Reporting religion responsibly

BRITAIN MAY BE "a secular nation", Religious Media Centre (RMC) speaker Kate Christopher told LFB's November meeting, yet "twelve per cent of the population believe in angels." So, she reckoned, a fundamental message to journalists reporting on faith issues is that "belief is really complex and messy."

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Left to right: Michael Munnik, Kate Christopher, Ruth Peacock and Rabbi Alex Goldberg.

Further, religion is a subject with which reporters tend to have a low level of empathy given that they're "a rather unreligious group - 60 per cent claim no affiliation at all". Hence the Centre's training-and-information set-up - religiously neutral and universal (embracing paganism and Rastafarianism, for instance).

Her RMC colleague Dr Michael Minnick, a former journalist who is now a researcher specialising in Islam and the media, noted that although 4.8 per cent of the UK population identify as Muslim only 0.4 per cent of journalists do likewise: "That means Islam is a big story covered by a lot of journalists who don't have much connection with it and don't know where to go to get the information they need."

Illustrating the "complex and messy" side, he said Islam had many branches, such as Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Ahmadiyya - the first three perhaps familiar, the last not - and controversial within the faith: "Some say the Ahmadiyya community are not Muslims. But they are bidding for recognition in the mainstream. Journalists need to know there are strong feelings on all sides and invest in understanding the complexity. It will be worthwhile."

RMC's Rabbi Alex Goldberg, Chaplain at Surrey University - who is fundraising to build a mosque, synagogue and chapel under the same roof there - echoed the emphasis on diversity within faiths, pointing out that among his 160 Jewish students he knew of eight different groups represented. "If you are reporting a religious story," he added, "get the level of knowledge you'd think appropriate on a political story. Don't think it's less important to the people involved."

The other member of the speaker team, Ruth Peacock, 20-year BBC journalist and launch director of the RMC, set out how the Centre is a charity offering links, contacts, fact sheets and training courses for journalists, academics - and faith groups as well, to educate them about dealing with the media, especially if they've been "burned" in the past. -"Religious literacy: there's a lack of it across society - including media professionals," she said. "The idea is for the Centre to be a bridge between religious organisations and media and journalists. Because there's a gulf between them."