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Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Diversity Toolbox

Rethinking news from faith perspectives

By Sally Lehrman

Stunned by the brutal massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine, journalists and citizens around the world mourned. Many proclaimed, “Je Suis Charlie” in solidarity.

The massive march Jan. 11 in Paris made the most powerful statement of all. Jews, Muslims, atheists and others across a spectrum of beliefs and politics walked together “to shout their love for liberty and tolerance,” as Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the Guardian.

In that sea of faces and diverse persuasions, journalists might find inspiration for a rededication to their principles and responsibilities. To their pledge to free speech, certainly, and also to protect the vulnerable; give voice to the peoples pushed to the margins; and reach outside their own experience in order to treat all people fairly.

Immediately after the killings, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Gawker, the Daily Beast and many other outlets posted Charlie Hebdo cartoons in support of free expression. But for The Associated Press and The New York Times, other commitments held sway. As satire in the French tradition, the images were deliberately provocative.

“AP tries hard not to be a conveyor belt for images and actions aimed at mocking or provoking people on the basis of religion, race or sexual orientation,” the agency explained on its website.

Whatever your position on republishing the cartoons, it’s a good time to reflect on journalism’s role outside the story, beyond its impact on press freedoms. Can we use this moment to stretch to our own highest standards?

The Kerner Commission, which probed the urban riots that plagued U.S. cities in the late 1960s, said the news media has a responsibility to help one sector of the public understand another. The Hutchins Commission, which met two decades before, proposed that journalists had a duty to include all the constituents of society and to help clarify their shared goals and values.

U.S. journalists have worked hard to think carefully about race and gender in news reporting. But beyond the religion beat, how much do we consider the impact of our work on pious believers of any type? Do we strive to foster interreligious understanding and dialogue?

In a 2013 study of the coverage of Islam in 18 national and regional U.S. newspapers, researchers found that negative reporting on central values such as the desire for peace and on racial, ethnic and religious tolerance far outweighed the positive. While studies on other religions are slim, we can reflect on our own experience. How often are Jews, evangelical Protestants or Mormons included simply as faithful people, compared to ideologically driven parties in a dispute?

It’s important to remember that the people of any one religion are not interchangeable, said Leighton Walter Kille, research editor at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

“If this story is about France, talk to French Muslims, both individuals and official representatives,” Kille said. The Shorenstein Center’s background materials can quickly bring you up to date on Islam and immigration in France, including its deeply secular stance. (See here)

With more awareness of religious perspective, journalists might draw clearer boundaries around fair representation and existing standards to avoid offense and provocation. There’s no doubt we will enrich our work. Hussein Rashid, a Hofstra University professor of religion and associate news editor at Religion Dispatches, suggests these steps:

• Diversify your contact database to include people of a variety of non-majority faiths.

• Ask questions that help you build empathy with your source’s perspective. How do you feel about this? What does it mean to you?

• Ask yourself whether you can see yourself motivated by religion in the same way. If not, ask a religious person to explain how faith affects them.

• If you are covering something that involves religious offense, consult experts to understand the root of that offense. Is it based in religious texts? Traditions? A sense of vulnerability because of political or social marginalization?

It might be helpful to rethink what the news might look like if approached from a faith perspective. For Sana Saeed, who works at Al-Jazeera, her Muslim beliefs encourage her to avoid needlessly upsetting a religious or ethnic group’s sensitivities. She also is motivated by Islam’s tradition of focusing on oppression and pursuing social justice.

“You must speak justice even if it’s not in your favor,” Saeed said.

National Catholic Reporter senior analyst Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest who’s a visiting scholar where I work, describes religious values that sound quite similar.

“We talk about speaking the truth with charity,” he said. From a Christian perspective, he said, “journalists should be trying to make the world a better place.”

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