Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower (Eds.),
Religion and the News
(Ashgate, 2012), 200pp.
This review article is an edited version of David Wilson’s contribution to a panel discussion of “Religion and the News”, co-hosted by JRMDC and the Religious Studies Project at the Annual Meeting of the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group in Durham, UK, in April 2013. The full recording of the whole panel, featuring David Wilson, Christopher Landau, Eileen Barker and Tim Hutchings and chaired by Chris Cotter, can be accessed here:
About the Author
David Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.
Religion and the News is an edited collection of eighteen essays contributed by journalists, religious practitioners and scholars of religion. The collection is framed by an introduction and conclusion by the editors, with Jolyon Mitchell also contributing the first essay. The book is organised in four parts, the first three examining the ways in which religion is understood, covered and represented by various news media; the final part considers the ways in which the space given to religion in the news remains contested.
This is a very British book, English even: although three of the contributions provide input using Jewish, Muslim and Sikh perspectives, the contributions to this book are generally indicative of engagement with what in England is familiar as traditional Christianity, principally the Anglican and Anglo-Catholic churches. This gives the book a particular focus, and therefore a particular usefulness: the different contributors to the book corroborate each other very consistently, and although the editors of this volume have used their editorial ink sparingly, the overall effect is to provide a deeper analysis than the style and format might suggest.
As an academic, religious practitioner and radio interviewee, I have a choice of perspectives from which to respond to this edited collection of essays. At various points in this paper, I will make use of each of these, but regardless of perspective, the first contribution (Chapter 1, by Jolyon Mitchell) brings home the point that this is fundamentally a book about relationship, specifically the relationship (or networks of relationships) between religious practitioners and journalists. The main difficulty perceived is that the two parties involved belong to distinct (and quite different) discourses. The relationship with religious practitioners is not the most important one in most journalists’ working lives, and vice-versa. Further, Mitchell is among a number of contributors to highlight conflict as a recurrent journalistic trope, whereas most religious practitioners will, I suspect, whatever their actual practice, make at least some attempt to adhere to a more positive rhetoric.
The next three chapters reach some interesting conclusions on the basis of statistical contributions that appear to highlight differences between media. Teemu Taira, Elizabeth Poole and Kim Knott (Chapter 2) detect a BBC bias in favour of historically familiar religious traditions (including folk traditions), and against common religion (a category that appears similar to Martin Stringer’s ‘basic form’ of religion (2008) – a practical engagement with the non-empirical, such as fortune-telling, use of psychics, unexplained phenomena etc.). The BBC exhibits a socially conservative bias, in other words. The categorization of my own tradition, Spiritualism, catches my eye here. Taira, Poole and Knott include it in their ‘common religion’ category, yet this is a religion with churches and the familiar panoply of officials including Ministers who conduct weddings & funerals, in the context of forms of service that are recognisably Protestant Christian in derivation. To be fair, Spiritualism can be a challenging customer: some Spiritualists bristle at the suggestion that they are Christian, while others bristle at the suggestion they might not be. Journalists are not the only ones who can find the process of categorization a little tricky.
This may seem picky, but I make this point in part because the contributors of Chapters 2 (Taira, Poole and Knott) and 3 (Robin Gill) have contrasting conclusions to offer, even although their conclusions are drawn principally upon the basis of quantitative data (apparently gathered in similar fashion). Part of the reason for this may lie in their use of different categories (i.e. different definitions) in order to interpret the data. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the definitions we use are essentially summaries of the research questions we are asking; and as we all know, the questions we ask do have a habit of dictating the answers we develop.
Taira, Poole and Knott make the point that religion tends to appear in the news when it has political significance. Discernible in their analysis is a BBC (or establishment) bias in favour of traditional forms of Christianity, as against more secular attitudes in other media organisations that tend to have a more liberal leaning. This raises the possibility that religious traditions having (like Spiritualism) historic affiliations with radical social causes simply fall between these two biases. If the political ‘left’ doesn’t ‘do’ religion, and the political ‘right’ only recognizes certain traditions as ‘religion’, there is every likelihood that much of what people actually do as their religious practice(s) will simply go overlooked. Again, categorization matters; our definitions bound what we are aware of, excluding as well as including. The use by different researchers of the same terms to mean slightly different things is, perhaps, a normal part of academic conversation but it is, I think an underlying reason why there might seem to be a ‘confusing set of trends’ (Chapter 3, p.50) in the data.
You may have guessed that I speak from a position of personal preference for interpretive research, which leads me to welcome not only Paul Woolley’s contribution in Chapter 4 but the further contributions which make up Part 2 (Chapter 5-9), comprising some very valuable self-reflexive contributions by journalists (some working for religious publications). Woolley takes us back to the opening point that religious practitioners and journalists inhabit different perceptual worlds, different discourses. He acknowledges that there is a widespread lack of religious literacy among journalists. My own thought is that, in part, this may reflect the liberal arts backgrounds of many journalists, whose education derives from scholarly traditions that are (in some degree) the product of past struggles to be free of religious control. It is perhaps no surprise that a number of contributors to this volume note a higher degree of secularity (or lack of religious affiliation) among journalists as compared with the British population at large. There is a fair bit of relationship-building and learning to be done, particularly if (as Christopher Landau puts it in Chapter 5) religious practitioners are to become skilled and confident enough to play the media at their own game.
