Opinion: Why Canadian media should not shy away from religion reporting
The number of beat reporters covering religion for secular publications has declined over the years and too often, stories on religion are covered with an anti-religious bias. While stories on religion in secular papers inform the masses on this age-old subject, niche reporting tackles stories the mainstream media often miss.
By Vanessa Santilli
Regardless of your religious affiliation — or whether you're a believer or not — it's hard to deny that many Canadians believe in something greater than themselves.
According to recent data from the 2011 National Household Survey, 76 per cent of Canadians still identify with a religion. But the number of beat reporters covering religion for secular publications has declined over the years, says Joyce Smith, graduate program director for the Ryerson School of Journalism.
"You can literally count them almost on the fingers of one hand in Canada," says Smith, whose PhD focused on "Reporting Religion in a New South Africa" surrounding the election of Nelson Mandela.
Despite the fact it's not getting the same priority it once did, there's huge value to religion reporting, adds Smith. Religion reporting — both in the secular and niche religious press — provides an important service to readers, argue some editors of religious publications. While stories on religion in secular papers inform the masses on this age-old subject — and encourage healthy debate from all sides — niche reporting tackles stories the mainstream media often miss. Often, the secular media is less inclined to report on religious matters unless it involves scandal, so religious publications fill an important role, says Jim O'Leary, publisher and editor of The Catholic Register, a weekly national newspaper based in Toronto.
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"Across North America, there are dozens and dozens of newspapers — not just Catholic — but all denominations serving literally millions of readers who, in most cases, would have no other source for this news," says O'Leary, who has also worked for The Toronto Sun in various editorial positions for 22 years, including roles as European Bureau Chief and Sunday Editor.
On the international front, The Catholic Register has run stories on underreported religious persecution, such as church bombings in Nigeria and, more recently, Tanzania.
"They're important enough now that the Canadian government has opened an Office for Religious Freedom so the kind of issues that that office will be looking at are the kinds of issues that we have been reporting on for years," he said.
Smith invites readers to imagine what our knowledge of business or sports stories would be if we didn't have people covering those beats.
"You could still have people doing reporting but they just don't have that depth of background: they haven't followed the teams, they don't know the statistics, they haven't taken a Canadian Securities course."[node:ad]
Charles Lewis, a religion reporter for the National Post who is currently off work due to an illness, believes that in the minds of many editors the religion beat is not important enough to assign a reporter. "And I think it's, in many cases, because of their own prejudices," says Lewis, who is also the editor of the paper's religion blog, Holy Post.
Too often, stories on religion are covered with an anti-religious bias, he adds. "I'm happy to change the air in the room — not only just to write what I believe is more balanced by not making it so accusatory — but also looking at stories about religion that show a genuine contribution to the society," he says. "People forget that."
At The Canadian Jewish News, it is important that coverage of religion not be monolithic, uniform or cookie-cutter, says editor Mordechai Ben-Dat. "It must be nuanced, thoughtful and diverse to reflect the nuanced, thoughtful ways…in which our very diverse and widely different people express their religion."
Reporting on religion should follow the place of religion in the lives and hearts of the people who comprise our society, says Ben-Dat. "Religion is not a category or a subject. It is a way of life, a value, a sigh and a heartbeat infusing who we are and why we are."
But niche religious publications are not protected from the troubles of the print industry, adds Ben-Dat, citing a decline in the paper's income from advertisers and subscribers. The CJN is planning on ceasing publication of its printed newspaper with the June 20 edition but efforts are underway to "rescue" Canada's largest weekly Jewish newspaper, which has offices in Montreal and Toronto.
On a daily basis, faith influences everything from family life and business to healthcare, says Kelly Rempel, a senior editor at the Winnipeg-based ChristianWeek, a monthly newspaper.
"The people of faith of all religions are amongst those grappling with the most serious issues: poverty, working in palliative care, in the prison system, meeting refugees and in disasters they're often the first on the scene," says Rempel. "Faith plays a major role in someone's motivation for doing something. It's not something that can be ignored."
She says many editors and reporters are hesitant to cover religion stories because they are concerned it will come across as promoting a particular agenda. "But I think if religion reporting is done correctly — employing the principles of good journalism — these are valuable stories that need to be told. If they're done well, they can be a real service to the readership," she says.
And while some consumers of news have the perception that journalists are anti-religious, it's been Smith's experience that it's more often the case they are uninformed.
"I think what happens is you don't get so much negative reporting about religion, you get no reporting," she says. "People would rather stay away from the story about which they know nothing than try to report on it and that's a huge problem because you have these real gaps in representations of religious communities and ideas."
Disclosure: Vanessa Santilli is a Toronto-based freelance writer and a former youth editor and reporter for The Catholic Register. She has written for publications such as This Magazine, The Medical Post, Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Bankrate Canada, CAmagazine and Panoram Italia, among other publications.