Religious Literacy and Journalism

By: Rev. Ian Punnett

“Only 10 percent of American teenagers can name all five major world religions and 15 percent cannot name any.” These were some of the findings from research into religious literacy by Stephen Prothero, Chairman, Department of Religion at Boston University, that inspired the title and the spirit of BEA 2015 panel, Joan of Arc was NOT Noahs Wife: The Need for Religious Literacy Among U.S. Reporters.

Because the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life reports that roughly 5.8 billion adults and children around the world consider themselves religious, the question was raised: Should a basic understanding of world faith traditions be in every reporter’s toolbox? If worship is a shaping force that impacts almost any public, are journalists of the present or the future prepared to understand their role as sense-makers of events where faith is in play? For example, without knowledge-based reporting on Islam, could an ill-informed reporter inadvertently perpetuate suspicion of an already at-risk community in the U.S.? A diverse BEA panel discussed the issue of religious literacy and whether journalism schools should be more proactive in addressing what many perceive to be a hole in the modern curriculum that invites bad reporting.

In his experience participating in interfaith conversations, however, Rick Moore, Associate Professor, Department Chair, College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, Boise State University, challenged the claim that a more religiously literate media would be productive. “In most of my studies, the American media—and to a certain extent the heart of the American population—likes a ‘secular spirituality’ where dogma is anathema. To those individuals, hearing what they need to know about various religions is to no avail because they think all religions should be the same—whether they are or not—because all (religions) should really teach is tolerance and peace.”If news consumers want to maintain a limited view of religion, is the news media under any obligation to educate its readers, viewers or listeners?

As a traveler in interfaith circles, Mariam F. Alkazemi, College of Journalism and Communications, University of Florida, believes that the American media needs to be more than just the watchdog of the public, it should be its teacher. “As a woman wearing a veil, I get a lot of people who are surprised that I am educated and articulate. But the fact is, according the Gallop Poll, Muslim American women are the second most educated demographic in this country.

“The media has the power to polarize religious communities. I have met people who have never met someone who is from a different religious sect. If you’ve never met somebody from another sect, what you understand their religious beliefs and behaviors to be, comes from the media, generally.”

Jeffery A. Smith, Professor, Journalism, Advertising and Media Studies, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee took a more historical view: “Many of the most prestigious colleges and universities in this country started off as, basically, religious institutions to educate clergy and so forth. So, it’s not that peculiar of a notion that we should have people paying attention to religion in higher education. In my current book project, one of the chapters deals with how religion had a lot to do with the formation of journalism programs in this country.”

If journalism schools should ever reconsider requiring a “world religions primer,”perhaps Smith’s new book would be a good place to start. Either way, a majority of the panel and many attendees vocalized an interest in studying the implications of religious illiteracy further.


Rev. Ian Punnett (@deaconpunnett) is a PhD student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication/ASU in Phoenix, a seminary-trained deacon in The Episcopal Church, a former nationally syndicated broadcaster and author of How to Pray When Youre Pissed at God.

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