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Parliament Staff Pinpoints Three Poignant Takeaways from Religion Communicators Council Convention

April 8, 2016

Last weekend, I traveled with Molly (our Director of Communications) to New York City to participate in the annual convention of the Religion Communicators Council. Besides learning how to use the sprawling NYC subway system (watch the gap) and where to find the best lox bagel in Manhattan (Russ & Daughters), there were several takeaways that I gained from the lectures and workshops that I attended, not to mention the casual conversations with attendees that I had between events, that I believe are valuable as we in the interfaith movement attempt to provide the world with timely, enriching news. Here are three: 
1. Two eye-opening perspectives on the ubiquity of social media in today’s news world, one positive and one negative:

Rachel Zoll, a prolific reporter for the Associated Press, noted that religion reporting no longer focuses on the opinions of a select few religious leaders. Rather, social media allows reporters to gauge and analyze the reactions of the religious community at large, in real time. Many diverse voices are now audible in the big conversations, and that is a good thing.
Kim Lawton, managing editor and correspondent of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on PBS, offered a drawback: in the social media age, the status quo is to synchronize your stories to a plethora of social media platforms simultaneously. When you publish an article, the expectation is that you are there on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, etc. with corroborative and supplemental information. In this process of “feeding the beast that constantly needs to be fed,” it is easy to lose track of the pulse of your story. There is a tightrope between maximum social media reach and robust reporting, and learning to walk that line is crucial.

2. The encouragement of seeing innovators in religion communication gain well-deserved recognition.
The DeRose-Hinkhouse Memorial Awards, which recognize religion communicators who ”demonstrate excellence in religious communications and public relations,” spotlit several such people, including two Handa Fellows, a fellowship established to support young religious communicators. Sarah Mangum, an entrepreneur from Texas, garnered praise for her social media platform, a place where users can access a brief primer on many of the major world religions, see content posted by academics and clergy, and interact seamlessly with practitioners of other faiths. Like any great invention, it is one of those ideas that you can’t believe hadn’t been thought of already! Dr. Simran Jeet Singh took home two awards: one for a poignant interfaith article titled Attack on Jewish Community is an Attack on Us All, and another for his involvement in the social media campaign #BeLikeDarsh – a campaign which, if you haven’t heard about it, is a much needed reminder that there is a broad part of our society who are not only tolerant but celebratory of the diversity of faiths in our world. Dr. Singh also happens to be a Parliament of the World’s Religion Ambassador, and we were equal parts proud and starstruck when we shook his hand after the ceremony.
3. The phrase that we heard in nearly every workshop, lecture, and awards ceremony: “Religious Literacy.”
Religious literacy is a difficult concept to nail down. There is literacy in specific religions that is achieved by practicing a faith, by reading sacred texts, or by attending a place of worship. The problem is that every major world religion has enough diversity, nuance, and history to occupy a lifetime of study. For the conscientious global citizen, then, the focus ought to be on a pluralistic literacy; a basic understanding of the key tenants, texts, historical events, roles in modern culture, and practices of all of the world’s major religions. Like any sort of study, achieving this literacy takes work.
Sadly, the media’s opportunities to cultivate the religious literacy of its audience continues to diminish, even as the importance of being a religiously literate person – to avoid prejudice by eliminating ignorance –  mounts. Hussain Saddique (formerly of CNN, CBS and Al Jazeera), in a panel titled “Reimagining the Religious Beat,” noted that religion only gets airplay if it is couched in, or tacked on to, a larger issue or event. Religious reporting aimed to enlighten and edify isn’t making the nightly news anymore, and religion communicators have their work cut out for them in their attempt to fulfill what Kim Lawton and Hussain Saddique both (of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly) believe is central to their mandate; to educate the public about religion in a way that is divorced from prejudice and sensationalism. But even as Molly and I heard those discouraging words about the short attention spans of the public for religion news and the dwindling budgets of the religion sections of media groups, we were cognizant of the fact that we were surrounded by 200 hardworking, intrepid people devoted to the cause. We left New York with a strong drive to share the stories of the faithful, and a new toolbox of ways to do that in an honest, effective way.