24 September 2019
This article was originally published at the Media Diversity Insitute's website.
Earlier this month, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) released the Freedom of Religion or Belief and Security Policy Guidance, a handbook intended for policymakers to better craft policies that further religious freedoms.
Three sections touched on the media’s role in ensuring religious freedom and mitigating the impact of hate speech. While they are quite general in nature, it is a welcome addition to the policy guidance, and will hopefully guide conversations on how to improve coverage of religion-oriented stories in local and international newsrooms around the world.
It reads as follows:
- Both public and private media are encouraged to make every effort to increase respect for religious and belief diversity by conveying unbiased and accurate information and representation of different religions and beliefs and countering negative stereotypes and prejudices.
- The media are encouraged to develop voluntary guidelines and standards, such as journalists’ codes of ethics for unbiased and accurate reporting on matters pertaining to religion and belief in their societies, and should ensure that such accounts are based on reliable sources and informed by different points of view. Media outlets are encouraged to disseminate such guidelines widely and provide training on them to relevant members of staff.
- The media should avoid sensationalizing or misrepresenting certain developments within religious or belief communities. For example, the adoption of screening, monitoring or search measures at a place of worship or meeting place should not be presumed to imply involvement of a religious or belief community in illegal activities. The media should make every effort to research and report ethically on such issues, in order not to conflate the acts of individuals or groups with the actions of a community as a whole.
At Media Diversity Institute, we encourage editors, journalists and other media stakeholders to use these guidelines to start more specific conversations at conferences, in newsrooms, and among colleagues.
For example, how can newsrooms more actively account for the wide range of different religions and beliefs, while countering negative stereotypes and prejudices? One way to do this is by placing an emphasis on newsroom diversity—not just race, gender, class and sexuality, as it is often described, but also on hiring journalists of a range of religious backgrounds. At our 20th anniversary event, Reporting Religion: The Role of the Media in the Populist Era, Pierre Haski mentioned that one of the challenges the French media faced in covering the Charlie Hebdo terrorism attacks was that most newsrooms are populated by journalists that fill a secular, liberal, elite profile—and haven’t been trained or equipped to cover complicated stories concerning communities of faith.
Employing journalists of faith, who not only understand and have a broad range of contacts within their own faith but also have a framework for understanding religion and belief helps guide secular, or otherwise non-believing journalists to craft deeper, more sensitive and detailed stories.
How can the media avoid sensationalizing or misrepresenting certain developments within certain religious or belief communities? Language is huge. Guides like MDI Religion and the Media Expert Verica Rupar’s Getting the Facts Right: Reporting Ethnicity and Religion should be required reading for journalists who are concerned with how certain frames (watch Anna Szilagyi’s video on framing here), and language can create or minimize harm when it comes to reporting on a religious or ethnic group that is vulnerable to discrimination.
Another concrete way to counter negative stereotypes and prejudices is to be mindful about stock photos, which have a powerful ability to subtly reinforce unconscious biases and stereotypes. For stories that deal with religion, this can be particularly problematic; often the photos that come up for “Muslim,” “Jewish” or other religions are limited, and only show a particular aspect of the religion—thus minimizing the diversity of ways in which it can be practiced.
Why not send or hire photographers to photograph positive events—like holidays, festivals and other cultural events—to show a different, more festive side of religious practices? This way you have a range of diverse, and personalized images to portray different religious communities that don’t necessarily feed stereotypes.
One additional guideline we feel is missing from the OSCE handbook is that the media should also not ignore religion, or religious groups when they play and important role in a story. Too often, journalists avoid the fall out of poor reporting on religion by simply skipping over that element of the story—or avoiding publishing the story altogether. One way to counter this is through religious literacy initiatives, trainings and workshops that give journalists the tools and contacts to report on these stories without fear of getting it wrong.
Has your newsroom been working on improving religious literacy among staff, or brainstorming how they can improve their coverage to combat negative stereotypes? Do you want them to start the conversation? Please let us know—we will be sharing more tips and tricks on our Twitter (@MDI_UK) and Instagram (@mediadiversityinstitute) accounts.