Ruth Gledhill’s mellifluous prose (Chapter 6) gently, meanderingly guides the reader to an, if not enthusiastic, at least amused acceptance of the robust messiness of the journalistic arena. Despite her appropriately ecclesiastical, civilized tone, we are reminded that it takes discipline, training, commitment and good old-fashioned guts to take part in this contest, let alone score points. And herein lies a fundamental difficulty: religious practitioners very naturally put their time and energy into practising their religion, and many may regard that private example as their most effective way of being publicly evangelical. All relationships take time and effort, and relationships lived with other real individuals can seem much more attractive and productive than media(ted) relationships that may or may not happen through achieving more nuanced journalistic representations of one’s tradition.
Further, as both Gledhill and Charlie Beckett (Chapter 7) both point out, if I as a religious practitioner have the time and energy to articulate my tradition for the benefit of outsiders, I can now do it directly, through Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and WordPress blogs (which I for one do). Why put my time and energy into helping journalists do their job better, especially when they get paid for it and I, quite possibly, do not?
At least two responses are possible here. First, as Gledhill points out, retreat from the hurly-burly of life, in whatever context, often seems tempting but is rarely productive. Secondly, if the contributions by Gledhill, Beckett, Catherine Pepinster (Chapter 7) and Andrew Brown (Chapter 8) are anything to go by, at least some journalists (some of whom are themselves religious practitioners) are keen to see closer engagement.
This is something that as scholars we should seek to encourage. When it comes to recording and interpreting patterns of religious activity in Britain, and western society more widely, scholars have often been badly misled by simply noting declining church attendances and failing to maintain scholarly attention on what people actually do when not in church. There are practical reasons for this (and awareness of them is leading to more balanced perspectives) but a stronger media-religion discourse could do much to enhance the resources available to scholars of contemporary religion, as well as scholars interested in mapping other discourses (e.g. secularism, atheism) that have developed with reference to religious activity.
From the perspective of many religious practitioners, however, such points may still not quite be persuasive enough to overcome sensitivity to particular portrayals of one’s own tradition. The media do not report lived reality; instead they report newsworthy bits (or bites), which generally means disputes, schisms, or outright conflict. As Beckett and Pepinsterremind us, journalists are, first and foremost, storytellers competing for the attention of their audiences, whose craft requires them to present narratives with a beginning, middle and end, with interesting characters, unexpected turns of events and dramatic plots aplenty. We have here two quite different experiences of life.
It may, therefore, come as a surprise when I say that my own limited experience of engagement with the media (in the form of radio interviews with commercial broadcasters) has been almost entirely positive, and inclines me to listen to Beckett’s claim that religion gets a pretty fair deal on the whole. I say this conscious that my own tradition, Spiritualism, which coheres around the practice of mediumship and asserts that life after death can be demonstrated using non-journalistic forms of communication, is (arguably) one that lends itself to ridicule from both (other) religious and scientific perspectives as developed in western culture. I say it also in the knowledge that some of my co-religionists have had less happy experiences, coming away feeling angry and insulted, vowing never to have anything to do with the media ever again.
The contributions in Part 3 of the book reflect a similar variety of experience. Journalists have long worked with familiar tropes, phrases in their products. Much of what they do is not the telling of new news but the retelling of gnarled narratives that have their origins not in religion but in more widespread cultural stereotypes. We are all familiar with the Muslim terrorist, the self-deprecating Rabbi, the ineffective vicar we acknowledge but don’t actually listen to, the ferocious Sikh no fool would cross. It is telling that the book we are discussing enables intelligent, humane responses to lazy prejudices such as these but that the news, by and large, does not. The stumbling block is that the number of people who will read and reflect upon the contributions to this book is tiny as compared with the number who will be reinforced in their subscription to these stereotypes by consuming newspapers or news broadcasts. Most of the contributors acknowledge this mismatch, and detail its varied consequences, while agreeing there is no easy solution.
This is why (to revert to my opening point) this is a book about the importance of relationship. The only common suggestion for dealing with the mismatch I highlight is the possibility of improved relationships between religious practitioners and those who represent them, enabling a process of learning and education about each other. Yet good relationships take time, which is why a single life does not have room for an infinite number of them. My worry is that the lack of boundaries characteristic of the internet (including the speed of comment and response) will prove even more inimical to this goal than printed newspapers ever were. This is an excellent book, full of detailed insight born of rich experience, which I have enjoyed reading and reflecting upon, but it is not news.
This is the difficulty taken up in the final part of the book and it is striking that while the contributors highlight the same difficulty, they appear to be agreed that there is no easy way forward. That said, one of the more interesting suggestions comes from Simon Barrow’s final paragraph Chapter 15, p.182:
Journalists have an inbuilt professional tendency to prefer speech (however noisy) to silence (however profound), as well as venerating headline-worthy bad news over worthy but un-dramatic good news. Only engagement and subversion will challenge this. A new generation of religious dramatists, producing mystery plays for a new generation, is needed. This is why the willingness and capacity of ‘ordinary people’ (religious and otherwise) not just to join the new media circus, but to improve it by offering a different style and fresh content, is so important. The revolution is on, but it is in its very early stages, and it is not being televised. That was yesterday’s medium. Today’s and tomorrow’s is multiplatform.
This paragraph illustrates a point made by many of the contributors: the news media themselves are attempting to survive during a period of considerable flux, and are often struggling to find appropriate responses. Speed of change has itself become a constant feature of the journalistic arena, arguably increasing the distance between journalists and religious practitioners. The former are increasingly running to keep up, whereas the latter are more often seeking to apply the brakes so as to adhere to what they regard as authoritative within their tradition.
The contributions to this volume make it clear that there is a need for a new journalism if religion and the news are to have a more mutually beneficial relationship in the future. Journalists need to slow down a little so as to be better informed as to the traditions they are reporting upon, and religious practitioners need to become a little fitter, in the correct Darwinian sense of being suited to the journalistic environment. What is less clear is who is going to take up that challenge.