How can journalists write on cultures they’re not fundamentally familiar with?

Take a look at many news media reports within the last month and you will come across the words “religion”, “radical” and “extremist” – you won’t even need luck to find them all in the same sentence.

Now more than ever, the focus of mainstream media includes reports that center on world religions and their interpretations and ramifications.

That being said, as journalists our purpose lies in serving the public, so it seems an obvious conclusion that we must fairly and accurately report on issues that directly involve religion. It is also our duty to take our news coverage a step further than simple facts, and provide context for our audiences about the situations we report on.

Moreover, the nation of Canada is by no means secular; in truth many of our laws were founded on biblical principles and beliefs.

Creative Commons photo by Bill Nicholls

Therefore, we are already dealing with the structure of a Bible-based religious society, and that can be a lens through which we, often subconsciously, view the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, more than 54 per cent of Canadians identify under some definition of Christianity, according to the 2011National Household Survey of Canada – but that means that nearly 46 per cent don’t identify that way. Some 32 per cent identify as having no religious affiliation, but, according to that same study, a little over five per cent of Canadians identify as practicing Muslims, with the numbers even smaller at just over two per cent Sikh.

Being a reporter in Canada means reporting on varied religious activities, events, expressions and belief systems – often beliefs that differ from those of the reporter.

The question that presents itself is how can we, as reporters, even begin to report on religions that we are not fundamentally familiar with?

In short, we can’t – unless we take the steps to actively acknowledge our ignorance and seek to rectify our gaps in knowledge.

Richelle Wiseman – former executive director of the Centre for Faith and the Media in Calgary, which advocated on best practices for conducting religious reporting – says that one of the issues that arises is that journalists simply do not have the background knowledge they need to write contextual articles.

“First of all they don’t prepare themselves in a lot of cases; secondly the only time religious communities are covered often in the news is when it’s a negative story,” Wiseman says.

Wiseman adds that naturally editors seek out stories “skewed towards conflict, controversy and crisis,” which she says, “does trickle down from the mainstream media; it has a huge effect into the general psyche of the society.”

Danger lies in articles that misinform the public by reporting on religious groups from a place of ignorance. The offense that can occur is using one example to colour an entire group of people’s actions, as has happened to many Muslims in the days since 9/11.

The glaring examples that come to mind currently are stories to do with organized religious extremist groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS, but there are also several religious groups and issues that have held the spotlight including news involving Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Sharia Law and religious strife in Israel.The question that presents itself is how can we, as reporters, even begin to report on religions that we are not fundamentally familiar with? Dorozio

Some media outlets, such as Fox News, seek to sensationalize the rise of ISIS using phrases such as “Unholy War” and “Islamic Terror.” This can be detrimental to a public who understands little of the Muslim faith and is offered no context for what they are hearing. Such coverage can both misinform individuals and spread a general misunderstanding of the issues at hand.

In a recent online survey conducted by YouGov and the Huffington Post that polled 1,000 Americans, it indicated that more than 50 per cent had either a “somewhat unfavourable” or “very unfavourable” opinion of the Islamic Religion. Of this same sample population, about 44 per cent said they would not be interested in learning more about Islam.

If this is the state of mind of almost half of Americans, there can be no doubt that there are reporters who feel the same way, and it is thus important to note that these biases exist and are active in the minds of those who report the news also.

The result of a widespread and continuing cultural and religious misunderstanding can be detrimental to a country and its diverse citizens. And journalists have the influence to be leaders of change in correcting these misunderstandings – if they first correct their own biases and lack of knowledge.

Muslim individuals in Canada experiencing discrimination is a very present reality, as shown in a recent case in Quebec: Justice Eliana Marengo refused to proceed with a legal case because El-Alloul, a Muslim woman, was wearing a hijab in the court, which the justice claimed was a “secular space.”

The duty of journalists is to do their homework and work to educate themselves beyond their personal views on world religions, so as to paint an accurate picture of the people they represent.

A great example of this is in a recent magazine editorial definitively titled, “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic went into great depth talking to major ISIS recruiters and authorities on Islamic ideology.

What was commendable was the honesty of Graeme Wood, the journalist, on his initial lack of knowledge.

Wood displayed a sense of transparency to his audience, and allowed the sources he spoke to (who were more knowledgeable) the opportunity to speak.

Holding ourselves accountable, as journalists, is written into most journalism codes of ethics. Part of this means familiarizing yourself with the beliefs of the citizens you report on.

In order to represent the voice of all the voiceless in an informed and balanced manner, it is vital to be literate in world religions as well as those practiced by our local audiences. And if we are not, it’s our duty to seek to educate ourselves with those who are intimately aware of the nuances of different religious practices.

Educating ourselves about world religions and cultures should be a mandatory element of all journalism practice. This is essential to the very heart of what we do: providing balance and context when covering contemporary society and serving the public interest fairly.

jdorozio@cjournal.ca