Sunday, August 23, 2009

Religious Media or "Media-ed" Religion?

by Christine Mulholland

The media has a powerful role in shaping the minds of the public. It has made the unreal a reality, through film, television, and novels (Hjarvard, 2008). It has painted the pictures and ultimately become our primary source of knowledge and belief in such phenomenon.

Our beliefs towards beings, such as wizards, ghosts, and monsters, have been created due to the media’s representations (Hjarvard, 2008). It has created a tangible being out of magical creatures that have become ordinary, rather than obscure imaginations, through their reoccurring presence.

It has also sparked interest in spiritual issues represented in novels and films, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (Beck and Miller, 2001), transforming the way we think and opening our minds to various belief systems. Simply put, religion has become a form of mediatization—the media has taken over as the form of communication to the public (Hjarvard, 2008).

The media has a similar effect to that of life experiences in regards to belief systems. As Beck and Miller (2001) write of their study on beliefs of the paranormal and supernatural phenomena, outside forces have a large affect on the beliefs held by individuals.

Beck and Miller (2001) examined the position of undergraduate students attending a private, Christian-affiliated institution in Tennessee on paranormal and supernatural phenomena. While many may not form distinctions between the two phenomena, those with religious affiliation were found to draw a line. It was found that religious individuals were more sceptical of paranormal phenomena and believed in supernatural phenomena that were more closely related to their religious affiliation. However, their beliefs in the supernatural were dependent on their emotional lives. When dealing with negative emotions, the religious often turned towards paranormal phenomena in search of reason.

As Beck and Miller (2001:285) state, ‘a person may gravitate toward a different, but closely related, belief system as negative affect increases.’ Individuals feel the need to be connected and someone to look to for reason, especially when let down by others, such as a belief system.

The media has therefore acknowledged its power to affect others and, in turn, has taken the role of religious institutions in social functions (Hjarvard, 2008). However, the messages presented are often transformed to target an audience and create a commercial market. It changes the ways in which religious ideals and values are presented, sometimes misrepresenting the beliefs and ideas a religious institution may hold.

It wouldn’t surprise many that the representations of religion presented through the media are often produced by the media, rather than directly conveyed from the religious institution itself (Hjarvard, 2008). Religion has become a form of entertainment, rather than just a belief system, as religious ceremonies such as weddings and funerals have been turned into stories on the daily news.

Look at the death of Michael Jackson, for example. There is an individual that others have felt connected to through the media, much like a religious icon. And rather than holding a ceremony, in which family and friends could mourn, Michael Jackson’s funeral, in my opinion, was turned into a media frenzy spectacle in which other popular culture icons relished in the opportunity at a worldwide news coverage event.

And just as the media, in my opinion, has defamed a mournful, religious ceremony such as the funeral of Michael Jackson, it has also defamed religious symbols, such as the turban. As Elliot (2003) mentions, the media has turned a religious and cultural symbol of regional dress into a symbol of evil.

When entering “terrorism + images” into a Google search engine, as Elliot (2003) did, I was surprised to see the images that appeared—images of the 9/11 attacks and Osama bin Laden, but specifically men robed with turbans. The results revealed the images that have been ingrained in our society through the media; individuals wearing turbans are terrorists. Wrongful attacks on individuals that have neither a religious nor social affiliation with those involved in terrorist attacks have resulted from these images of “evil” turbans (Elliott, 2003).

And just as religion is at times inaccurately portrayed through the media, lack of information is provided to the public in the media’s portrayal of terrorists. As stated by Elliot (2003:54), ‘Osama bin Laden was an ally of the United States in the mid-1980s.’ But how many Americans actually know that?

The media does not highlight what has caused bin Laden’s anger towards the United States. Rather, the media shows what will bring an audience. Not necessarily what one would need to know to have accurate information on important issues, such as terrorist activity or religious institutions, but what will grab one’s attention.

In no way is the media wrong in presenting religious issues, as most people today turn towards film or television programs as a source of information on such issues (Beck and Miller, 2001). However, it should take responsibility in how its portrayal may affect others.

The media has the ability to educate the public on religious issues. But it also has the power to create debate when presenting alternative religious views or misrepresenting the values of a religious institution, such as the turban. Unfortunately, it is a worldwide frenzy in which entertainment often overshadows the foundations of religious institutions. So is it really religious media or “media-ed” religion?

Beck R & Miller JP, 2001, Erosion of Belief and Disbelief: Effects of Religiosity and Negative Affect on Beliefs in the Paranormal and Supernatural. The Journal of Social Psychology, 141, 2, 277-287.

Elliot D, 2003, ‘Terrorists we do like and Terrorists we don't like’, In PM Lester & EE Dennis, Eds., Images that Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media, 2nd Edn, London, Praeger, ch7, 51-55

Hjarvard, S, 2008, The Mediatization of Religion: A Theory of the Media as Agents of Religious Change, Northern Lights, 6, 1, 9-26.

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