In April this year, millions celebrated Passover and Easter, and are participating in Ramadan. Faith plays an integral part in the lives of many Africans, influencing their art, culture, and way of life.
However, the practice of faith is largely absent in mainstream media, which has one asking the question: is religious coverage not really a story enough?
Our #JournalismTalks Twitter Space, hosted on Wednesday April 20, 2022, aimed to answer this question.
The space titled ‘Reporting Religion’ was facilitated by the CEO of fraycollege, Paula Fray. It aimed to explore the quality and quantity of religion and faith stories in the media and how journalists can improve religious coverage in media.
Fray facilitated the discussion with the founder of the International Association of Religion Journalists, Yazeed Kamaldien, award-winning broadcaster, Ashraf Garde, prominent political journalist, Ranjeni Munusamy, founder of Parable magazine, Solomon Ashoms, and activist and development worker, Sekoetlane Phamodi.
To start the space, Fray posed the question: “do journalists give enough attention to religion as a critical factor in the lives of their audience?”
Kamaldien pointed out that religious reporting is low on the priority list for many newsrooms across the country, and other parts of the world. He says there’s an underrepresentation of religious reporting, adding that one of the ways that this is evident is in the number of journalists who have signed up for the Association of Religion Journalists.
Kamaldien also highlighted that the issue with religious reporting in the region is that the stories are only centered around big events like Christmas or Ramadan. “We would like to see a more focus on religion and a more ethical and informed approach,” he said.
Munusamy says there are challenges with reporting on religion because finding an angle for that story can be complicated. “Does one report on their personal experiences or general news on religion?” she asked.
As an outspoken Catholic, Munusamy also reflected on the direction of Catholicism under Pope Francis. “Catholicism is a controversial topic in general but there has been a shift since Pope Francis became pope. He’s a political pope and he’s developed a political voice,” she pointed out, adding that this factor has made it easier to report on Catholicism.
But when it comes to reporting religion in South Africa, many journalists just choose to avoid it, she says.
Garde pointed out that when it comes to the mainstream media, there are three aspects to reporting religion; the first being the politics of religion. “I think there is a lot of coverage on the politics of religion, like how politics influences things, for instance, and the ongoing issues in the middle east,” he said.
The second part is religion in society, meaning people in a particular space. “How much is covered about how we are influenced by our faith in doing the things we do?” he asked.
“I think that part is probably the one that needs the most attention”, he said, adding that “it’s almost like it’s okay to be inspired by other political parties, but if you’re inspired by a religious figure, why would you even want to talk about that?”
The third part is the “who”, “what”, “why”, and “where” of religion, like the coverage of religious events, the foods people eat, and what people do in those religious groupings. “But not enough attention is paid in terms of understanding exactly what happens,” he said.
Sekoetlane Phamodi noted that the media undermines how religion, faith, and spirituality shape the fabric of South African society. He pointed out that many of the public servants that he meets approach their jobs through a lens of their religion and spiritual life.
Fray concluded the conversation by asking: “what should journalists be doing to improve religious coverage in media?”
“We should be able to maintain the same critical eye we apply to journalism, even when writing about religion,” Kamaldien said. He said religious reporting shouldn’t be outside the news cycle but should be part of the editorial conversation.
Solomon believes that reporters have a responsibility to help build a society with the information they give – and religious reporting is part of that.
“Many people, in some way or another, are inspired by their own faith,” Garde said. He highlighted that religion in media has become a side issue, where it needs to be mainstream.
“We need inspiring stories, not so much about their beliefs, but how they are using their beliefs to implement their purpose in their lives,” he said.