A new approach to public understanding of religion

Despite religion’s prominence in public debates (Davie 2014) and importance in daily life for many people across the world (WIN/Gallup International 2014; Hackett and McClendon 2017) — though for a diminishing proportion of British citizens (WIN/Gallup International 2015b) — scholars and the news media, in their efforts to understand faith, are still preoccupied with two issues: religious fundamentalism and violence. Consequently, spiritual aspects and everyday practices of religion as an important part of daily life for religious citizens remain under-examined and particularly under-reported in the mainstream news media in a secular world. The current context of rising populism, post-truth politics and fake news has only exacerbated this problem and show that democracy cannot be taken for granted.

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Why democracy? Democracy is a universal value (Struhl 2007; Keane 2018) and equally endorsed by most followers of all major world religions (WIN/Gallup International 2015a; Rafiqi 2019). Democracy is no more about politics only, but it now spreads into other realms of life (Nordenstreng 2000; Cunningham 2002; Held 2006; Keane 2010, 2013). Democracy may not be a panacea, but it needs to be preserved and, more importantly, developed. Democracy is, in part, about inclusivity, recognition of all views and values. It is arguably the only way forward to provide and sustain peaceful co-existence of our contemporary culturally and religiously diverse societies.

To address this issue in my comparative journalism study of the framing of religion overall, particularly Christianity and Islam in eight British and eleven Turkish national newspapers during three distinct weeks in 2014, I develop and utilise a four-dimension democratic approach to newspaper religion reporting. Its broader legitimacy is based on the attitude of democracy to the news media, civil society and religion; the news media’s relationship to democracy; and the way religion and religious citizens treat democracy. After reviewing different modern democratic models, I make a case for Keane’s (2010) monitory democracy as the most developed contemporary and hybrid model of democracy that provides the widest and deepest participation opportunities for the news media and religion as part of civil society in democratic decision-making. Importantly, monitory democracy shows both recognition of religion’s positive role in society and scrutiny of its extreme interpretations.

The core of the democratic approach is grounded on reviews of the key arguments in the broader field of religion, the media and culture, including their digital forms; the prevalent approaches to religion and the news media; the importance of news values and different sociological factors in making general and religion news; and the literature on religion and the news. It brings together in a systematic and unified approach the democratic fragments that contribute to the construction of a fuller picture of faith in the news dispersed across many related studies. These dispersed democratic fragments are all those similar findings and issues in the news media’s religion coverage that related research typically reveals and discusses in the broader context of democracy, democratic society and news media. Moreover, the improvements that these studies suggest are also possible only in the presence of democracy and its decent functioning.

Methodologically, I constructed the four dimensions — spiritual, world life, political, and conflict — both deductively and inductively. Deductively in a sense that I developed the four dimensions from discussions of wider social processes, the four-layer rationale, and different sociological perspectives when conceptualising religion (e.g., Woodhead 2011). Inductively in a sense that these four dimensions were confirmed to be present in the newspaper coverage of religion when piloting and coding my actual sample. These four dimensions were integrated into my coding sheet and correspond to the four meta-frames of the same names.

The spiritual dimension concerns the essentials of religion such as faith in God (gods or supranatural force), faith in the hereafter, religion as belief and meaning, religion as a necessity, religion as practice — all necessarily based on a religion’s primary sources or its sacred texts. The world life dimension encompasses religion as daily practice, social engagement, interreligious dialogue, including non-religious values and principles at a civil society level. Whereas the spiritual dimension reflects the theological fundamentals of a religion, the world life concerns putting these into practice. The need to distinguish the spiritual from the world life dimension arises from the fact that the sacred scriptures of a religion can have differing and even conflictual interpretations. Thus, the world life dimension also incorporates cultural differences in religious practices. Both the spiritual and the world life dimensions are more likely to capture coverage, showing mainly recognition of, and occasionally indifference to, all views on religion and non-religion (atheism, agnosticism, humanism and secularism), corresponding to monitory democracy’s recognition element.

The political dimension covers the inevitable interaction between religion and politics. It captures news about elections and policymaking involving religious matters, politicians employing religious rhetoric or participating in religious events, instrumentalisation of religion for political gain, religious leaders or people’s participation in democratic decision-making (as something necessary) and their involvement in politics (as something undesired). The political dimension could be argued to be a mix of recognition and scrutiny of religion, depending on the nature and context of the coverage. I differentiate the political dimension from the spiritual and world life dimensions to make it possible for politics- and conflict-free coverage of religion. The conflict dimension incorporates: 1) news, in which religious and non-religious people are covered as villains and scrutinised for injustice, irregularities and scandals in which they may get involved; 2) news, in which religious and non-religious people are covered as victims of injustice, irregularities and scandals. It reflects the dominance of conflict as a news value and framework, corresponding to monitory democracy’s scrutiny element. It could be also said to be a mix of mainly scrutiny and occasionally a different type of recognition.

Whereas these four dimensions certainly allow the news media to legitimately criticise religions and their followers, they also ensure that the so-called secular mainstream newspapers recognise religion as part of civil society and its important role for religious citizens — no matter how big or small the number of these people is — and inform the rest about it. Otherwise, as Buddenbaum suggests, the absence of news “showing the meaning, purpose and influence of religion in people’s lives and the implications of a religion for others”, “[e]xplaining theology or quoting from religious texts” to provide “the background that helps people understand the source of people’s beliefs and judge those beliefs for themselves” (p. 193), “can imply that religion is absent from the community or unimportant in spite of the significance people attach to their beliefs and the time, talent and money they invest in support of their religion.” (ibid., p. 139).

Furthermore, as Schudson (2003, p. 212) observes: “News has most impressively opened up in the past several decades, enlarging what an entire society can consider together and moving ever so gently but importantly from a concept of politics as whatever is on the mind of the legislature and the president to a concept of politics as whatever might be shaping everyday life that should be in the public eye and available for public attention.”

The main contribution that this research and its findings make is to the field of religion and the news. The democratic approach brings systematism, pragmatism, wholeness and universality. Systematic, pragmatic and whole in a sense that it is a specific, clear and practical-oriented approach that brings together all bits of the democratic picture of religion in one place under one roof. Universal in a sense that it can be applied to any context. Simultaneously, all religious complexities and manifestations are preserved within the four dimensions. The reason is that the deductively proposed and inductively verified four meta-frames can have an infinite number of categories or frames. Overall, I consider that this approach could serve as a democracy index or as a guide against which newspapers and possibly other news media can improve their coverage of religion. While the real life applicability of the four-dimension democratic approach remains untested as it requires further research, I very much hope that this research will spark wider scholarly and industry debates on the news(paper) media’s democratic performance in their reporting of religion and perhaps on the general, public understanding of religion in today’s — inevitably linked to democracy — diverse and plural societies.

Ahmed Topkev is a PhD graduand from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture. His doctoral research is entitled “A Democratic Approach to Reporting Religion: Comparing the Newspaper Coverage in Britain and Turkey”. His Twitter handle is @ahmedtopkev.

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The socoiology of religion study group at the British Sociological Association. https://www.britsoc.co.uk/groups/study-groups/sociology-of-religion-study-group/