Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Press vs. The Pious:

Exploring the relationship between religion and the media.

The media, for the 21st Century, has become a heavily depended on resource for mass communication and information dispersion. For many people the public media is the only source from which they are able to obtain information about current affairs and other societal matters, devouring what is delivered to them, hanging on to every word. The immense power held by the media is therefore a concern to those who consume it, as those who create it have the opportunity to add their own twists and spins and present an obscured version of what the reality perhaps is. When it comes to religion, as portrayed by the media, it can be assured that the way it is treated will be no different to any other subject. The question there lies: What does the media, to which society subscribes, has to say on the religious front, and how does this affect the way audiences shape their beliefs and opinions about religion?

Probably the most explicit of media forms, the press, and the journalists creating it, are daring and often insensitive to the way in which they expose the public audience to issues involving various religious communities and their beliefs. Mark Silk, from Harvard’s Neiman Foundation of Journalism, says that journalists are, “either hostile to religion, or ignorant of it or (most likely) both.” (Silk, 2010)

A study conducted in the US, at the time of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, helps to illustrate the power of the media and its portrayals of religion in the media. The state of Utah, where the games were held, has a significant Mormon population which dominates the area. Due to the religiosity of the state, it fought tremendous scrutiny from the hundreds of reporters who invaded the area. Chen, the conductor of the study, hoped to find that through his analysis of media produced at the time he would see a shift in the negative representation the Mormons were receiving through the press – one which they also hoped to change. His conclusions were that “The stereotype [created by media] suggests that Mormon culture is unduly conservative, rigid, and overbearing. Where a focus on the racialized priesthood, on feminism, or on doctrinal purity allowed... [leading audiences to believe that] fundamental problem is that normality cannot flourish in Utah” (Chen, 2010, p.45) The negative stigma such as this, which is produced by media personnel and fed to the general public, also swings a blow at other rapidly growing religious movements along with the Mormon Church, including: Islam, Hillsong Church (and other evangelical movements) etc. Chen also suggests that the reason that the press focus on religious movements such as these is due to their rapidly growing power and status and that they fear both infiltration and domination.

While it is often clearly obvious that religious groups are being marginalized through the attacks coming from journalists, there can often be a more subliminal negative connotation associated with being a person of faith which is presented through film. Move over Italian Mafia, the Muslim Terrorist is the new star of the show: the shift has been noticeable in action movies in recent times. The stigma surrounding the attacks on the USA in 2001 and the subsequent War on Terror, have conjured up a new image of the classic movie ‘bad guy’. An article from the UK Guardian in 2007 says that films such as this have “helped demonise Muslims as violent, dangerous and threatening, [which is] reinforcing prejudices,” (Ward, 2007) against followers. Teen movies also condemn Christianity creating a stereotype which negatively portrays the religion through character prejudices. Christian characters and the high moral standards they wear on their shoulders, are often nerdy, socially inept, and uncool as they do not participate or conform to the teenage rites of passage shown.

While the media avenues so far explored have focussed on the negative aspects of the relationship between media and religion, there are some who side with the media and essentially tell the world that they’re just overreacting. In 2001 Dalton, Mazur and Siems published a piece focussing on the reactions of audiences to the highly controversial television cartoon series, The Simpsons. Throughout the article they both acknowledge the fact the some of the negative attention that show’s such as The Simpsons pay to topics of religion, but also continue on to shed some more positive light on the subject. Expressed strongly, is the opinion that media outlets, while they may be employing religious figures and themes as elements comical relief, they are not doing so in order to attack a particular group, but rather are reflecting an image of societies current state. This model of viewing the way that religious groups are portrayed by media producers can be applied also to the areas that were mentioned previously. Unfortunately however, many individuals and groups, such as the Muslims interviewed for the Guardian do not feel this rather feel that, “the media failed to give enough opportunity to Muslims to represent themselves”.

Due to the large scale access the public audience has to a varying array of media, and the naivety of many concerned, media produces have a significant amount of power when it comes to shaping the beliefs and attitudes of society. The framing of information in certain ways allows audience to only see the perceptions of the reporters, publishers and other media personal as they are the ones creating it. Pertaining also to subjects of religion, the media have portrayed historical events in ways which often have a negative impact on the way the wider community view that particular group. Not only is this shaped by news and current affairs, but also through the characters in our favourite television programs, and the films we watch; and the attitudes that those characters hold towards their religious associates. Therefore, while the current relationship between the media and religion holds some tension, this has the opportunity for resolution through both a concerted effort by media to accurately represent religious groups, but also for religious groups to view the representations they receive as mirror images of society and not as targeted and purposeful attacks.

Chen, C. (2003). '"Molympics"? Journalistic Discourse of Mormons in Relation to the 2002
Winter Olympic Games’. Journal of Media and Religion. 2(1)29- 47. DOI: 10.1207/S15328415JMR0201_3
Dalton, L., E, Mazur., & M, Siems. (2001) Homer the heretic and Charlie the church: Parody, piety and pluralism in The Simpsons. In E, Mazur., & K, McCarthy.(Ed.) God in the details :American religion in popular culture.(pp.231-247). New York: Routledge.
Silk, M. (2010) Religion and the press: Always complicated, now chaotic. Retrieved August 19, 2010, from http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=101567.
Ward, L. (2007) From Aladin to the Lost Ark, Muslims get angry at ‘bad guy’ film images. Retrieved August 19, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/jan/25/broadcasting.race.

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