“Nobody has figured out how to cover [Islam] well.”
That’s Mark Oppenheimer’s view, anyway, as a former columnist for the New York Times and a well-known reporter on religion. He and Rosie Dawson, a longtime producer at the British Broadcasting Channel (BBC), came to the University on Thursday, April 6 to address how journalists treat religion as a subject and a beat.
Although they both work in the same field, Dawson’s background as a British radio producer gave her a different perspective than Oppenheimer. The two presentations overlapped in their focus on our evolving perception of religion’s role and how religion is communicated.
Dawson kicked the event off by talking about the format that she uses for religion pieces.
“You need general reporters who want to know about religion,” she said, “And you need academics and experts who will explain what is going on, and explain the origin, and explain the wars.”
She focused on how news stories often unintentionally give the impression that religion is relentlessly causing problems.
“In the 1970s, the questions about whether Sikhs should be allowed to wear their turbans when they’re on motorbikes was a really big story,” she recalled. “These narratives are all presented as problems. And they’re important stories to tell, but the danger is that if you only tell these stories, then all religion comes to be defined as problematic. And then we don’t get to hear about the day-to-day stories, and the gentler impact that religion has in restoring the lives of those all over the world. They don’t make the news agenda—why should they? But if you don’t have those stories, then you get to see why religion is just perceived as a problem. So part of the challenge of communicating religion in the media is to find spaces where those other stories can be told and where the nuances of the contentious stories can be explored.”
Oppenheimer took a much more casual approach to his portion of the lecture, bringing up his own articles on the screen behind him and speaking off the cuff. He cracked jokes about Scientology and the “puppy porn,” sites with pictures of dogs up for adoption, that his wife looks at. He discussed the particular challenges that he faces as a writer in a field that does not have a designated section in newspapers.
“The way I think about that is editors don’t know where to put religion,” he laughed. “So one of the questions that I had is, ‘In what section of a newspaper or magazine does religion belong?’… I’ll give you the answer ahead of time, I’ll end the suspense: nobody has a goddamn clue where it belongs.”
He later added more on this.
“The other problem that we face is…that everyone has a different idea of what counts as religion,” Oppenheimer said. “…Religion writers, we enjoy talking about these things together. Our editors don’t have good answers and don’t really care. And as a field, it is still fairly youthful.”
In the Q&A after her presentation, Dawson more directly addressed rising Islamophobia in the United States and Britain. She specifically talked about the recent terrorist attack in Westminster that caused Parliament to go into lockdown.
“Everyone assumed [the attacker] was a Muslim, he actually was a Muslim, but, really, he was a criminal,” she began. “I think that there was a drawing back [on coverage of the attack] afterwards. Partly, I suppose, out of a concern that we don’t slander three million peace-loving Muslims who live in our country, partly so that we don’t completely panic.”
Both Dawson and Oppenheimer provided insight on the role that journalists should play as observers of religions.
“I’m not asking [editors] to think [a religion]’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Dawson remarked. “I just want them to think it’s worthy of finding out about and understanding. And a lot of people in general news and media don’t have that because they’ve made up their mind about it.”
Oppenheimer echoed the sentiment.
“I want my editors to respect [religion], but I want me and my fellow writers to be irreverent about it,” Oppenheimer said. “I think one of the great failings of a lot of bad religion reporting is that it’s so respectful. It’s like, ‘Look at your interesting tradition.’ It should be as respectful as sports reporting or business reporting, which is that sometimes religious people are great, and sometimes religious people are jerky, and sometimes they tell the truth, and sometimes they embezzle funds. And some editors, because they don’t know it, they bend over backwards to be super earnest and reverent about it, and that strikes me as a huge problem as well.”
Finally, Oppenheimer discussed the inclusion of biases in their own reporting and in general views on religion.
“For [Catholics], denominationalism is heresy, it’s a problem to be solved, and eventually everything will be reunited under the Pope,” Oppenheimer said. “So they don’t have denominationalism. Jews don’t have a concept of denominationalism. You’re Jewish if you’re ancestrally Jewish…. But Protestants have, because of how they arose, have a tradition of schisms that gives rise to sects, denominations, whatever you want to call it. And so because we tend to order our thinking in Protestant ways, we now approach Judaism as if it has three or four denominations. Reform, conservative, Orthodox, reconstructionist… That’s a terrible way to think about Judaism. It just doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t map onto it.”
Oppenheimer concluded the discussion by talking about the field’s future.
“The Trump victory actually reminded a lot of editors that there were things going on in America they didn’t understand, and some of them decided that one of the things they need to understand better is religion,” Oppenheimer explained. “So I think there is room for some optimism in the current political climate for religion writers in that our skills of talking to people about religion, asking about religion, are being, all of a sudden, valued more highly.”