Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

A question of faith

13 December 2012

Recent international stories have reignited the discussion about how journalists can better report on global religions.

When he graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s in journalism and spanish, Patrick Butler realized how journalism could take him around the world.

He described his passion as an “international bug” and took an international press fellowship with the International Center for Journalists in Nicaragua in 1999.

“It was inspiring to be there and witness the tremendous sacrifices of these journalists,” he says.

The fellowship allowed Butler to work with practicing journalists in Nicaragua and to improve other reporters’ skills in the field.

Butler witnessed the sacrifices of other journalists who did not always have the support of their community or government. He said that he noticed a gap within Western news. “In-depth reporting was not as prominent,” he says and added that articles about religion needed deeper coverage.

Today, as the vice president of the International Center for Journalists, Butler says he strives to ensure, on a large scale, that journalists have the necessary skills and awareness of how their reporting affects communities.

For 28 years, the center has trained journalists, launched media organizations, journalism schools and news products, according to their website. ICFJ’s global religion reporting association was born in March as the International Association of Religion Journalists.

“[Religion] is a hugely important issue that is often seen as soft news or unimportant,” Butler says.

A 2011 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study found that religion accounted for 0.7 percent of all mainstream media news in the U.S. and that controversy dominated the coverage.

The same gap that Butler noticed in his work with Nicaraguan journalists resurfaced in the lack of thorough reporting of religious issues. The misunderstanding, Butler says, lies in the Western concept of the objective journalist and the unbiased news piece. Because religion is woven into daily life, he says, it is also integral to stories in many regions.

Butler says that to create a complete piece, journalists should know their readers and viewers and the smaller religious groups within that audience.

He says that along with challenging religious stereotypes, journalists should avoid over-quoting extreme voices and instead, capture a variety of perspectives.

Lastly, Butler says that journalists must realize that diversity exists within all religions, and it is imperative to acknowledge those differences in stories.

The International Association of Religion Journalists hosts online courses to encourage more accurate reporting of religion and spirituality. The next course, which starts in January, is six weeks long and unites professional journalists from around the world to analyze religion and political coverage. Interested participants can apply on the organization’s website.

“Journalism can contribute to tension and violence if not covered properly,” Butler says. This observation alludes to the power of journalism in how it portrays a religion and what can ensue when thought isn't given to what's written.

The importance of religion reporting, Butler continues, transcends pure opinion — it defines the work of journalists covering these issues. At the core, religion reporting can be valuable tool used to understand people, cultures and religions that are different from our own.

By Raven Maragh.

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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