Both the local and national press could do better on religion coverage

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The vital role played by local newspapers and radio in encouraging greater understanding of faith has been highlighted by a newly-published parliamentary report.

I say Amen to that.

Learning to Listen’, produced by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religion in the Media, highlights the positive role played by local and regional media in reporting religion in a “balanced, nuanced and informative way.” It forms part of a wide-ranging review of ‘religious literacy’ across the press and broadcasting.

The report contrasts this sensitive grassroots coverage with the way faith is often reported in the national press.

As someone who trained as a local newspaper reporter and has been involved in working with the media to cover faith issues for more than 45 years, I wholeheartedly agree with the report’s praise.

But from conversations with editors and faith leaders, I know there still exists a divide to be crossed. Often, local journalists are unaware of the rich source of news and feature stories that lie within local faith communities.

And the vicars, pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders are either wary of their local media or are not aware that the local newspaper or radio station would welcome hearing from them.

Where churches and other faith groups have built links with their local media, positive, informed coverage is often achieved.

In the 98-page ‘Learning to Listen’ report, the group of MPs and members of the House of Lords said, “We heard compelling evidence that local media continues to represent religions in a more balanced, nuanced and informative way than national media.

“Reporting on local religious festivals, community events and local charities can represent the lively reality of religious practice and experience in a way that is very difficult for national journalism to achieve.

“Local and religious journalists are also more likely to develop the long-term relationships so important in accurately representing a given community.”

The parliamentarians also praised the role of BBC local radio in reporting faith, stating “regional broadcasting has an important role to play in representing everyday belief. It has the capacity to introduce new perspectives at the same time as creating a common narrative.

“It is an area where religious programming continues to be valued and prioritised.”

The report highlights the Sunday breakfast faith and ethics-based programmes broadcast by BBC local radio stations and comments “when prioritised, good local religious programming can be engaging, interrogative and enjoyable.” It commends especially the role played by the stations in covering faith issues during the pandemic.

One of the features of BBC local radio during lockdown has been a weekly Christian act of worship broadcast at 8am each Sunday. These are often innovative services, including one featuring a Championship football team.

But the parliamentary report also spells out the challenges to local reporting. Advertising has been sucked away from regional and local newspapers by the social media giants, and BBC local radio is under pressure as the Corporation’s licence-based funding comes under attack.

In response to these challenges the report concludes, “This loss of local, public interest reporting is deeply worrying. Not only does local journalism play an important social and democratic role, we received compelling evidence that it fulfils a valuable function in representing religion and belief in an accessible and balanced way.”

The report sets out a series of recommendations to build more informed coverage of religion across the media. These recommendations include:

  • Journalists and programme-makers should aim to explore the ‘lived experience’ of religion as well as its doctrinal, ritual and ceremonial elements.
  • Religious literacy training should be formally incorporated into professional media qualifications and journalists’ continuing professional development.
  • The current religious programming hours required of the BBC should be protected in future reviews.
  • The remit of public service broadcasters should be redrafted to include the purpose of promoting religious literacy and all public service broadcasters should explore how they can use the full width of their output to increase religious literacy.

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Herts, and a former Director of Communications with the CofE. He is the author of ‘Responding to Post-truth’ (Grove Books)

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