Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mediating News and Religion

An exploration of the relationship between news and religion

Jessica Duncan

In a democracy, Journalists have incredible power to control public agenda, opinion, and political priorities. Unfortunately, if the journalist reports in a bias way, this could lead to negative representations being given to the public. Often religion is the target of such bias. This essay will discuss the relationship between religion and news media, first from the perspective of the news including journalist, and how they report religion and secondly discuss how religions react to the news coverage and how religions themselves make their own media to counter the views put forward in mainline news in print and television. This essay will also voice the opinions of three Australians, for whom religion and media is an interest, occupation or an area requiring urgent attention.

Unfortunately, for our purposes, Australian media does not give the best examples of journalist bias against religion. The United States of America offer the best examples of the clash between journalism and religious organizations. The U.S. has perhaps the greatest tradition of religious involvements in society, and a journalistic tradition of reporting on such involvement. Because of this, it may be inevitable that there should be a clash. Journalistic critics constantly challenge the validity of stories about religion[1]. They aim to ensure that stories on religion are presented in a morally objective manner, free of media and journalistic bias[2]. Commentators and critics of the journalism industry are largely undecided as to whether journalists are religious or unreligious. According to Goldberg, surveys indicate that journalists are not religious people[3]. He argues that this fact is almost certain to affect their coverage of religion[4]. He states, “Journalists think they are the only species on the planet who can keep their biases in check because they’re professionals. Well, I don’t think that’s true.”[5] Mattingly states that “We need journalists who can treat religion with empathy and also skepticism, quote people accurately, show respect for the lives of their sources, and stop mangling the technical, yet often poetic, language of religious life.”[6] Many modern stories about or involving religion have to address the role of the “other”. The “other” in society is often an object of fear and ridicule because it is unknown, unexplored, and not understood. This could perhaps be another reason for the issues surrounding religion and news media/viewer. Often the “other” (in this case a religious “other”) is “foreign” both to the journalist and to the reader. The journalist has a difficult job in describing this “other” to an audience for whom it is not familiar. For a journalist to effectively write about the “other” they must first understand it, or at least endeavor to understand it, and then begin the difficult task to describing it to the reader. When done effectively, stories about the “other” can shape and change societies attitudes to it. However, when done poorly, with bias, this can lead to public fear, hatred and often alienation of the “other”. One such religious group that have had to deal with poor journalistic representation is the Australian Islamic community.

Given that more than half of all news media comes from the United States, it is obvious that it would have not only a Western viewpoint, but also an American one. Ramji, in his article Representations of Islam in American News and Film: Becoming the ‘Other’, claims that anti-Islamic sentiment in news media can be traced back to the Gulf War[7]. News during this time avoided discussions and articles detailing the context of the War, for example, the events leading up to it, and frequently included coverage of malicious demonstrations of Arabs and Muslims[8]. The media also often used double standards, particularly in relation to the UN sanctions. Despite the fact that many were appalled and outraged by the racist coverage, the reporting continued largely unquestioned. Another significant attack my the media on Islam took place in the Bosnian conflict. The Croats were associated with words such as “Catholic”, “Westernized”, “technologically advanced”, and “sophisticated”; were as the Serbs were categorized as “Eastern Orthodox”, “Byzantine”, and “primitive remnants of the Ottoman empire”, which automatically associated it with Iraq[9]. Muslims, in this case, were completely outside the Western cultural domain, therefore ‘alien’ and ‘other’. Early reports coming from the scene of the Oklahoma bombing in April 1995 read that police suspected Islamic terrorists were responsible, despite the fact that there was no evidence to support this claim. Nonetheless, this false information resulted in many Arab-owned businesses being targeted, and investigations of several Middle-Eastern individuals[10]. This instance is particularly horrifying considering the perpetrator behind the attack was a right-wing American Citizen. I spoke to an Australian Muslim, Aalam[11], who agreed to share with me his thoughts on the representations of Muslims in Australian news media. He believed that the media was often biased against Muslims. He said that the frequent media stories on Muslim extremists and suicide bombers added to public fear about his faith. He states “It isn’t that they always say that Muslims are bad, it is just the amount of negative publicity that adds to outrage”. I asked him if he believed that positive stories about Islam would change the public’s view on it, and he agreed, but he added “There would need to be a lot of them to outweigh the negative ones.” This false representation of the “other” has often lead to demonstrations of public outrage, for example, the Cronulla Riots. It has also been largely responsible for negative public stereotypes of Muslims and Islam. This has certainly come from the media, either from journalist bias, false reporting, or overexposure to negative stories.

In order to gain an Australian journalist’s perspective, I interviewed journalist Ellen-Maree Elliot on how she would approach writing a news story on religion, and how she felt religious bias was portrayed in the media. She insisted that portraying an accurate story without bias was paramount in the business of news journalism. Reports must be factual, adhere to the journalistic code of ethics, and give the views of every side of the story. When possible, it was also preferable to interview a religious leader involved. She stated, however, that it is incredibly difficult to completely avoid bias, even if your opinions are not specifically told. She stated that “a journalist’s bias can show through from the words they use, the people they choose to interview, and how far they will go to peruse an interview or information”. Elliot said that an extremely bad example of journalism was the inclusion of religion surrounding the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain. She stated that many journalist reporting on the story chose to include the information that Azaria’s mother, Lindy Chamberlain, was a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist church. This information had nothing to do with the disappearance, yet the implications of cultish behaviour, sacrificing of children, and cold and emotionless parental attitudes, led to a “trial by media” and subsequent guilty verdict.

