There was a time when busy journalists would get on the phone and speak to a religious leader or cleric or imam to get some idea of religious teaching. Scholars of religion teaching at universities were ignored. John Dart, a former religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times confirms this based on 31 years of experience at this major US paper:
Secular (religiously neutral) news organizations have long relied on clergy leaders as sources on religious developments. But journalism’s increased use of religion scholars, who take a nonpartisan approach akin to that of journalists, enables the news media to put faith matters into a richer context.
When religious leaders don’t understand how media and mainstream public discourse, a vicious cycle can evolve. This may partly explain why Islam in Australia has received such bad press for such a long time. The gatekeepers of Islam and Muslim communities have tended to be religious leaders – imams, muftis, interpreters and leaders of religious organisations.
Popular prejudices generated by misuse of a religion by media can serve the (often destructive if well meaning) goals of governments or even partisan politicians. Returning to Dart:
… religious practice is suppressed by some nations, or mischaracterized by outsiders, or is so subtly influential as to be imperceptible but for the diligence of serious scholars and earnest journalists. Clarity about the future use and abuse of religion will be crucial as the United States and other nations seek to justify national security measures and aggressive military moves in the face of terrorist atrocities.
Bad journalism can directly threaten civil liberties and world peace. Bigoted politicians hiding behind a conservative facade need to be swiftly exposed.
Simplistic religious rhetoric from political figures calls for scholars and scribes to wield a swift communications scalpel with an integrity befitting both professions. Consumers of mass media (all of us) need insightful analysis from both journalism and academia.
(CH Badaracco (ed), Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas About Religion and Culture (2005) Baylor University Press, Waco Texas)