Which Planet Are We On? — Boundaries in News Reporting of Religious Issues
On a glorious Sunday morning last September, I swam in the Mediterranean, just 110 km from Rome. As I enjoyed the limpid waters and the glorious sunshine, my feeling was that I was definitely on planet Earth.
Back home, just 10 minutes away by car, I switched on the TV news. I was watching RAI News 24, which is a prestigious channel and part of the Italian national broadcasting service. As usual, they were giving some coverage of the Pope’s Sunday audience. Nothing unusual about that, I thought, as they always do.
The news tickers floated by, Trump, Brexit, North Korea, Iran. Then one caught my eye. It actually read “Pope — In the Kingdom of God, nobody is unemployed.” I thought I had misread it. I watched again and of course, missed it the second time. I always do, don’t you? But the third time, it confirmed my worst fears.
Fears? The Italian national public broadcaster is mentioning the Kingdom of God in a major headline at the start of the news- almost breaking news! Maybe they are just giving the Pope’s views on what to expect in the afterlife. It could be a Utopian view of how everyone should be gainfully employed. A model for this troubled planet of ours? There was then an extract from his speech. He said that everyone was paid a fair wage in the Kingdom of God.
Now, I am a great supporter of Pope Francis as I admire him for speaking out on very important topics. Climate change, migrants, human trafficking, racial prejudice, and a host of other issues which are extremely relevant. I think it is vital to report these as they affect us all. He is telling us how to look after each other and the planet we live on. That’s planet Earth.
Now I want facts, news of people, places on this planet and events which will affect how we live or die. I also expect to hear people’s opinions and beliefs on how to tread this planet. That can include anything on moral issues, politics and yes, even religion. I am free to accept or reject these views.
But why report on a non-existent kingdom? Is it news to mention this? They have made no contact with us on planet earth. Angels have not appeared for centuries. Maybe they are unemployed or have gone on strike because of the overcrowded skies! Who knows? Can you imagine that as a headline?
This is why I believe that a national broadcaster should not mention these fictional places. That news ticker should have read that the Pope believes full employment should be a worthy global objective. Nothing more, nothing less.
Imagine seeing news tickers with the words Nirvana, Janna, Hell, the Celestial Kingdom, Naraka (Hindu Hell) or Olam Ha-Ba (Jewish afterlife) in the main headlines for the day. A bit scary.
Therefore, I want limits and boundaries in reporting news on religious issues. It is a very tricky area though. How do you report with objectivity and fairness on such issues as building a mosque, euthanasia, the veil issue or gender questions? The overall aim must be the prevention of ignorance and hatred. The key is balanced reporting on sensitive issues. Easier said than done.
The Italian case I have commented on is perhaps unique to Italy and the fact it was once a Catholic state in many aspects. But that is not true today as the 1984 concordat states that Catholicism is no longer the state religion. This is what makes it all rather peculiar. It is certainly in marked contrast to most European states where religion is normally a private affair.
In America, the Founding Fathers made it very clear that church and state were to be strictly separated. The reality today is rather different in that Christianity has considerable influence on American society. Some religious groups enjoy illegal tax breaks. Creationism can be taught alongside the theory of evolution in some schools. Abortion is not easily available in some states, despite it being legal.
The most extreme case was President George Bush who claimed that God had told him to take America into war with Iraq. The WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) was often quoted as the official reason but that later turned out to be a blatant lie. There were no news reports on God admitting his mistake!
Now we see why it is so important to set boundaries on news reporting especially in the area of religion. Freedom of religion by all means. But we must also stop religious prejudices seeping into political and secular life.
The best place to start? Impose more impartial standards in reporting the news in a balanced and accurate way. Reporters and editors have a tough job in deciding what is reported and how. Are they helping to avoid the stereotypes and mislabeling? Are they stoking fear and the dreadful “them” and “us” mentality which pervades almost every aspect of our daily lives? Many of these prejudices have their roots in religious education.
On planet Earth, we need to keep our feet firmly on the ground (or feet splashing in the Med).