Journalists, students, and scholars from around the world came together on campus this week for the three-day Representing Religion symposium. The event was a collaborative effort between the Media School, the Department of Religious Studies and the School of Global and International Studies.
The symposium was put together in part by professor of practice Elaine Monaghan, who this semester taught an interdisciplinary course that took various Media School, Religious Studies and School of Global and International Studies students on a reporting trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland during spring break.
The event kicked off on Tuesday at the Indiana Memorial Union with a keynote speech by former Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan, who was present at the other events throughout the symposium as well. He spoke about how he approaches reporting on religion, and the pitfalls journalists can fall into.
On Wednesday morning, twenty experts from Algeria, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States spoke on four different panels about serious dilemmas currently facing reporting on religion today. Subjects included Evangelicalism, Islam, representation of women, and the clerical sex abuse crisis.
One point that was brought up throughout all four panels was the lack of diversity in the newsroom, both in its staff and its content. International journalist Tania Rashid brought the conversation back to this point multiple times during her panel on Muslim representation in journalism.
Specifically, she spoke about how this affected her relationship with her coworkers. She said when she worked for ABC News, her boss offended her by keeping a Muslim prayer rug in his office as an item of decoration. When, she later worked for Current TV, she found herself in an argument with one of her co-workers about his negative use of the term “jihad,” which he associated exclusively with terrorism, despite its real meaning being “struggle from within.”
Rashid said she believes these sort of conflicts and cultural misunderstandings could be avoided with more Muslim representation in the newsroom.
“It makes me feel alone,” Rashid said. “I feel like I’m fighting alone sometimes.”
This concern carried over to a point made by Reuters chief photographer Zohra Bensemra during the representation of women panel. Bensemra, who is an Algerian native, said that the lack of understanding of women’s rights in Muslim countries like her own not only appear frequently in conversation, but coverage as well.
While Muslim countries are typically portrayed as more misogynistic than Western countries, Bensemra argued that Muslim women have as many rights, if not more rights, than Western women. One example she brought up was the lack of a wage gap in Algeria.
“As women, we are the same,” she said. “We struggle in the same way.”
Another point brought up by several panelists was the lack of coverage on religion as a whole, unless a scandal is involved. Some major metropolitan outlets will have a religion beat reporter, but the job is rare, often nonexistent, in local reporting. Miami University assistant journalism and film professor Rosemary Pennington said there should be a broader understanding of these beliefs and cultures in the newsroom, particularly for Islam.
“Our interpretations of Islam have to be more complex,” Pennington said. “They have to be more nuanced.”
She said that reporters with this kind of awareness and education can help shift reporting from episodic to thematic. Rashid agreed with this point and said making the effort to learn more will be more beneficial to the reporter and their viewers or readership.
“Don’t give up the good fight,” Rashid said. “You just have to poke your head in there and see what you can find.”
Later that day, a Facebook Live studio event was broadcasted in the Media School Commons, featuring panelists Matt Dorf and Shannon Craig Shaw from the West End Strategy Team, as well as University of Missouri journalism professor Debra Mason and Trinity Episcopal Church rector Charles Dupree. The subject of the discussion was the relationship between advocacy and journalism in religion.
Afterwards, students from Monaghan’s Ireland travel course presented their work in the Commons. Subjects ranged from Brexit to abortion to the #MeToo movement to different ways of handling grief.
On Thursday, the event ended with a morning discussion on religious representation in broadcast media, led by Rashid and Bensemra in the Commons. The panel was moderated by Media School associate dean Betsi Grabe and Media School assistant professor Jennifer Midberry.
Afterwards, there was a final panel discussion on religion and dehumanization within the gaming industry, featuring Ohio State University communications professor Teresa Lynch, Appalachian State University journalism professor Greg Perrault, media professor Edward Castronova and game design program director Mike Sellers.
The overarching theme of the symposium was being aware and respectful of other’s beliefs and culture, regardless of how one may feel about them. According to Bensemra, it “doesn’t cost anything” to do either.
“We are the same as far as we are human beings,” she said. “This is most important. We are all human beings.”