|Cover of the spring, 1998 issue of Media, the|
magazine of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
Twenty years ago, it was a different world for the media.
The Internet was in its infancy. E-mail was a brand-new technology. Most people got their news from the traditional media—print newspapers, TV and radio news. Magazines were strong.
And most, if not all, major Canadian daily newspapers had full-time religion beats and robust faith pages.
That was the world the first-ever national Faith and the Media conference took place in.
The conference, which was created and organized by a small interfaith group in Winnipeg, was held June 7-9 at Carleton University in Ottawa.
It was an audacious enterprise; nothing like it had ever been done before.
But the small interfaith group believed the time was right to challenge the media to do a better job of reporting about religion, audaciously setting out to raise funds, gather sponsors, invite speakers and plan the event.
The Winnipeg Free Press was one of the earliest sponsors, helping to get the process moving.
Soon, other media came on board: The Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, Abbotsford News, Vancouver Sun and the CBC.
Altogether, there were about 50 sponsors from the media, foundations, businesses and individuals.
Another important sponsor was the Canadian Association of Journalists, which dedicated an issue of its magazine, Media, to the issue.
Major faith groups and organizations also joined on, from the Christian, Jewish, Ba'hai, Hindu and Muslim communities, along with the Carleton University School of Journalism, which hosted the conference.
A major coup occurred when Canadian-born Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC World News Tonight, agreed to be the keynote speaker. His acceptance put the event on the map.
It was Jennings who put faith forward at ABC, prompting it to hire Peggy Wehmeyer as the first full-time national TV news religion reporter in the U.S.
Jennings subsequently had to beg off, sending Wehmeyer in his stead. It was a tremendous choice; she did a masterful job based on her experience of reporting about faith in that country.
Altogether, a total of 270 people from across the country attended the conference, coming from the media and faith groups.
They heard keynote addresses from people such as Aloysius Cardinal Ambrozic, Archbishop of Toronto; Reginald Bibby, a sociologist of religion in Canada; Nicholas Hirst, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press; Peter Desbarats, former dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario; Neil Reynolds, editor of the Ottawa Citizen; Kirk Lapointe, at the time the former editor of the Hamilton Spectator and soon-to-be the editor of the new National Post; and John Stackhouse, then a professor at Regent College.
The conference also included a presentation by Andrew Grenville, then Senior Vice-President for the Global Research division of the Angus Reid, based on research about religion in Canada done by the pollster.
Another feature was the report about a newspaper scan of religion reporting in 20 newspapers over a one-month period. The report was commissioned by the conference, and presented by researcher Joyce Smith.
Along with the major addresses, the conference addressed topics such as whether a reporter could be a person of faith and still be a good reporter; tips on covering faith; what faith groups wished the media knew about faith; and what the media wished faith groups knew about how the media works.
As a result of the conference, the issue of faith and the media was put on the media map. Many articles and other reports appeared in newspapers, magazines, and on TV and radio.
The CBC did a live panel from the conference during its signature evening news program, as well as an edition of Cross Country Check Up from the event.
At the same time, the conference encouraged reporters covering the faith beat in Canada, and empowered and encouraged faith groups to do a better job of telling their stories to the media.
The event led to the creation of the Centre for Faith and Media, based in Calgary and headed, at first, by former Calgary Herald religion reporter Gordon Legge, and later by Richelle Wiseman.
Before it Centre closed in 2010, it held another conference in Ottawa, worked with local Muslim communities to help them with their media relations, and also produced guides for reporters about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and the Ba’hai faith.
Looking back, I wonder if such an event could be held today.
Traditional media is on the ropes. Many Canadians today get their news from social media. As for faith coverage, there are no full-time religion reporters at any newspaper in the country.
At the same time, faith groups are struggling, with many downsizing and cutting back on communications. A number of church publications have closed.
And yet, faith is just as important today as it ever was.
Whether its politics in the U.S.; war and conflict around the world; the rise of nationalism in various countries; gay marriage and same-sex relations almost everywhere; crackdown on religious groups in Russia and China; the scandals rocking the Catholic church; the #MeToo movement; climate change; and human rights—there is a religious angle.
But how will those stories be told without any resources dedicated to that beat? Without people who are knowledgeable about different faiths?
That’s a big—and important—question.
Twenty years later, some people in Winnipeg are creatively working on a new and audacious idea to help address that question.
Time will tell if this effort will be as successful as the previous one.
Stay tuned . . . .
Visit the old Faith and the Media website on the Wayback Machine.