Some of the first reports on the Norway massacre fueled speculation Muslims were responsible. Later reports described the perpetrator as a
Christian terrorist or a
Grisly images of the corpse of Moammar Gaddafi quickly made their way on to the websites of mainstream media outlets throughout the world. Some media tried to increase newsstand sales with gloating, revenge-oriented headlines such as
Mad Dog caught as he brandished golden gun and
Murdering rat gets his just desserts from London tabloids.
Welcome to journalism in the digital age.
New technology offers many wonderful opportunities to communicate fair and accurate reporting on religion to audiences throughout the world. New websites offering religion news offer more alternatives for writers and readers, and traditional media outlets are developing greater skills in using the Internet and social media to expand their influence. Electronic resources and new means of communication provide journalists with superb access to religion data and provide the possibility for effective global cooperation among journalists writing on issues of faith and public life.
Yet there are also many new areas of concern in journalism in the digital age. No longer do many writers and editors have hours or even much of a day before publication to consider ethical issues. The rush to be first, or not to be last, amid the burgeoning competition made possible by the Internet is a powerful incentive to relax ethical standards.
Making things worse is the fact the perceived quick attention span of modern audiences means there is less careful, follow-up reporting of major events. Media interest can disappear in hours or days, leaving the incomplete early reports as the lasting impressions on reader’s and viewer’s minds.
We can, and we have to, do so much better.
As we have discussed throughout the dialogue, our work starts before major incidences of conflict take place.
Those media outlets who have accurately reported on their communities would have alerted their audiences to sources of religious conflict, and presented fair perspectives of the religious and secular groups experiencing tensions.
So once they have to report on an event such as, say, a terrorist attack or a small church burning Islamic scripture, they are well equipped to report the significance of the events in a fair manner that increases understanding rather than panders to popular prejudices.
In an age of instant communication, however, all of us are challenged to balance the desire to get the news out there as quickly as possible with the responsibility to make sure the information is accurate.
We have seen how news of a controversial act regarding religion in one part of the world can be interpreted in another part of the world in a way that leads to a deadly backlash. Witness the killing of U.N. workers and others in Afghanistan earlier this year in protests over the Quran burning in Florida.
We also have to make careful judgments on the credibility of information we are receiving from various sources, from official government agencies to representatives of various sectarian groups who may be more interested in manipulating the news to their advantage than sharing an accurate picture.
For example, in the case of the Norway shootings, it is one thing to say that the police said a
Christian fundamentalist was responsible, and another thing entirely for us to report that ourselves without attribution. Once we have more information showing this individual was acting primarily on extreme, anti-immigrant motives, we need to report that as well.
The emotion of the moment may also challenge us to step back and be sure we neither get caught up with the crowds nor attempt to leave out information by making our own judgments of what is best for our audiences.
In both headlines and our reporting, we need to report the response to events such as Gaddafi’s death, but at the same time not abandon our own ethics by applying different standards regarding how we show his bloody end. And we need to share how many of the same foreign and domestic parties cheering the autocrat’s end also were complicit in his reign when it suited their self-interest.
In the same way, even if we are tempted, for example, to ignore violence against minority groups because it undermines the hoped-for end of national unity amid regime changes, it is our job as journalists to present all the facts. A well-informed citizenry is able to make the best public policy decisions.
Finally, our reporting does not end a day or two after the incident when other media chase after the next celebrity scandal or sensational crime. It is only as information becomes available in the following weeks and months that we can present a more faithful picture of the original event.
We should leave our readers with the best reporting, not just with what we can dig up in the first couple of news cycles.
Reporting on global religious conflict in the digital age is not going to be easy. Many outlets will take less ethical routes. But upholding standards of fairness and accuracy is part of our professional responsibility and in the long term we will separate ourselves out from the crowd as a source our audiences can trust.