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Vivid: Spiritual journalism - stirrings of a new awakening in media

30-December-2013
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Vivid: Spiritual journalism - stirrings of a new awakening in media

Journalism has a ubiquitous influence, and so has spirituality. Both are a quest into the deeper nature of human beings and process of unravelling the complex.

Now, with journalism making inroads into the sublime aspect of human nature, connected with spirituality, spiritual journalism is attracting increasing space in media.

However, it is important to understand that spiritual journalism is not just about passing on the words of the Masters or Gurus, but involves going out into the world and sampling a little bit of a lot of different types of spiritual practices.

A person who wishes to write about a wide variety of spiritual practices needs to have knowledge about them and also experience them; besides, one cannot ignore the differences between these practices and the historical reasons for those differences.

That is why spiritual journalism is not about vague thoughts. It seeks to connect with people, as much as journalism itself. With existence in today’s world becoming increasingly complex, a large number of people, especially the youth, are seeking nirvana or salvation via television or print media. Thus, one finds news organisations devoting increased attention and resources on coverage of spiritual and ethical concerns. A critical change is in the way the field is covered and how much space and airtime are allotted to it. The number of religion reporters -- particularly in television, which has largely ignored the topic -- is growing as it becomes clear that religion and spirituality are topics that permeate daily life.

According to religion experts, more people attend some form of worship every week than sporting events. Thus, once largely relegated to second-string reporters writing on religion, the topic is now covered by a growing number of sophisticated, well-informed journalists who actually apply for the beat.

However, one has to do away with the criticism that spiritual journalism tries to polarise the masses on the basis of religion. If one explores, spiritual journalism has taken on multiple identities. It is not about religion, but about feel-good satsangs, tips on healthy living or even about listening to one’s favourite bhajans.

The number of spiritual channels has gone up by leaps and bounds. Today, channels such as Aastha, Sanskar, Sadhana, Jagran, God TV, Miraclenet and QTV, to name a few, have gained a dedicated band of viewers, whereas earlier religious channels were merely referred to as ‘bhajan and kirtan’ channels.

Today, the spirituality-based channels are strategising their content to suit the requirements of the changing audience. Going beyond religious programmes, the content mix includes health shows, lifestyle programming, religious tourism, art and culture, and even live reality programming. Some channels such as Aastha are also reaching out to the NRI audience across the world, while Jagran is looking at tapping the younger audiences.

The viewership numbers say it all. Aastha, for instance, claims a viewership of 24 million, while Sanskar channel pegs it at 12 million. Kirit Mehta, CMD & CEO, Aastha channel shared, “We have a loyal viewership for all our programmes, but the most popular one is the session of Ramdevji Maharaj. In fact, he is the KBC of my channel, commanding a very high viewership.”

For Sanskar channel, programmes of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhu Vaswani remain important. Kishore Mohatta, Director, Sanskar said, “It is not just the viewers who are loyal, we have even advertisers who have been with us for long. Also, there has been a change in the way the genre is perceived. Earlier, the belief was that the game is all about getting sadhus. No one was concentrating on creating content. But now times have changed and we, in fact, create more than three to four original bhajan and kirtans a day.”

Many spiritual gurus and trusts are turning entrepreneurs by launching their own channels. For instance, followers and trusts associated with Mata Amritanandamayi Devi have formed a company, Amrita Enterprises, to launch two religious channels. Based in Thiruvananthapuram, the ‘Amma’ Network beams a mix of devotional, socio-economic programmes and five hours of news.

Meanwhile, in print media, The Times of India has popularised the genre with its column ‘The Speaking Tree’. It goes beyond spreading faith, belief, devotion and God’s glory among readers to present rational beliefs through arguments and counter arguments. The column brings together experts from different religions and different spiritual practices to create a possibility of encouraging awakening, peace, love and humility.

The popularity of The Speaking Tree can be gauged by the fact that it has grown beyond being an everyday column published on the Edit page of the main The Times of India newspaper to being released as a series of books compiling the ‘Best of The Speaking Tree’ articles. Now, the Times Group has taken the column to a weekly newspaper and has even roped in the first ‘spiritual journalist’.

In modern times, spiritual journalism is indispensible. According to seers of Ramakrishna Mission, spiritual journalism plays a dominant role in a healthy nation. At a recent seminar on spiritual journalism, Swami Atmavidanandaji, Secretary, Ramakrishna Mission, said, “Journalists underplay truth and highlight negative aspects, but things can be overturned when it comes to spiritual journalism.”

While spiritual coverage has expanded, the question remains as to whether it is good enough. Many say religion writers are getting better at explaining the complexities of faith and exploring spiritual areas once dismissed as wacky. But the same cannot always be said about journalists who go overboard even on spirituality. However, at a time when traditional knowledge systems are breaking, spiritual journalism carries a responsibility of re-establishing that system with modern analysis and in a modern context.

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