Terms like fundamentalist, extremist and radical used 'sloppily' by media, warns report on religion in public life

A two-year commission looking at religion and belief in the UK has found widespread concern about the portrayal of these issues in the media.

The Living With Difference report was published yesterday by a 20-strong commission led by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. It followed a national consultation, a series of public meetings and more than 200 substantial written responses.

The report said: “Almost all responses to the commission’s consultation expressed concern about the portrayal of religion and belief in the media.

“There was a perceived lack of religion and belief literacy among media professionals.”

It added: “Virtually everyone who responded to the media section of our consultation considered that the media fail accurately to reflect these issues.”

But some responses were contradictory, the report noted.

One respondent said: “There is considerable misrepresentation and distortion of Christian belief and practice in the media, so much so that it is not over-the-top to suspect that there is a controlling anti-Christian agenda at the heart of much of the press and broadcasting establishments.”

Another said that “the BBC is the Christian Broadcasting Company in everything but name”.

One church organisation expressed concern at the decline of religious affairs correspondents.

“Whilst a religious affairs correspondent operates for the BBC this contrasts with many national print titles and commercial television and radio where there is a noticeable decline of religious literacy which may be associated with the loss of specialists.

“Losing so many such specialist staff creates the danger of a vicious spiral – the editorial judgment that religion is of declining public interest leading to the loss of specialist reporters, leading in turn to a trivialising or ignorant reporting of religious issues.”

The report warned that journalists appear to lack the “the vocabulary and expertise required to report stories with the necessary nuance as well as accuracy (but without ignoring the ideology and theology the terrorists claim to espouse).”

It noted for example that is common to read about “Christians opposed to, for example, gay marriage – it would be more accurate to say ‘some Christians’ or to make clear that statements by some conservative Christians may not represent a majority Christian position.”

And it warned that terms like “fundamentalist, extremist, radical, conservative, liberal and traditionalist are often used sloppily, without an understanding of the context or much attempt at definition”.

It also said: “There is careless use of religious labels when the real issue is something else, as in Muslim extremist, Islamic terrorist, or Islamist. Even the term moderate Muslim could be taken as implying that Muslim normally means fundamentalist, hard-liner, extremist or terrorist: no-one would say moderate Christian to mean non-violent, and few would consider moderate Christian to be a term of approval.”

In general terms, the report warned: “When the media frame events in stark terms of conflict – dark versus light, good versus evil – the reader or viewer is faced with crude and facile positions. No dilemmas are presented, only declarations.

“What some media items lack in complexity they make up for in polemical clarity and in the provision of a clear, sometimes demonised portrayal of the other and an idealised depiction of the self. “Reporting has to have nuance and substance, not just polemic: to talk, engage, dialogue and also to disagree. Ultimately, the media need to allow for difference and conflicting points of view and not fall into the trap of offering a single linear thesis to explain an event that has occurred.”

The report makes the following recommendations about on how it thinks reporting of religion could be improved:

  • every newsroom retaining at least one religion and belief specialist, or subscribing to one specialist agency
     
  • short courses on political religion tailored to the needs of newsrooms
     
  • a core element in all media training courses to include world religions and the implications of the
     
  • changing religious landscape
     
  • exposure to relevant resources on religious literacy in world affairs
     
  • the possibility of short placements in religious media outlets and organised exchanges of journalists in religious media with those in other outlets
     
  • Consideration be given to establishing a panel of experts on religion and belief for the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to use when there are complaints about the media.

Picture: Shutterstock

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