When religion becomes news, conflicts and juxtapositions are highlighted

For the media, religious extremism is a topic more interesting than religions as part of everyday life or peaceful coexistence. On the other hand, faults don’t go away without coverage, says a media researcher.

In Finnish media, religion is often in the spotlight, but when headlines are written about religion, the perspective is often unbalanced, says Johanna Sumiala, a media researcher. She participated in a project that investigated journalism focused on religion in the Finnish newspapers Helsingin Sanomat, Ilkka, Kaleva and Karjalainen from 2007 to 2011. Currently, Sumiala is working as an associate professor at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology, conducting research on religion in a digital world.

“In Finnish news media, there is a relatively large amount of writing on religions,” says Sumiala.

“Roughly speaking, the regionals write most about matters related to the Evangelical Lutheran church, while Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s main daily, discusses Islam more than Christianity,” she elaborates.

This dichotomy is partly due to Helsingin Sanomat having more resources at its disposal compared to regionals. Thus, topics related to Islam receive more emphasis, being largely part of world news.

In articles on religion, Islam is time and again linked with conflicts, such as terror attacks carried out in the Western world or violent conflicts particularly in Asia and Africa. Everyday experiences of religion are rarely newsworthy.

This also applies to Finland. Even news about Finland’s Evangelical Lutheran church focus primarily on contradictions and tensions. Year by year, differences of opinion within the church on, for example, same-sex marriage and women’s ordination are in the news.

The nature of coverage on both religions is partly explained by a shared factor: news criteria that emphasise unexpectedness and suddenness.

It is also typical of journalism to personify impersonal issues. An example of this was extensive writing in the media during spring 2018 on spending by Teemu Laajasalo, who was elected as bishop of the diocese of Helsinki (link in Finnish only).

“Without taking a stand on Laajasalo’s situation, I find it encouraging that the spending and related control as well as the responsibilities of church leaders have risen to the forefront of social debate. However, discussing the matter only through character-based drama is problematic,” Sumiala points out.

Urgency simplifies coverage

Interpretations are influenced by repetition.

“If experts continuously state in various sections of newspapers that Islam should not be linked with violence, doesn’t this repetition itself reinforce the very thought?” asks Sumiala.

Urgency is another factor that narrows down the scope of coverage. The pressure on journalists to churn out news for various target audiences and different channels is enormous. Traditional media outlets are now even in competition with many individual citizens who employ their camera phones and social media.

Sumiala uses the term “autonomisation of associations”. While examining news coverage on the terror attack carried out in January 2015 at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Sumiala took particular notice of how urgent reporting on the turn of events reinforces stereotypical and simplified interpretational models of religion.

“The battle for scoops and attention doesn’t allow for a thorough analysis of all background information.” Such as where religion’s influence extends to – and where it doesn’t.

“In the short run, competing for speed seems to result in black-and-white readings and polarisation. If anything, it’s not conducive to dialogue between different religions or among religious and secular thinking.”

Sumiala finds it a pleasing development that religious people and organisations now have better opportunities online to make themselves heard.

“It’s possible to create websites and establish online communities, through which criticism originating within religious communities and other issues can be brought up to the national spotlight.” An example of this are the online discussions among the Laestadian movement (link in Finnish only).

Much ado, little debate

It matters a lot what things are called in the news. According to Sumiala, of particular significance is the party choosing the designations and the related framing.

On a global scale, the framing of events may vary greatly. For instance, an occurrence described in one place as a terror attack motivated by religion might not in another region be seen as a terror attack at all, but, for example, as a fight for freedom.

To what extent should media bring forward these differing models of thinking and framing?

“One of the duties of the media is to build a sense of community,” reminds Sumiala. In turn, establishing a sense of community is influenced by whether individuals have a shared understanding of reality, as well as how much varying thoughts are given exposure to the public.

Today, the web provides opportunities for people skilled in languages to follow different, also international media. Whether people wish to take up that opportunity and accept interpretations that challenge their way of thinking is another matter, notes Sumiala.

According to her, people that inhabit different “bubbles” demonise each other instead of allowing dialogue between different models of interpretation.

Sumiala has been collecting research data on tweets concerning the Turku stabbing in 2017.

“In the Twitter dataset, Islam itself is described as the reason underlying the attack and as a religion of primitive characteristics that causes violent behaviour in those coming to Finland from inferior cultures,” Sumiala summarises.

“Even after narrowing the discussion down with such neutral search terms as #turku, it consisted mostly of yelling and slander.”

Journalism must not reinforce prejudice

As a media researcher, Sumiala stresses freedom of speech and the public’s right to know. Evils are not eliminated through non-coverage. Yet, coverage may aggravate contradictions that are strained to begin with.

As regards reportage on religion, Sumiala demands diversity: varying perspectives and chances to speak for different parties.

“It’s a big and time-consuming challenge that may not be easy to solve in the daily news competition.”

As an example of questioning the framing that lumps Islam, terrorism and immigrants together, Sumiala mentions the highlighting of the backgrounds of those who helped (link in Finnish only) the victims of the Turku stabbing. More than six months after the attack, for example, it was told that the practical nurse student present at the attack site was awarded the title of the Refugee Man of the Year (link in Finnish only).

The price of this reportage has been high, though. A reporter working for the daily Turun Sanomat was forced to move away from Turku due to threats resulting from her reporting on the stabbing.

“I think it’s important that the reporter spoke about it in public and revealed how intimidation was used to try to influence the conduct of journalism (link in Finnish only). That was a very unfortunate case,” says Sumiala.