The Media and Religion Forum


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The Media and Religion Forum

  1. 1. New Zealand Diversity Forum 23 August 2010 The Media and Religion Forum Professor Paul Morris, Victoria University The rubric ‘media and religion’ covers a lot of ground. The media is diverse and includes TV, print, digital, religious media, commercial media, the new social media, and within these: news, entertainment, educational, drama and so on. Religion too is diverse and increasingly so. The plan for my allotted time is to introduce and delimit our focus to a number of pertinent issues, say a little about the new inter- disciplinary research area of ‘media and religion’, particularly as it might relate to New Zealand, and then to conclude with a few thoughts on where we might go from here. New Religious Diversity Our population is becoming increasingly diverse raising a series of new challenges for media representations of this new religious demography. Our news and society now include, or should include, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and secularist alongside Christian personalities and stories. While Christians are still – just – a majority according to the last census, there are now sizeable Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim communities and these ‘non-Christians’ who declare a religion are more than 6% of the population. In addition, the Christian community has been transformed by migrant Christians from the Pacific, the Philippines, the Middle East and South Africa and significant increases in the numbers of Evangelicals and Pentecostal Christians. We need some sort of context for understanding these figures. Nearly two thirds of New Zealanders declare a religion – 75% of these are Christians - and even in this sports obsessed nation there are still more people at Church on a Sunday than people going to weekly rugby matches. Nearly a third of the population are ‘nones’, declaring ‘no religion’ (2006) and this number is noticeably increasing. New Zealand has become increasingly more ‘secular’, that is, the public face of religion is diminished. However, it is important to recognise that that still leaves a ‘religious’ majority - albeit with many having a deinstitutionalised spirituality – some with a vibrant religious life, and a growing but as yet small number of New Zealanders who are more religious than their parents. There are a number of growing gaps between the Pakeha cultural majority and numerous religious and cultural minorities, between a secular press and changing religious realities, and between a changing international comprehension of the enhanced importance of religion and a New Zealand still dominated by largely secular ruling elites. The older secular view that media and press freedom were established on the foundations of the restriction of religion: superstitions, prejudice, and censorship – and that this is a as a zero sum gain so that more freedom equals 1
  2. 2. less religion - is now being extensively challenged internationally. The public media here is still largely secular and generally reports religion poorly. There is an almost exclusive focus on beliefs rather than on the ways that behaviours can change, transform, create and sustain our religious communities. We often don’t include under ‘religion’ the extensive religious charities sector involved in welfare provisions across the not for profit sector. There is little appreciation of the religious politics of identity and the growing concern over moral issues that bring religion into the public sphere. I recently did a Media Watch slot on RNZ discussing John Campbell’s pursuit of Brian Tamaki and his Destiny Church. The most basic principles of research were ignored and the analysis of religion reduced to totting up Tamaki’s personal fortune. Representing Religion What are the issues? In the US, UK and Europe there is a growing body of academic evidence that clearly indicates that minority religious communities are dissatisfied with the media representations of religions, particularly their own. This is significant in that there is also evidence of the important role that media plays in our acquisition of knowledge of religion generally and of religions other than our own specifically. While the specifics differ between communities the complaints are shared in common or overlap considerably. For example, the study, The British Media and Muslim Representation (Islamic Human Rights Commission, 2007, see also, the British Council’s British Muslims: A Media Guide, 2006) reports that a staggering 86 % of British Muslims consider the British press to be Islamophobic (62%) or racist (16%). The complaints are that mainstream media is both exclusionary and discriminatory. The news focus is uniformly negative and offers stereotypes of Muslims and these are often ‘extremist’ and are also found in drama, sitcoms, soap operas and documentaries. Hindu and Sikh communities decry the media obsession with arranged marriages and inter-generational tensions (Connecting British Hindus, 2007, has a section on Hindus and the