As a proper Calvinist, I have always viewed my work as a journalist as a calling—I felt that a newsroom was “the right place” for me to be. But we don’t often think of religion and the mainstream media as natural companions. The six years, then, which I have served with the board of directors for the Presbyterian Record—three of them as convener—spanned a time and space where the fusion of my faith and my journalism was most pronounced.
Or so I imagined. But those who read the magazine also consume other media, and at coffee hour on a Sunday, I would more often hear about my latest report on CBC than my name on the Record’s masthead.
Many of the stories in the magazine could easily land on the line-up for one of the radio programs I worked on. My producers were as open to stories about religion as about business or education, so long as they were interesting and had resonance for a wider audience.
So the divide between communities of faith such as the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the secular, pluralistic mainstream press is not as sharp and wide as I imagined it.
Others are catching on, too. For more than two years, I’ve been studying religion and media in the U.K., and it’s getting easier to find places to do this kind of research. But it wasn’t always this way.
This summer, I took part in a conference in Turkey on media, religion and culture. This conference has been held every two years (the previous one was in Toronto in 2010), but it began as almost a self-defence mechanism for scholars. In their various university departments, academics had to fight for their corner, justifying an area of study deemed irrelevant by their peers. They reached out across great distances to find people they could talk with—from Boulder, Colorado, to Uppsala, Sweden.
In the past decade, however, relevance and interest have grown: attendance at the conferences has swelled and we have just created the International Society for Media, Religion, and Culture (or, charmingly, ISMRC). It’s not hard to figure out why: September 11.
My professional life as a journalist was contoured by the attacks of 2001: I was beginning my fourth year at Carleton University’s journalism school, preparing a freelance radio documentary on jazz festivals. Suddenly, terms such as “God” and “fundamentalism” were a going concern and questions about living an authentic religious life in public were openly discussed.
One of my tasks during my time with CBC was to build contacts with Muslims. This was partly because Arabic was the third most widely spoken language in Ottawa, but also because Islam had become a big story—it made sense to know people in our community who could talk about it. That work has informed the research I’m doing now. Closing the circle, I give occasional workshops on Islam and the media to Scottish journalism students.
My former colleagues showed openness, interest and a high degree of proactive community work. But there is more yet to be done. Journalists tend to be good at asking questions but bad at publishing the fact that they don’t know something. One of the consistent refrains I heard in Turkey was a thirst for more religiously literate journalists—not that they need to believe but that they need to understand the subject they’re reporting on.
The Presbyterian Record has an advantage in that regard. Housed as we are within a religious environment, we have that religious literacy. Our audience may be smaller than that of the CBC, but that shouldn’t make us timid. Technology is changing: our voice can be heard amidst a great mix of media outlets discussing religion—CNN’s religion blog, the Huffington Post, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, or even the Globe and Mail.
A well-timed post that gets tweeted or shared on Facebook can quickly reach a massive audience and in this we have a bit of an edge because our religious literacy affords us some authority. The audience is there and we have stories they want to hear. So let’s share.