Weekly Press Pakistan was presented as a case study as to how press can be used as a tool for achieving interfaith peace and reconciliation by Indo-Judaic Studies Researcher and Muslim-Jewish Relations Activist, Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, currently employed as an Assistant Professor at Gautam Buddha University in India, in a short keynote address he gave at an international symposium on religion journalism held on 30th and 31st October, 2013, at Griffith University in Brisbane, in Queensland, Australia, and organized by its Multi Faith Centre. He also participated in a panel titled Minority Issues versus Majority Issues, which explored how journalists can balance coverage of minority group concerns with majority issues. It looked at when and why coverage of issues becomes disproportionate to their real importance, and also asked if media coverage should be proportionate to population size in a given country. Finally, it discussed the dangers of giving more airtime to one particular group over another. His fellow panelists were Florence Spurling, a multi-award winning producer of Encounter documentary features for ABC Radio National, and Rachael Kohn, Producer and Presenter of ABC’sThe Spirit of Things on Radio National, and the panel was chaired by Scott Stephens, the Religion and Ethics Editor for ABC Online (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/).
Dr. Aafreedi’s Australia trip was sponsored by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a not-for-profit [501 (C) (3)], a grass-roots community of scholars who have united to promote honest, fact-based, and civil discourse, especially in regard to Middle East issues.
The two-day symposium began by a keynote titled, “When Journalists Don’t Get Religion”, by Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom and the author and editor of more than twenty books on religion and politics, especially religious freedom. It was followed by a panel on “Journalistic Imperatives in Covering Religion – The Press”, chaired by Paul Morris, Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington where he holds the UNESCO Chair in Interreligious Understanding and Relations in New Zealand and the Pacific. The panelists were Peggy Fletcher Stack, Senior Religion Writer at theSalt Lake Tribune, Endy Bayuni, Senior Editor at The Jakarta Post, and Barney Zwartz, Religion Editor at The Age. They explored during their discussion how religion journalists in Australia and abroad cover religion in their region, and addressed the difficulties of government interference and the pressures of popular or politically correct views on journalists reporting challenging faith subjects.
The next panel was on “Questions of Objectivity in Religion Journalism – The Radio”. Chaired by Barney Zwartz, it had Rachael Kohn, Andrew West, producer and presenter of ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report on Radio National, and John Cleary, producer and presenter of Sunday Nights with John Cleary, a weekly programme exploring the issues, events and people driving developments in religion, ethics, spirituality, popular culture, values and beliefs in Australia, as the panelists. The panel considered what objectivity looks like in religion reporting. How can reporters cover sensitive issues that may challenge their core beliefs? Questions about biases and balance were also addressed. Considering the fact that unquestioning pursuit of balance can be counterproductive to truth telling, the unbiased position of news reporters was challenged and the importance of a point of view in reporting was explored.
Sarah Pulliam Balley, a National Correspondent for Religion News Service, Scott Stephens and Anne Fjelstad, the CEO of the Media Project, and the Chair of Geographa, a global network of Christians in mainstream media, got together on a panel titled “Covering Religion in the Digital Age” under the chairpersonship of Rachael Kohn to explore some innovative news projects in faith journalism that utilize social media and new technologies.
The last panel of the opening day, “Alternative Media Reporting on Faith (Citizen Journalism)” was held under the chairpersonship of Dr. Brian Adams, Director of the Griffith University Multi Faith Centre. It saw Paul Morris, Ursula Skjonnernand, Citizen Journalism Newsroom Coordinator for the Edge at the State Library of Queensland, and Stephen Stockwell, Professor of Journalism and communication at Griffith University’s Gold Coast campus, consider how citizen journalism projects and faith-supported publications report on religion, approaches of nontraditional journalists on stories that affect their own communities, the responsibilities citizen journalists have to ethical considerations when reporting on faith, and the importance of these alternative and citizen-led media projects to democracy. It was followed by two short keynotes, “Religious Freedom and the Mainstream Media” by Alan Wakeley, and “Religion Issues and Media in New Zealand” by Paul Morris.
The second and the last day of the symposium opened by a keynote from Endy Bayuni on Reporting and Religion in Indonesia, followed by a panel on Minority Issues versus Majority Issues mentioned above. Peggy Fletcher Stack gave a thought provoking presentation, titled “Covering a Mormon Presidential Candidate” on how the Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign for the US Presidential election was covered by the mainstream press. It was followed by a short keynote by Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, mentioned above. Following which there were two workshops, “Unpacking a News Story: Religion’s Protected Status in Australia” (for students) and “Making a Story into News” (for faith communities). The symposium concluded with a public forum on Religion as a Weapon of War or Peace? The panel, which had Paul Marshall, Endy Bayuni, Anne Fjeldstad, and Barney Zwartz on it, addressed the assumption that conflicts are about secular political issues and not deep cultural or religious differences, under the chairpersonship of Rachael Kohn. The panelists tried to answer whether religion is being used as a weapon in conflicts today, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, and what journalists are missing by glossing over the religious issues and players in global conflicts.
The symposium was sponsored by ABC Radio National, the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ), the Media Project, an international group of journalists committed to promoting excellence in mainstream reporting on religious dimensions of the news, and Think Big Creative, a Brisbane based advertising and design agency.