media). Jews in the UK, the US, France, and Holland contend that the news is hostile to Israel and that this unjustified hostility is also directed at their communities as ‘anti-Zionism’ descends or overlaps with anti- Semitism. Evangelicals are concerned at the negative portrayals of born-again Christians as crazy or uneducated and the overemphasis on sexuality issues; Catholics balk at the exclusive focus on clerical child abuse; Mormons complain at the undue attention on polygamy, and almost every new religious movement at being labelled as an ‘extreme’ brainwashing ‘cult’. The use of stereotypes, stereotypic issues, the focus on untypical ‘extremists’, the disproportionate focus on some issues rather than others, the over-simplifications of complex issues that actually distort, and the lack of materials on the diversity within faiths, are repeatedly highlighted by the faith groups. There was a particular emphasis on the media’s inappropriate and careless uses of language. Terms such as ‘extremist’, ‘terrorist’, ‘cult’ and ‘fundamentalist’, for 2
  3. 3. example, need to be carefully handled if not simply avoided. For example, last year TV3 ran a documentary on a number of religious groups which it referred to solely as dangerous ‘cults’; the bulk of the uncorroborated information was gleaned from interviews with ex-members , and the two experts were not - an educationalist and a psychology academic. Experts are needed but the right experts. Starting a project with predetermined ideas is a liability but if these do not extend beyond salacious sensationalism via repeated stereotypes then the result is hardly likely to be accurate or informing. It is interesting to note than on a sports analogy one of these ‘experts’ was introduced on Close Up as a specialist in ‘extreme religions’. The purpose of both ‘shows’ was sensationalism rather than understanding, and the wilfully ignoring of twenty years off scholarship. Media can equally distort by the sins of omission by not mentioning just what a minority a reported view is or by giving other views from the same faith group. While the intense pressures for increased viewership and readership have to be fully acknowledged it should be recognised that sensationalism is not sustainable and the ante is constantly raised. A current example was the Sunday programme aired yesterday that linked Somalis with illicit drug sales and the support of a terrorist group in Somalia on the skimpiest of evidence and the segment actually ended with Cameron Bennett reporting that they had no evidence of the terrorist support claim at all! Mention should also be made of the Journal of Media and Religion; the Pew funded Centre for Religion and Media at New York University; the International Study Commission on Media, Religion and Culture, and the Oxford Centre for Religion in Public Life. For example, Pew issued a helpful report on the media and religion for the 2008 US presidential elections examining the media reporting of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, Sarah Palin’s Pentecostal faith and the claims that Obama was a Muslim (18% of Americans and rising)! In addition there have been books and monographs on the Arabic press, the religious press in Israel, media and religion in Turkey, evangelical TV presentations, and studies from a variety of countries and on a number of topics. I have not focussed today on religious media and broadcasting (see, Stewart Hoover’s study, Religion in the Media Age (Routledge 2006). This growing sector is in the main Christian but there are more and more other than Christian developments too. In New Zealand we have our mainstream ‘god spots’ for Charter religious worship and we have two ‘commercial’ Christian TV channels. The New Media Alongside and in some cases replacing the print and TV and radio is the explosion of ‘new media’. The internet and WWW has played a huge role in the dissemination of contemporary forms of religion. We are just beginning to consider the impact of social media on our lives, including religious lives. The blogosphere is already credited with playing a part in our last general election and it plays an as yet understudied role in the available representations of religion in our society. One of 3
  4. 4. my students is looking at moral discourse in evangelical blogs, including local bloggers. There have also been a number of academic studies of cyber-religion. There is an issue here. There is little point is reporting the disquiet of religious communities over media representations of religion when distortions, stereotypes and misinformation is all too easily found in ‘sectarian’ zines, newspapers and blogs. It is important that communities directly address these issues for the human right to express oneself religiously and be free of discrimination applies equally to media inside and outside of religious communities. But the new media also offers unique possibilities to create opportunities for gaining background information about matters of religious concern via web-pages, and so on. Conclusion I want to begin this conclusion by reiterating the need