A cross obscured by bars (image: Shutterstock)
On February 15 every year, the Coptic Orthodox Church marks Contemporary Martyrs Day. The day was chosen as it is the anniversary of the 21 Martyrs who were murdered by Isis on 15 February 2015 in Libya, as well as remembering those in the Coptic Orthodox Church who have lost their lives in recent times because of religious persecution. Jersey Road PR’s managing director Gareth Russell, who spoke at this year’s commemoration, talks about the importance of faith groups building good relationships with the media to make sure these important stories are heard.
We are living in a world deeply divided between the sacred and the secular, the left and the right, the conservative and the liberal, the east and the west.
Online, those divisions seem more pronounced, more combative, more degenerate.
Society has become more tribal, with individuals aligning themselves often around political viewpoints, fears of the other and comfort in those who share their own worldview.
We are less likely to love our neighbour because we don’t know them and we have no motivation to get to know them. We want the comfort of individualism.
But the reality is that individualism, post modernism and secularism have failed.
The world continues to search for a different story. A story that will reveal purpose to life and connection to something other than ourselves.
Although religion has in many contexts has become more peripheral, the truth of scripture, the nature of God and the inbuilt longing for relationship that religion can provide have never been more needed.
People are twice as likely today than they were 10 years ago to say they are open to spirituality.
And yet, religious groups often lack the confidence to speak openly about the message of their faith for fear of ridicule, being ostracized or – as we mark today – being persecuted.
This fear isn’t unfounded. As a PR agency, we work in the business of stories. Every day, we are working with journalists to raise the awareness of the good work faith-based organisations are doing to feed the hungry, to befriend the lonely, to value the orphan, and ultimately to communicate hope in something other than ourselves.
But oftentimes as we pitch these stories, we are met with suspicion and misunderstanding. There are times we are dismissed, not for the quality of the story, but for the motivation of those within it.
The role religion plays in a media story can attract cynicism just by its very nature – often fuelled by a deep misunderstanding of faith and the communities drawn together by their religious belief.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Religion in the Media released a report last year that found media reporting on religion can be sensationalist, that it can reinforce problematic stereotypes, commit basic mistakes and use imprecise language, and that it homogenises faith communities while ignoring the diversity within those faith groups.
There is a need for a commitment from the media to religious literacy if we are to build a more confident, harmonious society.
That same report recommended journalists and programme-makers explore the ‘lived experience’ of religion as well as its doctrinal, ritual and ceremonial elements. For people of faith, religion isn't confined to religious festivals or significant dates, it is deeply embedded in their everyday lives - in their motivations, outlooks and conduct.
But there is also a responsibility on the part of religious groups to better understand the mechanics of the media and the needs of journalists. To build relationships, invest time in understanding their outputs and to present stories in a manner that takes into consideration their reduced capacity over the past decade and pressurised deadlines.
And just because we have faced rejection from journalists or even silence when we have tried to interest the media in stories that we believe to be important, this should not be a justification to abandon our attempts to engage.
The history of faith groups across the centuries is marked with those who faced indifference, misunderstanding – and yes, persecution – but continue with boldness, defiance and a sharpened insight because of the belief they had in the power of the story they shared.
Despite an often agnostic response from the media we pitch to, we have also seen progress. In recent years we have seen widespread coverage of national monuments dedicated to answered prayer, churches and faith groups campaigning to dispel myths around the Covid vaccine, changing attitudes among young people towards prayer, and the practical response of faith groups to the current pandemic.
If we commit to foster a better understanding between religious groups and the media, the result could be the exposure of under-told and often unknown stories of faith-motivated sacrifice, generosity, service and hope being told to an audience looking for meaning.
The intention of the Daesh fighters dressing 20 Copts and one Ghanaian in orange jumpsuits was to send a message. The intention of publishing the story in their online propaganda and recruitment magazine Dabiq and then posting a video of the barbaric murder, was to send a message.
For those representing the so-called Islamic State, their message was one meant to communicate vengeance, justice and power.
But as the horror of the footage spread around the world, the power shifted and the story of the martyrs overcame the power of the gruesome act.
The story of sacrifice, of whole-hearted commitment to their faith and of an unwavering fear - even in the face of certain death – gained its own momentum. Their heroism, their stoicism and martyrdom inspired many and fuelled the faith of those who heard it.
The story of the 21 has now reached a global audience but there are many similar stories that remain untold or under-told. For a while we heard the stories those suffering for their faith in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq - but as is the nature of the news cycle - those stories dominate for a time, but are quickly forgotten when demoted by the latest domestic political scandal or development of the pandemic.
Similarly, some stories are never told. We think of those in Nigeria suffering at the hand of Boko Haram - with mass murders a regular occurrence, individuals maimed and killed because of the faith they profess but who rarely feature in our national headlines.
In the Old Testament book of Proverbs, the writer encourages us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
The call to advocacy is a call for all of us. A call to tell the stories of those unable to tell their own. As we have seen with the 21, if we are deliberate and we are collaborative, we can help spread these stories beyond the barriers of political, geographical or tribal prejudice.
We can raise awareness of the injustices of those unable to exercise their religious beliefs in freedom and advocate for freedom of religion for all.
The media has often been perceived by religious leaders to be the enemy. But if we are to tell these stories, we need a bilateral approach - understanding the audiences and motivations of those outlets and positioning our stories in ways that are meaningful to those journalists we are engaging.
Working with the media gives us an opportunity to communicate meaningfully with those who share our belief and those who oppose it. Because at its heart, these stories are human. No matter whether we identify as religious or not, the fight for freedom of religion for all is a universal one.
Strongly worded arguments can only go so far. Those arguments are important and have their place, but it is in identifying, telling and listening to the stories of individuals where we find empathy.
And when we find empathy, we find a common purpose.
While many of the journalists I speak to don’t share my faith, they are often deeply motivated by a desire to see justice done, to expose evil and to share powerful stories of redemption and hope.
Faith groups can give them those stories. In doing so, we can speak to those outside our echo chamber, we can raise awareness of the wrongs being committed against people of faith and we can mobilise a response to bring persecutors to justice.
Written by Gareth Russell, Managing Director and Co-Founder, Jersey Road PR.
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