Journalists around the globe are concerned about losing momentum as fewer and fewer people subscribe to newspapers and magazines or even watch the evening news. Some explain this trend by saying that people are tired of reading. But this is not consistent with the experience of commuting to work by train or bus. You can hardly see the faces of your fellow commuters with everyone having either a paid paper, a free copy of 20 Minutes, or a book in front of their nose. Declarations on the death of reading are also in stark contrast to annual book sale figures.
So what can account for the unquestionably falling numbers in sold copies of The New York Times, Le Monde and La Republica? When it comes to religion, ongoing content analysis of news reporting on these issues reveals a high level of stereotype-driven reporting that does not follow the old-school journalism standard of covering the famous 5 W’s: Who did What When Where and Why.
Since 9/11, it is extremely likely that any story on Islam is related either to a current terror attack, a court case in the aftermath of a terror attack, or another event provoked by an extremist claiming to operate in the name of Islam. The sources that are quoted heavily are policemen, prosecutors and local and regional politicians. But rarely is an Iman quoted in these stories to provide background. Similarly, other religious leaders who could help to explain why a given event might just be another case of murder masquerading as having a religious agenda are also absent. The hurting of innocents is absolutely not in keeping with the Koran, but reporting on this fact is largely absent, as are stories about the building of new hospitals or other community projects that help people run and financed by the Muslim community or specific Islamic organizations.
Thanks to Protestant bishop Margot Käsmann getting caught by the police while drinking a glass of wine after visiting a cinema, the Lutheran church made it onto the front page of every paper, for once allowing the Protestant church to receive more awareness than the Catholic church. But aside from this story of a bishop’s failing, the subscribers to Le Figaro, El Pais or The Guardian rarely receive updates on what is happening in their own congregations or the communities of “the other”.
We all know the reason behind this news selection pattern. ‘Only bad news is good news’ is the classic phrase which is always stressed when discussing certain types of disproportional reporting. As journalists we also know how weak this argument is, as we are certainly not following that principle in our sports sections. The home team gets coverage even if they merely manage to arrive in time for their next game, and losing a game always results in enough space for excuses (a bad greens keeper, the wrong ball, certain illnesses). The same is true when we look at what is published in the local section. Yes, scandals get airtime and column inches, but this is minimal when compared with all the coverage of vernisages, new road openings and trade shows.
What makes it so difficult to keep these standards once the topic is no longer a basketball team or a major local event, but the Muslim community, an Anglican bishop or the new hospital run by the Catholic church? Sure, most of our colleagues were already sceptical of religion in general even before deciding to pursue a career in journalism; we often feel that our own enlightenment is in contrast with everything that gets even close to being spiritual. But again, how reasonable are fan clubs and the celebrities and movie actors we give adulation to even when we know that they are not as perfect as our actions imply?
Those who are in contact with the Grandmufti of Egypt, the Bishop of London or the Dalai Lama are aware that they, as any other human being, have their ups and downs. But they are also remarkably challenging and funny. Why are we not giving them the same credit as any other scientist is getting? What is so different that a head economist gets a regular column without questioning the manner in which it might support the business success of his institute while religious leaders get hardly any airtime? Especially when they are under media fire as the Muslim community was during and after the Swiss vote on minarets and all the other copy-cat legislation which is now now under discussion in France, Belgium and other countries in Europe?
Overcoming the stereotype-driven marginalization of religion and religious leaders will not only improve balanced reporting and the overall quality of journalism. It will tell those who are involved in religious communities that newspapers and magazines are trying harder to provide a more coherent and realistic picture of the world. Newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and magazines like The Economist are both successful commercially as well as editorially; they they don’t skimp on the basic standards of journalism, and so their subscribers have the impression they can trust their reporting and are getting good, ongoing value for their money. The editorial team of The Washington Post experienced success by reaching out to an interested community with On Faith, and the German weekly Die Zeit just did the same by adding one or two pages in each edition not only on faith, but also on scepticism.
These initiatives are not inspired by good will, but clear journalistic and publishing calculus. Debates on ethics, sense and religion touch at the core of humankind. Ignoring it or reducing it to stereotypes is counter-productive for all involved.
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