for basic research on religion and media in New Zealand. Are the religious communities here happy with media coverage of religion? Where do we get our ideas and knowledge about religion from? What role do the media play in this? In New Zealand what are the characteristics that we most associate with the different religions? For those of you who are interested in the diversity in education issue you are most welcome to attend the UNESCO session here at the Forum, at 3.30pm today. The media’s primary job is not to please the diverse communities that make up the public. Rather its job is to inform us accurately and competently. Our society is more open than in the past and secrets not so easily kept from public scrutiny, the media was, of course, complicit in this censorship. This new openness is an advantage but it entails considerable responsibilities and competencies. Understanding the religious dimensions of the news requires competency, expertise and training. Our journalists simply do not have this. Asking Victoria University students about the religious issues in Iraq and Afghanistan indicates that the media has done an abysmal job in competently informing the New Zealand public. The public had little comprehension of the Exclusive Brethren and yet they impacted on our 2005 election. I was interviewed for the TV3 News by a young reporter who asked me who the Brethren were and what she might ask about them! There is a growing need for us all, and the media has a huge role to play in this, to understand the religious dimensions of news events. The academic discipline, mentioned above, arose largely fuelled by an ongoing sequence of media failures to grasp even basics about the nature religion. These include the Iranian revolution, Waco, the Rushdie affair, the ‘Danish’ cartoons, and of course 9/11. The last of these has done much to bring a range of commentators, academic and other, on religion to the fore but this has cut both ways: while religion is back on the agenda it is all too often in a fashion that misrepresents religions and can distort public perceptions. What is equally clear is that events have moved much more quickly than media training or sensibilities. We need real expertise and training in religions to explain the religious significance and dimensions of news events just as we benefit 4
  5. 5. from economic, political or scientific. What we need is basic competency training in religions for journalists. This competency needs also to be extended to programme makers, film makers, scriptwriters and so on so that features, drama and documentaries are commissioned that accurately and competently reflect the real lives of religion New Zealanders - religion as it is lived and practiced, representative and realistic – religion as an everyday integral part of life rather than extreme or deviant or dangerous. Do people want to see this? Yes, it appears so. Connecting expertise and programme makers requires our attention. The media must also get over its prejudice for the moral high ground, morality is an essential part of religious discourse and shouldn’t be stigmatised. There is more to religion in New Zealand that ‘The Cult’ or cults, suicide or other. Avoiding stereotypes, clichéd story lines and characters is the second step to better coverage of religion; the first is the capability to recognise these. Media self-regulation usually includes ‘fair and balanced’ reporting which often seems at odds with the items deemed most newsworthy, violent conflict or contention. Beyond competency there is responsibility. Most journalistic codes of conduct include a decency clause that seeks to avoid offence - ‘avoiding serious or widespread offence on racial, religious, sex, ethnic or disability” – but we know that there is no real sanction as in Paul Henry’s recent case. There are, however, good examples of such decency, Charlie Beckett, a political editor at Chanel 4 news chose not to show the ‘Danish ‘ cartoons because it would ‘cause more offence than was justified by the news story’ (Guardian 29/11/06). The New Zealand Statement on Religious Diversity (2007, 2009), an earlier product of this Forum addresses the media in Principle 4: The Right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media are vital for democracy but should be exercised with responsibility. I wrote that in 2007 and consider it still to be true but I consider it equally true that media responsibility extends to competency and decency and I hope that we will collectively decide to pursue this further this morning and after the Forum. Ideally, I think it would be very helpful to establish a Working Party, made up of academics, journalist, media management and professionals and representatives of religious communities. The aim would be to report back to the Diversity Action Forum in 2011 after developing a New Zealand Statement on Media and Religion that addressed issues such as the training of journalists around the subject of religion, strategies for balancing freedom of religion and minimising offence, and developing basic research on religion and media in New Zealand. 5