Elliot insists that if religion has nothing to do with the story, then it should not be mentioned at all, lest it lead to a similar situation. This is widely considered to be one of the worst examples of ethical journalism in Australia. Elliot also claimed that the ABC and SBS tend to be better in their broadcasting of religious stories, where as channels Seven, Nine and Ten tended to be less informed. She believed this was because journalists working for commercial networks were under greater pressure to find and report stories that are both newsworthy and profitable. From this, we can learn that even if a journalist does not state their bias, it can become clear. Money often gets in the way of good journalist, because stories that have a positive religious angle, or ones that do not portray religion in an extremely negative light, do not sell newspapers or guarantee viewers. Sensational stories sell, and unfortunately in the business of journalism, it is as simple as that.

The question, however, still remains. What can be done to correct biases and falsities in journalist’s reporting? Porterfield suggests that the first step is an obvious one, that journalists should realize that they are only human, and they will have biases. If biases are realized, then they can be kept in check. Another recommendation could be combating ignorance, because it is usually through ignorance that biases develop. Another obvious solution could be greater religious education for journalists and editors alike, so that obvious and blatant biases can at least be eliminated from stories at the final stage, if not eliminated all together. There are some religious groups that have decided to avoid biased journalists by creating and publishing their own media. An excellent example is the Watchtower and Awake! magazines distributed my members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. These magazines are printed in 182 languages and distributed in approximately 400 countries. These magazines contain both religious doctrine and education, as well as topical news stories on (among other things), natural gas, the Commonwealth Games, and the Global Financial Crisis. I asked Peter[12], a distributer of Watchtower and Awake!, if he felt these magazines are an efficient form of media for both the distribution of Jehovah’s Witness doctrine and news stories. He agreed, adding that the wide distribution assists people to not only learn about Jehovah’s Witness faith and current topical issues, without the interference of money-conscious journalists. He stated, “People can hear the good news of God, as well as learning something new about the world of God”. In a post-9/11 world, Islam suffers greatly from biased and pessimistic media. To combat this, Daily Muslims, a news site for U.S. and Canadian Muslims has been established. Daily Muslims publishes hard news articles on a variety of topics, completely free of (often) unnecessary anti-muslim views and biases. It is a shame, however, that these forms of “religious media” are not widely viewed or read. Often, the only exposure to media that Australians have is the nightly news on commercial television and radio stations, and mainstream newspapers. Whilst a site like Daily Muslims does offer unbiased news for Muslims, it does not offer it to those who are already biased or produced, the general public.

The unfortunate nature of media bias is that we only know if we have they have acted wrongly in the aftermath of an incident. Though this new tradition of media made by religion is amiable, however they are often themselves biased and are not widely distributed for community. Those that have prejudices (often created by the media) do not read unbiased reporting. The unfortunate fact is that today sensational stories sell newspapers, and sensational stories are often incredibly bias, blatantly wrong, or not grounded in context that is so vital to stories about religion, specifically religious conflict. Perhaps if television stations and newspapers ran more positive headline stories about religious groups then it would slowly change public opinion, however, there would need to be quite a few to outweigh the current amount of negative publicity. Religious education for journalists, editors and producers would greatly assist the current situation, as it would ensure that biases and false information never makes it to air or print. The best that can be done with instances of extremely bad journalistic exploitation of religion, however, is to learn from them and hopefully ensure they never happen again.


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Baker, R. T. (1955). Religion and Journalism. Religious Education. 50. 361-364.

Khiabany, G. (2010). Iranian Media: The Paradox of Modernity. New York: Routledge.

Mattingly, T.. (2009). Getting Religion in the Newsroom. In: Marshall, P., Gilbert, L. and Green-Ahmanson, R. Blind Spots: When Journalists get it wrong. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 151-155.

Mitchell, J. et al. (2003). Mediating Religion: Conversations in Media, Religion and Culture. London: T & T Clark.

Porterfield, K. H. . (2007). Religion. In: Sloan, D. and Burleson Makay, J. Media Bias: Finding it, Fixing it. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. . 50-64.

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Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. (2010). Watchtower & Awake! Magazine. Available: http://www.watchtower.org/. Last accessed 29th October 2010.

[1] Porterfield, K. H. 2007. Page, 51.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Quoted by Porterfield, K. H. 2007. Page, 52.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Quoted by Porterfield, K. H. 2007. Page, 52.

[6] Mattingly, T. 2009. Page, 151.

[7] Ramji, R. From Mitchell, J et al. 2003. Page, 65.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ramji, R. From Mitchell, J et al. 2003. Page, 67.

[10] Ibid. Page, 68.

[11] Name changed to protect privacy.

[12] I was asked not disclose this man’s full name, and thus have not.

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