Plight of the “Narrow Lens”

BY SARAH WHITMIRE

Journalism, by definition, is assuredly the preferred way of telling stories and getting the news out to a wide range of readers, listeners and viewers. However, with areas related to religion and conflict among different sects and beliefs, very often the desired message can be quite far from what each individual may actually glean from a story.

For instance, Robert Pigott, the religious affairs correspondent for BBC, suggested the term “floating ethic” to describe the flexible nature with which the media commonly treat sensitive subjects. Rather than make a definitive statement about a personal topic, such as abortion or the rights of homosexuals, journalists will write in a way that reflects society’s general opinion on that given day. The result is either a detached piece in which any and all forms of emotion have been stripped from the story, or a biased, non-credible story that merely echoes trends. Neither can effectively convey a story, particularly nothing on religion or conflict, which so often deals with an individual’s highly personal moral system.

Of course, there is also the issue of knowing one’s audience. Every reader is going to look at a story in a different way, especially topics like conflict in Ireland. A Loyalist and a Unionist will undoubtedly have starkly different viewpoints on just about everything. A story on a IRA murder of a Catholic man would be no exception. It is important to understand not only the religious but also the political landscape of one’s audience in order to best cater to unique experiences.

For these reasons, a standard journalistic approach to telling stories of faith and friction will probably not be effective. Pigott himself said, “News is the narrow lens through which to view religion.” Thankfully, there are other methods besides a cut-and-dry inverted pyramid story. Using multimedia tools such as sound, photo and video can add that last vital piece. There is the example “Unholy Union,” the story written on the Ryan Report in Dublin. Though the print story on the topic was exquisitely written, the true story of Christine would’ve never hit home until you had the chance to hear her speak about he abuse she lived through in the Catholic school system. Even the most imaginative writing cannot communicate the way a moving picture or sound bite can.

Religion and conflict are very human issues that necessitate an equally human explanation, and more often than not, that means using the new tools we have to create a relatable version of storytelling.

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One Response to Plight of the “Narrow Lens”

  1. dquizon10 says:

    That is exactly why this is such an exciting time to be in the field. Journalists now have a plethora of tools to help convey the things you wrote about in the last part of your post and help their audience connect to a source in ways once thought to be impossible.

    On a more pessimistic note, I do agree with you when you say that news stories on religion are either completely detached and void, or simply view their subjects through the lens of public perception and stereotypes. I think complete news packages, which include photos, video, sidebars and multiple stories, can help remedy the problem by giving more in-depth analysis and multiple points of view, but they will never make it go away completely. Journalists will always have to make hard decisions and cut certain information for the sake of time, space or punctuality. It is our job to bring these issues out in public, which means something will always be lost in translation.

    – Derek

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