Religion should be part of the required training for journalists to improve their religious literacy and avoid stereotyping, a major new report from parliamentarians has said.
'Learning to Listen', by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Religion in Media, says journalists would benefit from using the many resources offered by religious institutions to solve the "pervasive" and "well-founded" perception among faith groups of religious illiteracy in the media.
The report says that religion is "misrepresented" in a "wide variety of ways", including "a reduction of religion to its visual, liturgical and doctrinal facets", "sensationalising religion, the "reinforcement of problematic stereotypes", "basic mistakes and imprecise language", "ignoring diversity within faith groups", and "misleading use of representatives".
It calls for accurate representations of religion and faith communities, and for the required hours of religious programming at the BBC to be "protected" in future reviews. Another recommendation says that religious literacy should be covered in courses for professional media qualifications and industry training.
In their foreward to the report, Yasmin Qureshi MP and Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss write that a religiously literate media has an important role to play in creating a "rounded, informed public understanding of religion", and a public debate around religion that is "more informed and empathetic, rigorous and respectful".
"We believe that religious literacy is essential for anyone who seeks to understand society today. A public conversation which treats religion as outdated and irrelevant to today's world will leave a growing number of our fellow citizens increasingly isolated and marginalised," they say.
The goal, they said, was not to shut down criticism of religion or religious groups, but to ensure that reporting is done "from a position of knowledge and with a desire to understand alongside a willingness to condemn where necessary, rather than through gratuitous efforts to 'exceptionalise' faith groups".
Faith groups, meanwhile, have a responsibility to understand how best to tell their own story, and to likewise understand the constraints and demands of modern-day journalism.
"We are lucky in this country to have a free media. However, that does not make it above reproach, nor does it make improvement impossible," they said.
"It is worrying that we heard from many people – faith groups, academics and journalists - who believe that misrepresentation of religious people and beliefs has become widespread across our media."
There was a tendency in the media, they continued, to "depict faith groups as either internally divided or as a source of conflict more widely", while overlooking the many instances of collaboration.
"Today, the UK is characterised by an incredible variety of beliefs, histories and perspectives. Complete agreement and uniformity is neither possible nor desirable," they say.
"To live together well, it is beholden upon all of us to learn to listen to our fellow citizens and to do so with respect and curiosity before we move to judgement. Learning not just what people think, but why they think it, is essential in bridging gaps and crossing social and cultural divides.
"This is the broadest suggestion we would like to make – that our society can be richer, more harmonious and more confident in itself if we all learn to listen and empathise with that which we do not believe or support.
"A media that is diverse, curious and sensitive to the enormous variety of beliefs in the UK today can play a key role in fostering that society and we hope that our recommendations are useful tools to achieve that end."