Exploring Belief at the Religion and Media Festival

Representatives of the UK Baha’i Office of Public Affairs were pleased to attend the Inaugural Religion and Media Festival held on 27 March 2018.

The event brought together journalists, broadcasters and media executives, those of faith and those of none, to take “a fresh look at the way religion is reported in the media and new ways to cover the oldest stories of all”.

The Festival was a celebration of the best coverage of religion in the UK media, a forum to discuss how sensitive faith issues can be more effectively tackled, and a space to hear from those who commission and create content.

Most importantly perhaps, the Festival helped articulate questions relating to the challenges and obligations faced by today's UK media in relation to religion. The responsibility to both identify and engage with the public's spiritual and ethical needs, as well as to produce educative and uplifting content, was explored by diverse voices throughout the day.

One of the first questions raised by keynote speaker James Harding, the former Director of BBC News, referred to the relationship between religion and the newsroom. Mr Harding suggested that we live in the “noisiest time in the history of news (particularly as a result of digital technology)” meaning that “religion has to compete to be heard”. He expressed that there is a need to better understand the lived experience of religion in the UK's faith communities, and asked how the media might attempt this task. However, the context in which the media might attempt such a task is a societal reality that has, over the last 30 years, witnessed a generational abandonment and greater mistrust of religion.

Other participants agreed that this context of mistrust has led to coverage of religions in many outlets adopting an 'outside/in' approach, often demonstrated by a prurient interest in how religions might respond to certain controversial issues, with the inevitable focus on extremist or sensationalist tendencies.

So, would it be helpful for religious media to cover what goes on within faith communities? Could coverage be more investigative or analytical? Could it even focus more deeply on specific religious texts? Is there a need to document conversations between arcane and modern viewpoints amongst ordinary believers? Since news operates on a 24-hour cycle, is there even room or time for deeper analysis? Is it perhaps only in the field of arts and sciences that we can explore our existence in a satisfying or meaningful way?

Libby Purves OBE, a radio presenter and journalist, and another keynote speaker at the Festival, supported the need to pose such questions by offering the view that an insufficient understanding of multiculturalism has created a paralysis in the media, due to the fear of causing offence. And yet, she went on, if our knowledge of other faiths and communities exists in superficial fragments of information, then an environment of suspicion and unease will prevail. This is what gives rise to sensationalist stories, attributed to certain religious communities that may or may not be fair or accurate. Would this need to understand the UK's different faiths better be enhanced by greater familiarity with the wisdom and teachings enshrined in sacred texts, and awareness of the lived authentic experiences of everyday adherents?

It was shared that one's awareness can be broadened by learning new facts about a religion within the fascination of a balanced documentary, or the pleasure and comfort of a good drama. Media is after all a shared experience, a space, and a tool to cultivate belonging and meaning. And it is perhaps the issue of belonging that is one of the most pressing concerns of our time.

It has become clear that large sections of the population no longer identify formally with a specific religion. To be British and a person of faith does not mean adhering to a state religion such as the Anglican Church. Whilst this presents certain challenges, the current diversity of religious experience in the UK undoubtedly provides richer material for exploring more complex and sophisticated narratives.

Tim Loxley, editor of the Radio Times, supported the view that human stories are generally the most successful means to connect people to each other, as well as to the knowledge and experience of religion. However, a need for more diversity of stories was also acknowledged. As Mohit Bakaya, the Commissioning Editor of BBC Radio 4, commented, 'There is a danger with thinking about religion in a box...faith and religion is relevant to all of us'.

During the day, questions such as, 'What does God look like in a digital and networked age?' were explored, both by academics and journalists. The audience was challenged to think about what religion online looks like and how it can be expressed and felt. Is it possible to have a transformative experience in the digital space? As part of religious literacy, can video games be developed that use different mythical and cultural structures? Furthermore, since religious websites are mostly internal, what are their goals in the online space?

In a day of many questions, perhaps the most obvious learning gleaned from the RMC's Inaugural Media Festival, is simply the knowledge that we live in a world where we have a broader range of media possibilities than ever before. Moreover, in the UK, we have a rapidly increasing variety of different voices, journalists, writers, and executives seeking to hone their understandings of their responsibilities. Furthermore, audiences are willing to listen, hoping the media will help them make sense of an increasingly complex society.

The media, therefore, has a key responsibility, particularly when reporting news, to avoid simplistic or reductionist interpretations that perpetuate dangerous stereotypes within public discourse. Media cannot function within a moral and ethical void. Mark Thompson, the current CEO of the New York Times, perhaps summed up the day's reflections most succinctly with the statement, ‘The best journalists are those who are curious about everything - and that includes religion’.

The writer, Cole Moreton, who was also present, reminded the Festival of the question posed in the title of his 2010 book - 'Is God still an Englishman?' Moreton's reflections on how the UK may have lost faith but gained soul still indicates perhaps the most pertinent challenges and opportunities influencing the UK media in presenting religion today.

The RMC is to be congratulated for striving to facilitate greater scope and depth of religious literacy amongst journalists and sections of the media, thereby enabling a deeper understanding of diversity to take place. This engagement with a wider range of concerns and perspectives, will undoubtedly foster more unity of thought, inclusion and mutual trust.

The festival ended with the launch of the Religion Media Centre's new website www.religionmediacentre.co.uk

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