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Shifting media landscape shrinks the ‘God-beat’

When John Longhurst began his communications career in the 1980s it was common for all Canadian newspapers to have a faith page and a reporter assigned full or part-time to the religion beat. In ‘98, he organized and led the inaugural national conference on faith in the media, which drew editors and reporters into dialogue about the importance of covering religion. Religion reporting was “on everybody’s radar.”

This is in stark contrast to today’s mainstream newsrooms. Longhurst, faith page columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press and director of communications and marketing at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, says other than himself he knows of only one other reporter (at the Vancouver Sun) who has religion as part of his beat. Otherwise, freelance journalists are covering these stories.

This means almost no one in mainstream media is equipped to explore how religious issues pertain to the daily news.

Religious reporting is relevant

Michael Coren

Both in Canada and internationally, many current events have a religious dimension. Yet there is “virtually no one in the media who is qualified to try and figure out what it means and to unpack it,” Longhurst says.

“There are fewer God-beat pros at news organizations who can help lend context that readers need,” Bob Smietana wrote in a recent Washington Post column; “fewer longtime reporters who have the experience, relationships and reputation for being trustworthy that are needed for great religion coverage.”

Broadcaster and author Michael Coren says that understanding religion is essential for understanding the wider world, particularly India, Russia, Africa, the Middle East and China.

“Probably the most important issue facing the world right now is how [to] deal with modern Islam,” says Coren. “China is about to explode in freedom and there are hundreds of millions of Christians who are condemned . . . religion is incredibly important.”

But it tends to be the same religious conversations on repeat in the media – such as the same-sex marriage debate – leaving a lack of interesting and well-written content.

“If a martian landed today and looked around at Christianity he’d be convinced the entire Bible was full of condemnation, so we’re not doing a very good job of it, are we?”

Coren was well-known as a Catholic until he joined an Anglican congregation last year. He also shared his changed view to be in support of same-sex marriage, causing some of his media employers to cut ties with him, including the Christian TV station Crossroads.

Millennials – a new media mindset?

John Longhurst

Longhurst recalls speaking in a university International Development Studies class of 20 students last year and asking how many read the newspaper. One hand went up. A couple went up when asked if they listen to the evening news.

This illustrates that even when a story is successfully printed in a major Canadian newspaper, only a fraction of the population is reached. People under 35 years of age are not turning to traditional media, instead accessing news through social media feeds. When these millennials turn 50 they will still have the same media habits, Longhurst believes.

What does this mean for the role of the church? Similar to other interest groups, Longhurst says if the church wants to impact society and share its message it needs to figure out how to navigate social media sites like Facebook.

Through his NGO work Longhurst says he is faced with the same challenges as everyone else – asking who and where people are reading the stories he is sharing. “What’s the new community watercooler? Is there a community watercooler or are there 100 of them? Two hundred? A thousand? It’s a very fragmented media universe now.”

Lorna Dueck, executive producer of half-hour television broadcast Context with Lorna Dueck, has successfully created an independent media ministry and also writes for The Globe and Mail. In an email interview, she says social media that goes viral is the best way to tell our stories, with the hope that mainstream media gets the spillover.

“I do still believe that leaders are influencers and we must do all we can to get to the leadership positions in the cultural elite of media ownership, and bring our faith there as a needed part of God’s love and grace to the world,” Dueck tells the Christian Courier.

Christians in the media

Students get into character for a video to promote Redeemer’s new
Media and Communication Studies program
(redeemer.ca/media).

One of the changes Dueck has seen in news and information programming is the privatization of faith, which has been a “great loss.” This was experienced recently when Dueck’s team requested an interview with an iconic Canadian business CEO who is a Christian. The response was he would only do the interview if there were no questions about his faith in God.

“Such reluctance of Christians to express their faith in public is an alarming change I have seen over the 25 years I have been reporting,” Dueck says.

“We must speak about our faith; it simply is an honest expression of our identity. As Canada has become more secularized, fewer media outlets are asking the Christian questions, and I don’t think it is a result of hostility to faith. It is truly an honest ignorance; the Canadian media simply does not know what about religion matters.”

How, then, do Christians employed in the media live out their faith? What obstacles might these media makers face? Tiffany Lepack, a reporter at an Ottawa-area Metroland Media community newspaper, thinks millennials are more open with their faith.

“There’s never been any issue that I haven’t been able to cover because of my faith,” Lepack says. “I am pretty inclusive. I want to be the light that shines in this world and I want to show Jesus’ light,” she says.

The next generation
This is the first year Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont., has offered a degree program in Media and Communication Studies. As stated on its website, students will learn to “engage, critique and transform contemporary media as Christians.” Without any advertising on campus, both courses being offered this semester are almost full.

In today’s hypermediated environment, offering this program is a way to help students think through their daily media lives in a way that is hopefully distinctly Christian, says assistant professor of the program Naaman Wood.

“Beyond just people going into the business of making media our hope is all students will make their way into classes at some point and reflect in that way . . . [and] begin the process of discerning how does this stuff shape me, what are these things asking of me as a person and how do I reflect on it as a Christian.”

Graduates from the Redeemer program are likely to find themselves in jobs such as editors at small production houses or working for an organization’s in-house media team, which is why the digital media track looks to give students a wide skill set, Wood says.

“Part of what I want to cultivate in students is an ability to listen to voices that are unlike our own, and ask themselves how is God calling me to hear something I’m not used to hearing in these voices,” Wood says.

Longhurst says during his career he has looked to create space for the religious points of view in the media, with all religions being fairly represented.

“What does it mean to be a Christian witness to the media as these things are changing? That’s the big challenge facing everyone today,” Longhurst says.

 

Faith and writing focus
Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Calvin College announced this March its new Center for Faith and Writing. See page 6 for more information. Stay tuned for Christian Courier’s coverage of Calvin’s biannual Festival of Faith and Writing, held this year from April 14-16. One of the new Center's aims is to ensure that the popular Festival is sustainable long-term.

Another one of our Feature articles includes a longer Q&A with Lorna Dueck.

Author

  • Jennifer is CC's advertising and social media manager. She lives in Cobourg, Ont. with her husband and three children. Jennifer holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University.

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