What if religion is a relevant fact in many news stories today?
What if more journalists made room for religion in their reporting?
What if understanding religion better leads to better journalism?
Journalists play an outsized role in society, because they report-out on and help interpret the events that shape our lives. Their views–including their biases–punch above their weight, as the old phrase goes. They hold power to help us better understand.
And while trust in the mainstream media has declined in the US and elsewhere, reporters, columnists, and editors still hold massive influence. Politicians, scientists, intellectuals and others ignore the press at their peril.
And yet because a disproportionate percentage of journalists are secular and coastal, one of the aspects of their stories that is easily overlooked or misconstrued is one of the most powerful forces in society – religion.
Religion sits at the heart of many of today’s biggest stories. Even topics typically thought to be non-religious – climate change, artificial intelligence, immigration, war, educational pluralism, and national populism, to name just a few – have a religious angle.
With 2.3 billion Christians in the world, 1.9 billion Muslims, and hundreds of millions of adherents to other traditions like Hinduism, Buddhism, religious faith is often a prime motive for individual thought and action.
But many journalists lack any real familiarity with religion. Countless examples abound. And especially for reporters in the early-to-mid stages of their careers, it’s often quite difficult to know where to turn for credible sources of faith-oriented information – even when that’s a critical part of a story. As a result, reporting and analysis can suffer, in turn damaging how readers and other listening audiences understand what’s going on.
“Mainstream journalists could do a far better job as reporters if they’d see how religion is always in the room,” says Josh Good, director of Faith Angle, a program of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Since 1999, Faith Angle has been helping elite U.S. journalists make more room for religion in their work. The program hosts regular forums in various locations, and in 2019 launched a bi-weekly podcast featuring a different journalist and religion scholar each episode.
And with lead funding from Templeton Religion Trust, in 2019 the initiative expanded its scope by launching a Faith Angle Europe forum, with 8-10 leading European journalists and 6-8 American journalists. The gatherings have occurred annually and are now funded through 2024.
“One of our advisory board members likes to say these gatherings are like Faith Angle two decades ago–religion for most European journalists is a novel concept,” reports Good. “And when countries like England, Hungary, Austria, France, Poland, and Italy are experiencing national-populist upheaval in their politics, this cultural-political tension has offered fresh openness to rethinking the role of religion in society.”
Each forum convenes a select group of 16-18 respected journalists plus six distinguished scholars and clerics from a diversity of faith traditions for in-depth presentations and discussion of the biggest issues facing their part of the world.
In 2022, for example, the forum included presentations on the future of European democracy, war and religion in Ukraine, and Europe’s relationship with China. Over two days, forum participants had the opportunity to consider and debate these dynamics through the lens of religion – often resulting in columns or articles that introduced these concepts to hundreds of thousands of readers.
“Reflective dialogue and true conversation is the model,” Good emphasizes. “These are top-of-their-career columnists, so learning is caught rather than taught.”
Six journalists help lead the development of each forum, and range from the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, to New York Times columnists, to the US national editor of Financial Times. Speakers come from a variety of traditions— Christian, Jewish, Muslim, even agnostic. The focus is on diverse perspectives, which spark curiosity and authentic engagement. “We work hard to foster intellectual curiosity, hospitality, and thick pluralism.”
Ultimately, the goal is to galvanize an ecosystem of first-rate reporters, columnists, and broadcast media leaders who can write about the relevance of religion in cultural and public life.
“When there’s positive peer pressure, journalists help one another write with greater curiosity, nuance, and expertise. We gather far removed from the everyday pressures of the newsroom to learn alongside one another about how religion matters today,” says Good. “Over the years we’ve seen how that can lead to journalism that isn’t just more factually accurate; it’s also more interesting, more well-rounded. It includes previously overlooked voices, shining light – not heat, but light – on religious motivation or activity at work in the world.”
A website inviting journalists to continue strengthening their work features a bevy of forum presentations going back to 1999, as well as podcast episodes, forum highlights, and other informational resources, all aimed at expanding perspectives on the role of religion in public and cultural life.