Reporting on Religion: Notes on a Conference

by Isabel L. Templo

Yet journalists do play a role in either bridging or widening gaps in understanding when reporting religion-related issues, which could spell the difference between resolving or fueling conflict. Representatives of different religious groups weighed in on this at the session on “Getting religion right.”

ON MAY 9, 2012, the Philippine Daily Inquirer carried a front-page photo of a woman in a niqab shaking hands with then President Aquino during an oath taking in Malacañang. The accompanying lead-in caption read “Security Risk?”

This elicited reactions from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, which called it “blatantly bigoted,” and the Philippine Center for Photojournalism, which said it was “uncalled for, insensitive, and even libelous.” The paper later apologized, saying, “We are especially sorry to have hurt the feelings of our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

The caption, which did not name the woman, illustrates reporting that is insensitive or even Islamophobic, and the impact or ramifications it might have. Not only was it discriminatory, but more significantly, it was premised on — and perpetuated —the stereotype of Muslims as terrorists.

Five years later, recent events such as extremist attacks on the Rohingya, the Mogadishu truck bombings and the seizing of Marawi City by the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group continue to highlight the presence of religious undertones and implications — and consequently, the importance of reporting such issues with sensitivity.

Against this backdrop, the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ), Union of Journalists for Diversity (SEJUK) and the Universitas Multimedia Nusantara (UMN) jointly held a conference entitled “Reporting Religion in Asia” from October 17 to 19, 2017 at the UMN in Indonesia.

The conference brought together journalists from 13 Asian countries, namely Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Timor Leste. Also present were journalists from Australia, Canada, Denmark and the U.S.

Many participants were members of the IARJ, an organization of reporters and editors from some 90 countries promoting excellence in the coverage of religion and spirituality. It was formed in 2012 with founding members from 23 countries.

One of them is Sri Lankan journalist Indeewari Amuwatte, news manager of the TV program AdaDerana 24/7. Speaking at the panel discussion on “Best practices in reporting in troubled zones,” Amuwatte said that mainstream media in her country rarely reported on religion. “If we report on religion, nobody watches.”

The Role of Media

The conference, which aimed among other things to share best practices and discuss editorial policies in reporting religion, revealed the absence of religion as a regular news beat in the region and the little attention it is typically given in editorial policy.

During the session on “Mainstreaming religion journalism” — which gathered editors from different media organizations in Indonesia — The Jakarta Post Managing Editor M. Taufiqurrahman narrated that although most of the editorial staff are Muslim, they sometimes overlook their own faith in editorial planning. As a result, they fail to publish photos or stories about Islamic activities or holidays.

Eni Mulia of the Indonesian Association for Media Development (PPMN) said that most journalists in Indonesia don’t even know what religion journalism is. She pointed out that the media tend to avoid the topic, saying, “Reporters don’t want to report on religion because [of the perception that] it will affect your popularity.”

Yet journalists do play a role in either bridging or widening gaps in understanding when reporting religion-related issues, which could spell the difference between resolving or fueling conflict. Representatives of different religious groups weighed in on this at the session on “Getting religion right.”

Fr. Johannes Hariyanto, a Jesuit priest and the head of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP), called the media out on what he said was “a lack of understanding” in reporting religion. “Usually, what you report is unpleasant,” he said, “and if it’s pleasant, it’s not done accurately.”

He added that media should correct the public’s erroneous perceptions of religions not counted among the six officially recognized in the country — namely, Islam, Catholicism, Protestanism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism — cautioning against those who would use the media in spreading misinformation about these minority religions. “Don’t be their mouthpiece,” he urged.

This was echoed by the Jamaah Ahmadiyah Indonesia spokesperson Yendra Budiana. The Ahmadiyah, a religious movement with an estimated 20 million followers worldwide, subscribes to the five pillars of Islam and the six articles of belief like mainstream Sunni Muslims, but differs in that it recognizes its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as the Messiah and Mahdi prophesied by Muhammad.

Budiana said that in Indonesia, members of the Ahmadiyah community have been branded as heretics for their beliefs. Pointing out that there is diversity even among Muslims, he explained that the use of the word “different” instead of “heretical” to describe them in news reports would ease religious tensions. “The media have to help build Indonesia as a country with social justice,” he said.

What’s At Stake

At one of the conference sessions, Uday Basu, coordinating editor of India’s The Statesman, described religion as “the anchor that holds us all” and “a system of ideals and values that acts as a chart and compass, without which we can’t move.”

This captures the essence of religion and zeroes in on why it is so important in people’s lives to the extent that it often becomes contentious. The challenge to the media is to report it well — with respect and sensitivity and without bias.

Indeed, reporting religion well is crucial in a region where some 4.5 billion people — more than half the world’s population — practice not only all the major faiths but also smaller, minority religions. Diversity in Asia is further highlighted by the presence of scores of various ethno-linguistic groups, economic disparity and democracies existing alongside restrictive governments.

“The conflicts regarding religion [in Asia] are powerful,” said Douglas Todd, IARJ chair and migration, diversity and spirituality writer at Vancouver Sun, after the conference. “I learned, as I expected, that the restrictions are tighter on journalists — and the stakes are much, much higher.”

Malaysian journalist Zurairi Abd Rahman, assistant news editor of the Malay Mail Online, agreed. Journalists have a greater responsibility to get religion right, especially in countries where there are religious conflicts — whether or not these have already escalated to violence. “Irresponsible and deliberately abrasive reporting can result in the conflict bursting out in the open, and further marginalize the minorities who are already marginalized,” he emphasized.

It can also result in harassment, prosecution, or even violence and death for reporters in countries where religion is regulated, or where blasphemy laws exist — if their stories are deemed insensitive, he added.

Being a Religion Reporter

The conference — which provided a venue for dialogue between students, local religious leaders and media practitioners from different countries — opened people’s eyes about what IARJ Executive Director Endy Bayuni, editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post, called a “somewhat neglected, yet important, genre in journalism.” “The exchange of stories and experiences from journalists was valuable to raise the awareness of this important news beat and of the ways that journalists can do a better job in reporting about faiths,” he added.

Abd Rahman related that, since the conference, the Malay Mail Online has had discussions on how to incorporate diversity and peace journalism into religion reporting. “I realized that it is a stance practiced by many of the more progressive [media] outfits in Indonesia, and I have come to appreciate the merit of it —something I will advocate to my publication,” he said.

In Sri Lanka — where journalism is not recognized a profession, Amuwatte said — there is no formal training or dialogue to guide journalists in responding to or overcoming the challenges they face. Although there is a growing need for in-depth reporting, journalists lack exposure.

“When reporting issues of violent acts [committed] in the name of religion, it is pivotal to be mindful of how you write and what you write,” she said. “Precision wording, in-depth knowledge, and training on how to approach these issues are key.”

These are not skills and qualities specific to religion reporting, but those that any journalist covering any beat should have. As Bayuni said, one does not have to be religious to be a religion reporter: “You just have to be a good reporter.”

Reporting Religion in Asia was the IARJ’s sixth conference, with previous gatherings held in the U.S., Latin America, Europe, and Africa. The organization plans to publish a handbook on reporting religion in Asia.