelevant, incoherent, and unsuitable for our modern age, it is an evidently false narrative.

The report suggests that the media hold a relatively narrow worldview that is largely intellectual and Western European, which tends to devalue religious belief. They struggle to relate to other perspectives, especially the religious which they tend to find baffling.[16] Media also tend to subscribe to the so-called ‘secularisation thesis’, popular in the mid-late 20th century, which says that as the world becomes more advanced, religious belief will disappear.[17] Although modern evidence is disproving this hypothesis, it is still prevalent among many Western countries. British media could fairly be described as out of touch with the realities of the UK and the world – a dangerous situation for the media – whose aim is to inform – to occupy.

What is the solution?
The report’s headline recommendation is for more education: “[r]eligious literacy training should be formally incorporated into professional media qualifications and journalists’ continuing professional development.”[18] [19] Diversity in newsrooms, a revival of local news publications, and a willingness to draw on experts, and more nuanced headlines, will all help to increase religious literacy.[20] Broadcasters should increase the amount of specifically religious programming, as well as aiming to normalise religion across their entire schedules.[21] Faith groups must also bear some responsibility for improving the media’s portrayal of religions. They must “work to understand what makes a good story,” and offer journalists compelling ways of interpreting their faith. Partnerships between media and religious organisations, which promote mutual understanding of each other’s cultures, are also encouraged.[22]

The report emphasises that the parliamentary group fully supports the media’s right to criticise religion and religious people, and thanks the good work of journalists who have uncovered corruption and abuse when it has occurred. But this is different from content which, whether explicitly or implicitly, undermines the legitimacy of religion.[23]

Does the patient want to be cured?
One major problem with the report’s diagnosis of the media industry’s disease, and prescription for recovery, is that the patient may not want to be healed. A large percentage of the media may not want to produce content that is more moderate and sensitive to religions, because extreme depictions of religions tend to sell more copies. The report mentions this, but fails to provide compelling reasons for tabloids to stop using sensationalist headlines, besides the damage it does to society.[24] Arguably, the report places too much trust that the media will sacrifice their immediate profits for the long-term good of the country.

Greater government funding of media entities would remove outlets’ reliance upon advertising revenue from clickbait headlines, and enhance journalistic standards. However, there is little appetite among governments stretched by the pandemic to increase spending on a ‘soft’ industry such as the media.[25] [26] Of course a more religiously literate media, and indeed society, is highly desirable in Britain. But is religious literacy, or a broken media system, at the heart of this problem?

Frazer MacDiarmid

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[1] All Party Parliamentary Group on Religion in the Media (Yasmin Qureshi et al.), ‘Learning to Listen: Inquiry into Religious Literacy in Print and Broadcast Media’.

[2] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.9

[3] Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice, ed. A. Dinham and M. Francis (Bristol: Policy Press, 2015), p.17.

[4] ‘Learning to Listen’, pp.18-24.

[5] ‘Learning to Listen’, pp.15-17.

[6] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.10.

[7] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.13.

[8] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.13.

[9] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.26.

[10] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.4.

[11] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.13.

[12] ‘Learning to Listen’, pp.40-42.

[13] ‘Learning to Listen’, pp.42-43.

[14] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.15.

[15] Hackett, C., McClendon, D. 2017. World’s largest religion by population is still Christianity. Pew Research.

[16] ‘Learning to Listen’, pp.16-17.

[17] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.15.

[18] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.12.

[19] ‘Learning to Listen’, pp.44-51.

[20] ‘Learning to Listen’, pp.53-54.

[21] ‘Learning to Listen’, pp.73-81.

[22] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.10, pp.52-56.

[23] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.4.

[24] ‘Learning to Listen’, p.60.

[25] Tim Davie faces battle to find new BBC funding model.

[26] Populists are threatening Europe’s public broadcasters.