How can media coverage of religion contribute to greater understanding and foster social harmony?
This question, among others, animated a dynamic forum co-hosted by India’s Baha’i community on Saturday in New Delhi.
The event highlighted how, in the media, faith is too often associated only with negative expressions of religious practice, such as superstition, prejudice, oppression, and exclusion. With a rising tide of religious extremism over the past decades, religious violence has also garnered an abundance of attention in the media.
Yet religion is vast and multifaceted, and its many constructive contributions to communities and to civilization itself are overlooked in popular discourse and media. This reality rings especially true in Indian society, according to Saturday’s panel of speakers, which included prominent media figures, government officials, scholars, and faith representatives.
According to the Director General of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) K. G. Suresh, part of the problem is the lack of understanding about religion among media practitioners. “Journalists should understand the true nature of religion – that it contributes to love and unity, it inculcates virtues and morality,” said Mr. Suresh in his opening remarks as the chair of the forum on Saturday. “Religion should not be identified with the false godmen who exploit people and engage in criminal activities. They should focus on stories of harmony and loving co-existence between people of different religious communities and not just look for cases of conflict.”
The divine religions must be the cause of oneness among men, and the means of unity and love; they must promulgate universal peace, free man from every prejudice, bestow joy and gladness, exercise kindness to all men and do away with every difference and distinction. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 28.
Panelists discussed some of the challenges associated with the current media model. For instance, they explored how the publication of stories is often driven by sensationalism. The pace at which news is reported often compromises the need for depth, accuracy, and nuance in a subject as complex as religion. While identifying the shortcomings of current media, the panel acknowledged the difficulty of finding a way forward. One of their main conclusions was that journalists need forums to pause and reflect on their coverage and the impact it has on perception and behavior.
IIMC and the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha’is of India jointly hosted the gathering, called “Covering Religion with Sensitivity and Understanding in an Interdependent World,” held at the Institute’s campus in New Delhi.
“We are trying to learn with others how the spiritual principles found in major religions can be applied to the transformation of individuals and society and for the betterment of the world. Given the great power of the media in shaping public perceptions and discourses, the Baha’i community of India and the IIMC felt there is a great need to have a conversation with media professionals about the way they cover religion,” explained Nilakshi Rajkhowa, Director of the Baha’i Office of Public Affairs in India.
At the event, print and broadcast journalists spoke frankly about what they perceive as challenges in reporting on religion, including the over-coverage of conflict and under-reporting of harmony among religious groups. Several speakers argued that in India, where religion is a strong presence in people’s lives, media’s responsibility to cover religion in a thoughtful and accurate manner takes on special importance and contributes to the way groups perceive their relationships to one another and society at large.
Panelist Chandan Mitra, a Member of Parliament and the editor and managing director of The Pioneer newspaper, spoke about the need to appreciate religion’s unique influence on society. “If we are aiming for a value-based society, we cannot ignore religion. Religion gives us our sense of dharma or morality.”
Reflecting on the event afterward, Mrs. Rajkhowa said, “Journalists can benefit from such spaces for deep, conscious reflection on their profession.” In the coming year, IIMC and the Baha’i community of India plan to continue the discussion on media and religion in a series of roundtable events.