The Increasing Importance of Religious Education for Journalists

By Stephen D. Perry, Ph.D., Associate Dean, Regent University
At my former university, the student wellness offices emphasized seven areas of health. I probably cannot rattle off all seven. Certainly there were the main areas of physical, social, psychological, and nutrition. But one of the other seven listed was “spiritual.” Yes, my state sponsored university’s student wellness office acknowledged that students needed spiritual wellness.

In what ways does our media deal with issues of spiritual wellness? There are programs that deal with such questions such as the current Madame Secretary. In that show, the Secretary of State is married to a professor of religion who often wrestles on the edge of the battle between a religious ethic and serving his country in various capacities. But the way he wrestles with the questions of faith are not purely ideological nor are they portrayed as naive. They are immersed in theological and philosophical depth and nuance and require inward soul searching for the best option between choices that many would see as bad and awful.

Other programs have had their faith moments. House had them. The Simpsons had them. Reality shows like Survivor or The Surreal Life had them. While less central to the storyline in these cases, religion still made its mark.

Another of today’s reality shows is playing out on our 24-hour cable news channels that are covering jihadi bent religious zealots. But the news channels cannot even agree how to discuss the religious motivation of the zealots. One channel regularly uses terms like “radical Muslims” and describes some of their attacks for their religious motivations against Christians, Jews, and even peaceful Muslims. Other channels parrot back the language chosen by the US State Department that largely avoids recognizing that the motivations behind the actions of ISIS are heavily religious.

So what is the result of how the networks handle religion? I believe that without the depth of compassion and nuance exhibited in shows like Madame Secretary, the news coverage is likely causing increasing apathy and skepticism toward religion in viewers.

This is a subject that needs study. How does the media’s lack of clarity and depth on the religious issue simply turn people off toward one of the areas of wellness that everyone needs. Would the media be acting responsibly if it were to increase people’s apathetic response toward exercise or toward vegetables? No! Thus, the First Lady goes around championing healthy eating practices, and the media covers it.

It is time for scholars and media practitioners to stand up and call for religiously astute journalists, both intellectually and experientially, to take major roles in the coverage of the activities of ISIS. Thus, we must train journalists in religion. It should be a strongly encouraged minor or second major. Further, just like we expect diversity in order to properly represent the experiences of different people groups, we need to have religious diversity in the newsroom with journalists reflecting experientially multiple religious perspectives.

Never has there been a time where excellence in reporting on religion was more crucial than in this day. And if I have any ability to look to the future, the need is likely to continue escalating as populations and national boarders continue to change in religiously oriented ways. The RMIG is properly positioned to be at the center of this effort. I encourage you to champion the religious education component for journalists at your universities, and would love to see research and theory advanced on the effects of religious coverage.

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