Panel Discussion Gives Insight Into Religion and the Media

By Carolyn VanBrocklin

At 4 p.m. on Monday, March 9, several panel members at Elon University discussed topics revolving around the issue of faith and the media.

Jason Byasse, Yonat Shimron, Brett Younger, Leonard Pitts Jr. and William Lobdell discuss faith in the media.

Jason Byasse, Yonat Shimron, Brett Younger, Leonard Pitts Jr. and William Lobdell discuss faith in the media.

The members involved were Leonard Pitts Jr., the keynote speaker of the day’s activities and a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, Brett Younger, associate professor of preaching at Mercer University School of Theology, Yonat Shimron, the religious reporter for the News and Observer, William Lobdell, journalist with the Los Angeles Times and author of the memoir “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace” and Jason Byassee, director of the Center for Theology, Writing and Media at Duke Divinity School.

When asked about immorality and the financial situation, Byassee said it would be important to have “a moral conversation about right and wrong uses of money.”  He also suggested perhaps turning to traditional Islamic investment, which prevents against loaning money.

The panel next discussed the recent assertion that many main religions are losing membership, but non-mainstream religions are increasing in membership.

“We live in a world full of doubts and shadows and gray areas,” Pitts said.  “People need a foundation that tries to make the gray areas become absolutes.”

Others agreed, stressing  these people need a community that makes sense.

Shimron referred to this shift in religious population as a “revolving door,” saying  some people fit into a certain church for a while but eventually move on to something else and others enter.

“Forty percent of Americans switch faiths over the course of their lifetime,” Shimron said.

After the panel discussion, audience members were able to come forward and ask their own questions. One such question addressed the issue of explaining religion through short paragraphs in newspapers.

“We are transferring into an information kind of mode and I do see that as a challenge,” Shimron said. “There’s a part of me that wants to say that being able to convey things concisely is a worthwhile goal.”

In addition, the panel discussed the implications of separation of church and state.

“There is no difference between politics and religion,” Pitts said.  “It has become part of political coverage because it may give readers insight into how a particular politician makes decisions. The audience should still be aware that just because a politician can speak the religious language it does not mean he will always use that standard.  There is a certain amount of danger and the public getting swindled.”

The panel members did not talk about their experiences, but rather answered questions based on the interaction between religion and the media.

They did give some insights on what it is like to be a religious reporter.

“You need to have a passion for the religion beat, and you need to have a passion to be fair, to be accurate,” Lobdell said.

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