Including a religious context in news reports of events that happen in a country where religion is a major issue is essential for journalists, according to a Muslim political scholar.
“We can’t ignore the religious context in a news report, particularly in Indonesia, where religion is an important matter,” Bachtiar Effendy, a political science professor from Jakarta Islamic State University, said on Tuesday during a book discussion organized by the Sinar Harapan daily newspaper.
The book, titled “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion” — edited by Paul Marshall, a fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center of Religious Freedom, Lela Gilbert, a freelance writer and editor, and Roberta Green Ahmanson, a journalist and co-author of “Islam at the Crossroads” — analyzes how journalists often misunderstand news stories in which religion is a major issue.
The discussion panel included Bachtiar and Paul Marshall, with Endy Bayuni, the editor in chief of The Jakarta Post, serving as the moderator.
“It is important to develop an awareness of the religious dimension, alongside economic, political and other major issues that affect media reports,” Bachtiar said, citing as an example the recent extensive media reporting on terrorism that had failed to take religious context into account.
He said that when a news report examined the issue of religion in its coverage of terrorism, it usually quoted non-religious opinion leaders and experts, while most religious scholars tended to overlook and deny that terrorism was a religious issue.
“The non-religious experts see this as a religious issue, because they see that terrorism is carried out by Muslims and that religion is a contributing factor in encouraging people to become terrorists,” Bachtiar said.
He added that ulema would deny the link between religion and terrorism, and instead would say it was triggered by social, economic or political issues.
“[These viewpoints] are contradictory to the country’s condition where religion is a dominant factor,” Bachtiar said, adding that the general public in Indonesia rejected the notion that terrorism was connected to religion.
“Most people say that terrorism is an economic or social disparity issue that causes [the terrorists] to feel a lack of hope for the future,” Bachtiar said.
He said that when the media reported a news story that was related to religion, it would seek a quote from a Muslim scholar only because of the scholar’s mastery of the subject of religion.
“In the end it is the public that will judge whether or not the media provides decent reporting by including religious dimensions in a particular report,” he said.
A failure to connect the dots between religion and terrorism is also described in the book, which claims that most media reports have misread Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s stated motives and rationales for his and his group’s actions.
According to the book, Al Qaeda describes its terror targets in religiously loaded terms, referring to Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and infidels, and saying that it would spare the lives of fellow Muslims even if they were Americans.
Marshall said that journalists should ask themselves whether it is necessary to refer to the religion of a person or a group in order to understand a news story.
“Sometimes it is [relevant], sometimes it is not,” Marshall said. He said, for example, that it would not be legitimate to put religious context in a news report about a conflict between people of different social classes or ethnic groups, but that it would be legitimate when reporting about a conflict between two religious groups.
“So, the religious identity of those groups marks the dividing line between who is fighting,” Marshall said, adding that in the case of the Bali bombings, it was also important to deal with the religious motives and understand the mind-set of the people who carried out the attacks.