10 years of GetReligion: Arne’s view from 10,000 feet

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Rev. Dr. Arne H. Fjeldstad is a veteran journalist who worked at a variety of mainstream Norwegian newspapers and then as a publisher in Egypt and North Africa. He is also a Lutheran pastor and has a doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary. He leads The Media Project, which includes GetReligion.

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Mainstream media is up for a big challenge in the coming years. Nope, I am not talking new technology, lack of finances for print media and rapidly declining numbers of readers both for magazines and the daily newspaper. Or any other of the many rapid changes in media reality today. I am talking about the challenge of a paradigm shift in mainstream media.

Possibly the challenge is even greater in Europe (where I live when I am not on the road or in an airplane at 10,000 feet) but also US media as well as many media elsewhere in the world will need to change their attitude and policy. Start focusing for new ways to meet the growing demands for real knowledge about the world, the society and the neighborhood. Real knowledge that will include knowledge about history, culture and religion. Yes, religion.

Religion will be the key to the ongoing paradigm shift. It’s all about religion and the impact of faith in any culture, in any country or region of the world. The challenge for any news media is to “get religion.” Understand its impact — good and bad. Simply because religious faith, religious culture and religious history again and again are the key to understand why news happens.

“We are at the end of the secularist era. The New Religious Era is upon us,” says the British expert on religion and media, Dr. Jenny Taylor who runs Lapido Media in the United Kingdom. Great Britain is home to a conglomerate of faiths and cultures with the Anglican church in sharp decline and a growth of postmodern and post-postmodern spirituality. They are facing a rapidly changing society and a changing culture as well. Religion is starting to play a crucial role. Tayor adds:

“Religion is trendy. (Not Christianity of course. Not church. Perish the thought.) But any shaven-headed sociologist with an ear-ring, any hijabbed and articulate ‘outreach worker,’ any multi-faith professional in fact will look oddly at you if you mention the traditional reticence of the British about faith. Good grief. Even the leader of the English Defence League is ‘taking religious instruction’ from the sheikh — Usama Hasan — who runs Quilliam Foundation.”

The new religious era is still at its beginning and will need to fight its way through the minds of people and into the newsrooms.There is a lot of “old beliefs” still present in the minds of very intelligent, highly educated and tech savvy journalists in the West. They are in for a surprise — and a challenge.

Dr. Stewart M. Hoover (click for .pdf) expresses the “old faith” of media professionals in these words:

“It had long been accepted that educational, economic and political progress would diminish interest in religion, in part because modern individuals would need less of religion’s explanatory and salvific powers. Thus, societies would become increasingly secular. Educators in the U.S. and Europe have taught with this trend in mind, social researchers have assumed that religion is in decline and journalists and other media professionals have addressed the world (and the worldviews of their audiences) as a secular — and secularizing — place.”

But media frames reality, impact how we think, about what we think may be important and whatever we may want to do with it. Media “actually interact with religion in ways that are changing both the media and religion,” says Hoover.

And this trend will grow much stronger. Hoover notes that “media can at the same time be a source of religion and spirituality, an indicator of religious and spiritual change, and articulated into religious and spiritual trends — changing religion through those interactions and also being changed by that relationship.”

The relationship between media and religion will continue to develop — both good and bad. Maybe, just maybe, intelligent journalists will grow more open-minded about including valid religion angles in their stories. Simply because they will listen to serious research institutions — like the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life — that highlight the growing importance of religion in today’s world:

“Trends suggest that religion’s public impact has increased worldwide, with major policy and security implications for the United States and the world. Changes in religious demography, such as the rapid growth of Christianity in the global South and increased Muslim immigration to Western nations, also shape public attitudes and government policies.”

So, a paradigm shift is coming up, folks. And that’s why the blog GetReligion will become even more crucial and important in the next 10 years (and more?) Helping journalists not only in the U to spot the “ghosts” in the news stories. Challenging mainstream media always to include key questions on religion, faith, ethics when they cover a story, also stories not necessarily labeled with the word “religion.”
Like it or not, religion will continue to play a major role in any society and culture.

Yet religion reporting has been on a serious decline in the past years — both in the US and elsewhere. Jack Jenkins is simply reminding us of some grim facts:

“The breadth and quality of religion reporting in the United States has atrophied in recent years, with once-robust religion sections now all but erased from the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers. Meanwhile, religion reporters have either been laid off or forced to re-shift their professional focus to covering religion “on the side.” The result is a mainstream media sorely lacking in quality religion reporting, a fact that calls into question the press’ ability to paint an accurate picture of modern American life.”

Jenkins has some interesting observations and suggestions (which I am sure the GetReligionistas bloggers can testify to) when he lists five reasons why journalists need to get working on their religion coverage:

(1) Failure to understand religion can lead to embarrassingly inaccurate stories.

(2) Lazy, incomplete religious reporting can make stories appear biased.

(3) Religious illiteracy leads to missed opportunities and missed stories.

(4) Good religion reporting can keep people safe.

(5) Religious illiteracy is a fixable problem.

So, looking back at the first 10 years of the GetReligion my guess is you will get more to comment on, not less. Hopefully more stories will be praising professionals who “got” the religion element in their story and were willing to include key elements instead of just ignoring them.

As Hoover says:

“Journalists and others in the media need to be ever more sophisticated in their understanding of religion. Not only must they understand historical religions in more detail, they must also understand religions as they evolve into new forms and shapes. They
need specialist knowledge of religions in formal terms as well as an understanding that belief, spirituality and doctrine are becoming more fluid. They also need to be able to parse the religious from the non-religious dimensions of contemporary movements and trends, and to interpret the evolving relationship between them.”

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  • Darren Blair

    I know that for at least some publications, they literally cannot afford to maintain a regular religion section and regular religion writers; religion sections have a bad habit of being loss-leaders, and margins are often so thin that a loss-leader is a hard sell.

  • Ben

    Do readers of this site agree that media is changing religion as Dr. Hoover argues? I’d submit that one of the reasons the religion beat doesn’t excite reporters more is that the possibilities for having influence in that sphere are less apparent than in other arenas. And as tmatt loves to remind us, much of traditional religion is about centuries-old doctrines which journalists kid themselves if they write as if they can change. So… where’s the influence?


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