70 people gathered at Cumberland Lodge to discuss the interaction between religion and the news. Over the past twenty years the coverage of religious news in the media has radically changed: religion is no longer a “soft‟ story. Religious issues pervade the reporting of domestic politics and foreign affairs, and even if a religious story seems self-contained, its ramifications often generate comment from unrelated parts of the secular press. The recent visit of the relics of St Therèse to the UK, for example, generated a huge amount of coverage from commentators and reporters not normally associated with religious news.
Religion is “good‟ news, but – as delegates heard at this conference – it is often portrayed in the idiom of confrontation. Much as religious leaders would like to see their faiths represented as being harmonious, reconciliatory, and profoundly ethical, the media picks up on their disharmony, disunity, and scandal. Why is there this contrast between what religious leaders want reported and what journalists feel is newsworthy about religions in the UK?
One reason is, of course, that disharmony is what we – the public – want to read and hear about. Another is that religions in the UK are perhaps not as harmonious as their representatives would like them to be.
The upshot is that religious representatives often feel misrepresented in the press. Equally, journalists at the conference felt that religious people do not always fully appreciate how the media operates: it is not there to provide free publicity. On the contrary, reporters must investigate, uncover and analyse, and that often leads to the coverage of stories that embarrass religious leaders. Where does this leave the relationship between faith representatives and journalists? Is there an inevitable clash of values and priorities between the two groups?
This meeting offered the unique opportunity for journalists and faith leaders to explain their frustrations to one another. It also gave them the opportunity to learn from each other. So as the tensions simmered down, there was a real meeting of minds. Religious spokespeople became aware that to work with the media they perhaps need to be more savvy about its priorities and modes of operating. The journalists agreed that better, authoritative information about the details of each particular faith would help them to do their job better – a reliable online encyclopaedia of faiths would be an ideal. In sum, this was a fascinating opportunity to build better relations between two groups who often feel misunderstood by the other – and this is what Cumberland Lodge does best.