People around the world crave better coverage of religious issues and events, but many obstacles stand in the way of journalists who are trying to provide it, according to a new, first-of-its-kind global study on the media’s relationship to religion.
The Global Faith and Media Index, released Tuesday, found that newsrooms lack the resources, connections and, in some cases, the confidence to report on key faith-related developments in a thoughtful, nuanced way.
“The journalists with whom we spoke believe that faith and religious coverage are becoming increasingly marginalized due to everything from newsroom economics to fears of ‘getting it wrong,’” said Dritan Nesho, CEO of HarrisX, the global research consultancy that conducted the survey, in a statement.
The new index draws on in-depth interviews with 30 English-speaking journalists from 17 countries and an online survey of more than 9,300 news consumers from 18 countries. The goal was to hear from a wide range of voices from a variety of religious backgrounds, said Nesho during a virtual event on Tuesday about the new data.
Taken as a whole, the study revealed a gap between the types of religion stories currently being produced and the interests of actual or potential readers and viewers.
“Ultimately, the research points to a clear global deficit in coverage, treatment and quality of understanding of faith and religion in modern media,” Nesho said.
Some respondents said today’s religion coverage creates “unease and anxiety” about faith groups rather than building understanding. Many worried that the media “often perpetuates faith-based stereotypes” rather than correcting them.
Such responses are troubling and show how bad or incomplete media reports hold consequences for people’s daily lives, Nesho said during Tuesday’s virtual event.
“That anxiety is something that affects people not just in the moment (when they’re reading a story) but in their day-to-day lives. This is something people carry with them in the workplace, carry with them in the home,” he said.
Journalists who cover religion can fail to recognize issues with their reporting if they’re out of touch with their audience, said Sheela Bhatt, an Indian journalist who moderated Tuesday’s discussion. She noted that, in India, members of the media are often more liberal and more secular than the communities they cover.
“A lot of media people are not particularly very religious or not understanding of how faithful people behave,” she said.
Their confusion leads to the problems that survey respondents identified, including the idea that media coverage of religion sometimes furthers harmful faith-related stereotypes rather than correcting them.
Most of those surveyed think the press should pay at least as much attention to religious stereotypes as they do to race- and gender-based stereotypes.
As it stands, more than half of respondents believe the media is actively ignoring religion “as an aspect of society and culture today,” the survey found.
However, the study also found that, although people of many different faiths from many different countries hold critical views of the media’s current approach to religion news, most believe that faith groups shoulder part of the blame.
Religious organizations need to connect journalists with sources who have lived through the experiences being written about, respondents said.
One of the goals of the Faith and Media Initiative, the new coalition responsible for the survey, is to facilitate the types of relationships that can lead to a broader range of religion coverage that satisfies readers’ needs, said Brooke Zaugg, the organization’s vice president, during Tuesday’s event.
“We hope to be a convener or broker of these vital conversations. We’ll create programs and resources to support and create the changes needed among lots of groups,” she said.
The Faith and Media Initiative is looking to create workshops and trainings and to “shine a light” on the faith groups and media outlets that are working to improve religion journalism, Zaugg said.
“We’re looking for advocates and allies to create a more meaningful conversation and dialogue,” she said.