Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bridging the gap between journalists' beliefs and attitudes, and their professional work: A commentary

My commentary is on the articles, ‘I will show you my faith by what I do: a survey of the religious beliefs of journalists and journalists' faith put into action’ and ‘The framing of Islam on network news following the September 11th attacks’.

The first article by Underwood is based on a 1998 study in the US and Canada to examine the inter-relationship between journalism and religion, in light of the news coverage on religion that seemed to focus only on ‘contentiousness, scandal, or the offbeat’. Conservative critics claimed that journalists were secular and irreligious, and the researchers of the study hypothesised that journalists were not irreligious as they seemed to be.

Although there were earlier studies that examined journalists’ religious beliefs and attitudes, the questions centred mainly on the frequency of the journalists’ church attendance and affiliation to any religious institution. In Underwood’s study, the researchers delved deeper into understanding the role of religion in the journalists’ value systems and how their beliefs were translated into their professional work. The analysis of the survey was done in three steps, as shown in the following diagram:

From the survey, the results showed that journalists were not irreligious as the critics claimed to be. With regard to the treatment of religion in news coverage, a high percentage of journalists responded positively to the statements that ‘Journalists should have good knowledge of religion’ and ‘Journalists bear responsibility for public discourse on the role of religion in society’. To ascertain whether these beliefs are translated into their professional work, the second article by Ibrahim examines this, in light of the September 11th attacks in the US.

According to Ibrahim, the representations of Islam in the news coverage following the September 11th attacks range from Islam being represented as a violent religion to it being a peaceful one. One of these misrepresentations stems from the unbalanced reports done by journalists, who would interview Islamic extremists such as bin Laden and present their views without balancing them with alternative Muslim perspectives, especially from the Islamic scholars’ point of view. Another misrepresentation of Islam is present in news coverage in which the focus would be on angry Muslim men who carry rifles, or wear ski masks. Whether on reel or real life, Muslim men are depicted in a negative light.

The rampant misrepresentations only serve to reinforce the American non-Muslims’ skewed opinion of Islam. Baudrillard’s theory on hyperreality explains this conflation of truth/reality and simulacra. Even Kees Brants (2008) questions about the objectivity of truth:
Is there such a thing as a real picture of reality? Are we talking about a redefinition of truth itself? No, not a redefinition of truth, but being clear that objectivity and truth are an impossibility.

In view of this, journalists need to consider multiple perspectives when reporting stories about religion, and be aware of cultural or religious sensitivities that could arise from the coverage. They also need to practise discretion when interviewing Islamic extremists such as bin Laden so that the public does not have a misconception of Islam. They also need to have a sense of ethical responsibility and accountability to ensure that the events covered do not trigger civil unrest or hatred among different faith groups.


Baudrillard, J. The precession of simulacra. In Durham, M. G. & Kellner, D.M. (Eds), Media and cultural studies, (pp. 453-481). UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Ibrahim, D. 2010. The framing of Islam on network news following the September 11th attacks. International Communication Gazette. 72, 1, 111-125.

Underwood, D. 2002. I will show you my faith by what I do: a survey of the religious beliefs of journalists and journalists' faith put into action. In from Yahweh to Yahoo! the religious roots of the secular press, 130-147, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

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