Strengthening civil society: Center and Cronkite School partner on new initiative


Sarah Lords

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, in partnership with the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, was awarded a grant by the Henry Luce Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies Program in Religion, Journalism and International Affairs. The title of this new initiative is “Religion, Journalism, and Democracy: Strengthening Vital Institutions of Civil Society.” 

The initiative focuses on the key role that civil society plays in democratic societies, said John Carlson, director of the project and Center interim director. “At a time when nationalist movements and anti-democratic trends are on the rise, the contributions of scholars, journalists, religious actors, and others to civil society and democratic culture are more important than ever,” he said.

“There have been significant attacks in recent years against the authority of scholars and journalists alike,” Carlson added. “These professions are indispensable to democracy, and they stand to benefit from working together and sharing critical insights.”

Cronkite Senior Associate Dean Kristin Gilger and Anand Gopal, assistant research professor with the Center, join Carlson in leading the project. Before coming to ASU, Gilger worked for over 20 years as a reporter and editor for news at several newspapers across the country, including as deputy managing editor at the Arizona Republic

Gopal, who recently earned a PhD in sociology, is a journalist who has covered Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan for multiple news outlets. He is the author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and winner of the Ridenhour Book Prize.

Having a project team that combines excellence in both scholarship and journalism addresses a key gap between scholarly discourse about religion and mainstream understanding of religion and public life, according to Gilger. “Journalism students and faculty get the opportunity to develop a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the nuances of religious coverage, and scholars who work on issues involving religion will become better prepared to communicate with mainstream audiences,” she said.

To enhance interaction between academics and journalists, the project sponsors a series of faculty workshops, the development of a team taught class, and public events.

According to Carlson, it is important that the project help scholars and journalists better understand one another’s professions—their different strengths and limitations. “Both academics and journalists are writers and interpreters of culture, but they do it on different timelines and using different tools,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges in understanding religion is its complexity, and both professions play critical roles in that respect.”

The study of religion, according to Carlson, engages many levels and benefits from different approaches—textual studies, history, theology, ethics, anthropology, politics, gender studies—and can not just be understood solely through a textual or doctrinal lens. “The lived experience of religion—of peoples and cultures in different regions of the world and in different historical periods—is crucial. But it can be hard for scholars to take their vast repository of knowledge and present it in a pithy sound bite or to package their nuanced knowledge of an issue for a journalist who is writing on deadline,” he said.

Another key area of the project concerns the relationship between religion and secularism, particularly how secular assumptions have become widespread in institutions such as the media and the academy.

“It can be misleading to say that secularism is rising,” according to Carlson. “Many scholars show that religion is growing around the world, not declining. Further, whether implicitly or explicitly, religion is woven deeply into people’s national heritage, history, culture and even laws. But secularist assumptions do influence the way the media understands and covers violence.”

“That is why it is all the more important for journalists to think about how they approach and cover religion stories and for religion scholars to pay careful attention to how religion is discussed in the media,” said Carlson. “Both professions can work better together to contribute to accurate, in-depth news stories about religion.”