For some reason, #AdviceForYoungJournalists was trending on Twitter on Tuesday. Perhaps a helpful tweet to accompany this hashtag would be: Don’t go into religious affairs.
The BBC recently announced that its head of religion and ethics would be losing his commissioning role. The current incumbent, Aaqil Ahmed, would be invited to apply for a new role in factual programming, which combines religion with science, business and history. Before that decision, Ahmed was the only executive in British television with a role dedicated to the commissioning of religious programming.
This cost-cutting exercise by the BBC seems related to another phenomenon: the demise of religious affairs correspondents.
Last year, Ruth Gledhill departed from the Times, leaving the national papers without a reporter dedicated to this portfolio.
Many papers have columnists on religion (Giles Fraser at the Guardian, for example) or journalists who cover faith among other things (eg, the Telegraph’s John Bingham). But this media landscape suggests that religion does not command anywhere near the same weight of attention and investment as sport, politics or even showbiz.
This is a worrying trend – and not just because I’m a newly qualified journalist with a theology degree in need of full-time employment.
Religion is undisputedly a major driver of news. Two months into 2015, many of the biggest and most shocking stories have had a strong religious theme: think of Charlie Hebdo, the Rt Rev Libby Lane, and the rise in anti-Semitism in Britain and across Europe.
It pays to have expert analysis of such topics by religiously literate correspondents. Topics involving the sacred are often incredibly nuanced and require delicate treatment. The Jewish-Muslim dispute over the Temple Mount is not the kind of story that can be treated by someone with a mere passing interest in religion.
Shallow, under-informed coverage can fuel ambivalence towards religion or create a dangerous misrepresentation of the facts. A good example is how Pope Francis is continually depicted in the mainstream media as some kind of liberal culture warrior setting the arch-conservative Catholic Church to rights.
Some believe the decline of specialised religious affairs correspondents is a good thing. Ms Gledhill herself saw the retiring of her role as a sign that religion had been taken out of the sanctuary and into the arena of general current affairs.
While the sacred and the secular do have much to say to each other, I still feel the public would benefit from having more dedicated correspondents given over to this important assignment. As recent events have shown, God is certainly not dead – He’s making the news more than ever.
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