Ansari Institute hosts Final Workshop in a Series for Journalists, Faith Leaders, and Scholars

Author: Rebekah Go

Media - whether it is traditional or social, print, radio, television, or otherwise - has an incredible influence on the way that the general public consumes information and forms opinions. Even with the rise of social media, most individuals over the age of thirty still view national news outlets as their primary source for trusted information. In the US, those thirty and younger still trust national news outlets more than social media, according to Pew Research, though that gap is shrinking.

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What happens when those media sources come to represent interests that are not “purely journalistic?” Is it possible to get to some “unvarnished truth” that challenges authority when that same authority influences coverage through clicks, ratings, and corporate interests? These questions become even more pressing as democracies decline, authoritarianism rises, and the demarcation between facts and alternative facts, or real news from fake news, becomes elusive. Religious news is far from immune from such challenges.

These weighty issues and more were at the heart of a series of conversions, Faith in the Story, convened by the Ansari Institute from 2020-2023. The last in the series, Amplifying the Conversation, was held in October 2023 as the final, summative convening, the bookend. Each of the workshops was organized as a series of “trialogues” between faith leaders, media professionals, and academic scholars around religious literacy and the public conversation about religion.

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The triads were noteworthy for their diversity. Faith leaders came from Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, mainline Protestant, nondenominational Christian, secular, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. Participation of leaders from indigenous backgrounds led to an interrogation of the very term “faith leader.” Journalists were representative from a variety of sources including large public reporting bureaus like Religion News Service, as well as boutique media organizations such as Black Catholic Messenger and Buddhistdoor Global. The program also included journalists who specialize in non-traditional sources such as podcasts, as well as television reporting, such as RTÉ Ireland. Academic scholars who participated in the series represented wide-ranging interests in ethnography, religious studies, theology, philosophy, and media studies.

The first official Faith in the Story event was an online “kickoff” in May of 2021, as the pandemic continued to limit large scale in-person gatherings. Following that, three in-person Faith in the Story workshops were organized between December of 2021 and December of 2022. Thus, the fourth “Amplifying the Conversation” gathering held in October of 2023 was a bit of a reunion.

A total of forty-five participants were present in this last gathering, which also included a handful of new participants who had not been present for any of the earlier workshops. There was a lot of joy and energy as individuals reconnected with colleagues they had met at the prior gatherings, and participants from one workshop enthusiastically learned from and interacted with participants of other workshops.

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As if to underscore the importance of these conversations, the “bookend” meeting began on October 8th, just one day following the horrific Hamas attacks on Israel. Yet, the gravity and importance of how religion is reported did not dampen - but rather animated - the spirited conversations that followed over the next few days. Discussions were deep and varied as the complexities related to religion reporting were teased out into multiple interconnected threads.

One of the discussions that was brought up, more than once, was the idea of “duty of care” as it relates to reporting. This phrase, which stems from tort law and has varying applications within different contexts, essentially recognizes that revealing the private lives of individuals to the border public has long term implications that “subjects” of stories are not always aware of. As the reporter gains clicks and notoriety, the person who has been “exposed” faces scrutiny, ridicule, or abuse that can leave lifelong scars.

This problem is particularly acute when covering survivors of sexual abuse. A survivor of sexual violence may wish to share their experience publicly, but what responsibility does a journalist have in informing the survivor of the likely unintended consequences of going public? People crave sensational stories, which are amplified by sharing grotesque personal details, but at what cost? Can journalists help create a new culture that subverts the public’s desire for the “juicy details” while still capturing their attention, directing it to what is really important?

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The workshop also debated questions of cultural sensitivity. While many stories are local, news today travels globally in an instant. What appears inappropriate for one audience might have an entirely different connotation in another. When the Dalai Lama, for example, interacted “playfully” with a young boy, it was covered as a sexually indiscrete moment–a deeply troubling one that raises all kinds of questions of abuse and authority–in one context, but barely raises eyebrows in another. Participants deliberated on the best ways to responsibly cover such incidents while recognizing the cultural moment in which they are received.

Each of the two full days of “Amplifying the Conversation” began with a Keynote that presented a perspective on a topic related to religion and the media. On the first day, Dalia Fahmy, Associate Professor of Political Science at Long Island University and Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, DC spoke specifically on the media’s role in perpetuating or combatting Islamophobia in a post-911 world. She cited three recent examples demonstrating that Islamophobia remains a significant challenge in our society.

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On the second day, G. Marcus Cole, Dean of Notre Dame’s law school gave his keynote offering a persuasive argument in favor of religious liberty as being fundamental to preserving democracy. He presented as examples court cases that have clarified the United States’ position vis-á-vis religious liberty, noting that the separation of church and state is - despite common perception - not explicitly outlined in the constitution. His keynote generated lively debate and conversation within the room and significant ongoing discussion the remainder of the day.

The conference was brought to a close with an opportunity for final thoughts and comments. In a spontaneous and heartwarming outpouring, one of the Indigenous participants shared a song from his Native heritage: “take courage young children!” Intoned with deep bravado, the words rang like a lament throughout the room. Through days of a great deal of collaboration, community building, laughter - and some tears - his song was a sober reminder of the importance of the work ahead and a fitting send off for the group.

Read the official Summary of Faith in the Summary: Amplifying the Conversation