Dos and don'ts of reporting religion
ABOUT A YEAR AGO, I began to grasp what good religion reporting meant when I discovered something was missing.
I was in Accra taking in The Media Project's (TMP) day of presentations on African Traditional Religion and the role of religion in armed conflicts when I suddenly realized I didn’t know as much as I should about other religions and how they shaped believers' daily lives.
That day, I memorized a quote by Washington Post (USA) columnist Michael J. Gerson: "A journalism that ignores or dismisses the role of religion in our common life misses the greatest stories of our time. A journalist with secular blinders will not be able to see some of the most important historical trends of our time."
Back here in Cameroon, we often hear priests, imams and traditional healers on the air claiming God has told them there will be war in Cameroon, or that all people from a particular tribe are cursed and need God's mercies. It's not unusual for a religious leader to publicly declare that HIV is a consequence of God's wrath and all HIV-positive people are paying for their carelessness. We are also often exposed to preachers speaking in tongues. These can be confusing signals to sort through.
I left TMP's Accra conference resolved to see religion stories from another perspective, to take off my secular blinders, and to learn more about other religions and value systems.
Due to the sensitive and complicated nature of religion in this part of the world, it is of absolute importance that media cover religion carefully and responsibly and avoid images or stories that could encourage misunderstanding, or trigger rivalry among varying faith groups. But how do we do that?
Here are some "dos and don'ts" to help us reporters begin to be more conscientious in our handling of religion. These "dos and don'ts" came out of a TMP-sponsored dialog in Cameroon in January 2012 with members of The Cameroon Association for English Speaking Journalists.
Don't assume that anyone has "the truth" about sacred texts. Most faith traditions disagree over interpretation of revered texts. For example, the debate over homosexuality threatens to fragment some Christian denominations. Some Christians are resolute that the Bible clearly states homosexuality is sin. Others claim the Bible says no such thing.
Don't allow sources to manipulate you into implying their perspectives are the only correct view. In situations where you're quoting authoritative-sounding sources or persuasive opinions, make it clear to your audience that you are publishing one of several viewpoints.
Don't promote your faith tradition above others or endorse its beliefs in any way. Some editors anticipate the problem and instruct their reporters not to cover stories about their own religious beliefs. But if you cover religion, eventually you'll be confronted with a possible conflict of interest. Be ready.