Memory eternal: Arne Fjeldstad and his efforts to help (global) media get religion

There is really no way to tell the story of GetReligion.org without talking about the veteran journalist and pastor who for years led The Media Project -- the Rev. Dr. Arne Fjeldstad of Norway. It is very unusual to find a Lutheran clergyman who also had a 30-year career as an editor in the mainstream press, including senior positions in the leading Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten. For his doctoral dissertation, quite early in the Internet age, he wrote about the potential growth of online churches.

Although his byline rarely appeared here at GetReligion, that was because he felt his management skills were best used behind the scenes. Trust me when I say that his gifts were many and they have been essential. Click here to read his global perspective on the 10th anniversary of this weblog.

Arne died very suddenly Sunday afternoon at his home in Norway, hours before he was scheduled to depart for a journalism conference in South Korea. Over the past decade, his travels took him around the world on almost a monthly basis, meeting with at least 600-plus journalists face to face at one time or another. In the photo above, he is seen -- earlier this month -- with journalists from nine different African countries gathered in Lusaka, Zambia.

My former Washington Journalism Center colleague Richard Potts, who worked with Arne on many conferences in Latin America, wrote this morning: 

The world of journalism has suddenly lost a kind man and a tireless warrior for religious equality and press freedoms around the world. ... His humility, Christian faith, work ethic and investment in leaders in media in the developing world will leave a legacy that quite literally spans the globe. Well done, good and faithful servant.

One of the last emails I received from Arne was similar to many others in the past, as he passed along the URL of a GetReligion-worthy article he had spotted. He wanted me to pass along a think piece from a "kindred spirit" in discussions of religion and the news, Jenny Taylor of the Lapido Media network.

The headline on the piece -- posted at PublicSpirit.org.uk: "Religious Illiteracy is Now Toxic."

To which Arne Fjeldstad would say, "amen." He never, ever gave up working on that very subject, along with the twin freedoms of religion and the press. Here are a few clips from this must read Taylor article, beginning at the start, which I pass along as Arne requested.

Memory eternal, friend and colleague. Your work will continue.

Aaqil Ahmed, beleaguered Head of Religion at the BBC, called me in for a cup of tea last September to ask what I meant by religious literacy. He’d got wind of an event I had run that had unpacked for journalists and opinion formers why the media were getting Egypt’s revolution so badly wrong.  As usual the media had been siding with the political opposition, in true British fashion, assuming them to be the under-dog in a game of two sides.  They had ignored the complicating third and fourth factors: the persecuted Copts, and browbeaten Sufis, either ignorant of their existence or embarrassed about siding with Christians or more esoteric religion.  Almost no investigative work was being done on the plight of Coptic or Sufi minorities as Egypt went into revolutionary meltdown, beyond macho scenarios of Jeremy Bowen in Tahrir Square.   There was a clear lack of contacts and channels into the Coptic world even though Copts are often fluent in English.
The Sunday Times took two weeks after the main mass arsons in August 2013 to file their report.  Ignorant? -- or suppressing the news of burning churches lest they appear ‘partisan’? What it betrayed was ignorance of the Coptic contribution to Egyptian civic life and worse, a cavalier attitude to the life-threatening nature of religiously illiterate reporting.  Ignoring the Copts, vulnerable as a tiny minority despite their disproportionate economic and cultural clout, consigned them further to oblivion. This was religious illiteracy in the media at its worst -- and it’s the consequences of this that a new Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, founded by the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, has an opportunity to examine and even change.
How does religious literacy in the media work? Religious literacy does not require religious partisanship, but as was demonstrated at that Egypt event, a simple attention to the facts.

And later, there is this sad echo of so many pieces on this topic through the decades:

To understand religion’s motivating power, its ability to solidify allegiances, its ability to terrify or reconcile, was to get dangerously close to taking it seriously and that might imply confessional partisanship i.e. bias. Richard Porrit says:  ‘For too long religious affairs -- as editors deem fit to call the specialism -- has been a job palmed off on reporters.  It is a role that has traditionally been dodged, by the cream of the newsroom, for specialisms thought to be more glamorous or hard-hitting.’ ...

And this:

Journalists are ... careless with their categories:  Paul Wood, rightly lauded BBC World Affairs reporter, nonetheless owned up to the mistake of calling the war in Central African Republic ‘sectarian’, as if Islam and Christianity were variants of the same faith, like Catholics and Protestants. Language is our stock in trade as journalists.  You wouldn’t confuse basketball with rugby, even though both are sports.  Getting it right matters. In a place like Sudan where, as al-Jazeera brilliantly showed in a documentary recently, the bloodbath caused by the failure of two big men to work together was neither ‘tribal’ nor ‘ethnic’.  Yet the West almost rejoiced to conclude it was, and then it became so, as people consolidated around rumour promoted by media stereotypes.

And this, too:

Journalists have a job to do.  They are largely oblivious of the deeper discourse wars that have paralyzed their profession for a generation.  What is preventing them getting at the truth of the world’s religious predicament is an ideology and system of emotional and intellectual habits that denies religion, and therefore identity and meaning, a proper place in the national conversation. Scott Stephens calls this ‘the Kingdom of Whatever’. Rowan Williams lamented ‘a world in which there aren’t and couldn’t be any real discussion of the goals and destiny of human beings as such’. That’s the stuff of journalism, but we now lack even minimal consensus on the most fundamental questions of life, social obligation and political ends, as well as the means -- the common moral and conceptual grammar, as Stephens put it -- to resolve such widespread disagreement.
“What is preventing [journalists] getting at the truth of the world’s religious predicament is an ideology and system of emotional and intellectual habits that denies religion, and therefore identity and meaning, a proper place in the national conversation."

Amen, to that. Read it all.

Image: Arne Fjeldstad (end of the second row on the left) with journalists from nine different African countries at a conference earlier this month in Lusaka, Zambia.

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