Representations ofReligion and Spiritualityin Mainstream FactualBritish Television2000-2009Ruth Deller,Sheffield Hallam University
What will be looked at?• BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five - including digital analogue channels (e.g. More4, BBC Three).• Factual programming where the topic is religion or spirituality.
Key questionsWhat is the nature of coverage of religion/spirituality in factual television?How can it be understood in relation to notions of secularisation and ‘re-enchantment’?How does it represent minority groups and/or other cultures?What are viewers’ responses to these programmes?Why are they commissioned?
Why?• Observing range of programmes on religion/spirituality on the major channels.• Filling a knowledge gap in both media/cultural studies and sociology.• Part of a wider trend within academia at the moment exploring religion and society (e.g. AHRC/ESRC programme).
MethodsTextual analysis ◦ Semiotics, CDA, narrative, quantitativeIndustry research ◦ Ratings ◦ InterviewsAudience research ◦ Analysis of online discussion ◦ Questionnaires/focus groups (online and face- to-face)
BackgroundOver 200 different programmes or series on religion/spirituality shown on channels run by the BBC, ITV, 4 and five in the past decade. Some are series, some one-offs, some part of existing series.To keep the study manageable, this does not include fictional media, or mentions of religious/spiritual issues in programmes such as the news, Newsnight, Big Brother or other factual media with a wide remit.
BackgroundMany series have been publicised or commented on widely (e.g. The Monastery, Undercover Mosque). A number have received significant press coverage.2009 alone has seen several significant series and a number of repeats and one-off programmes.
Theoretical contextSecularisationSpirituality/New Religious MovementsPostmodernityWorld eventsRepresentationEthnicity and OrientalismDevelopments in factual television
Textual AnalysisLanguage: word choice, emphasis, level of prior audience understanding assumed, use of emotive language.Who speaks: who is an ‘expert’, who is seen, who isn’t, who controls narrative, who participates, how participants are used.Imagery: symbolism, connotations, colours, metaphors, ‘shorthand’.
Textual AnalysisSound: use (and choice) of music, sound effects, silence, layering of elements (e.g. speech over music).Titles of programmes.Use of locations and connotations of these (e.g. libraries, deserts).Opening and closing monologues.Pre-credits voiceovers.Promotional / listings / website imagery and language.
Textual Analysis: programmethemesSeeking to understand belief in socio- historical context.Debunking/unpacking particular beliefs, stories and practices.Personal exploration of beliefs and practices.Education about different beliefs and practices.Debate and discussion about world events and belief.
Textual Analysis: programmethemesUnderstanding and appreciation of culture.
Textual Analysis: representationOf the big six, Islam and Christianity receive most coverage; Sikhism and Buddhism least; particularly in relation to Britain.Atheism occasionally discussed but agnosticism rarely mentioned; however agnosticism often default ideological perspective.
Textual Analysis: representationSpirituality widely discussed but mainly in relation to mainstream religion.New age, occult or supernatural beliefs often dismissed, ridiculed or presented as light entertainment (e.g. ITV2).Paganism, occult/spiritualism and some other beliefs (e.g. Voodoo, Wicca, Scientology) often presented as sinister or spooky - sometimes jokingly.
SecularisationDominant perspective: Britain is a secular society (or at least is perceived as being), but religion still matters to some: ◦ ‘People often say religion is a spent force, but I suspect it’s alive and kicking’. (Peter Owen- Jones, Around the World in 80 Faiths, BBC Two, 2009) ◦ ‘Ours is said to be a godless age. Yet billions remain faithful to religions thousands of years old’. (Christianity: A History, Channel 4, 2009)
NRMS and fundamentalismsNRMS barely covered and when they are, they are treated with suspicion or seen as ‘flaky’ or a joke.‘Fundamentalism’ is always seen as negative, within religion or atheism. Opposing value = moderation (aka liberalism and tolerance). ‘Fundamental beliefs’ rarely understood or explained, but heavily criticised.
‘Pick and Mix’ spirituality• ‘It’s a way of getting closer to God… so it’s a way of getting in touch with the universe, God, the divine… because everyone’s different, they’ve all got their own ways…’ (Jayne Middlemiss, The Beginner’s Guide to… Yoga, Channel 4, 2007)• ‘My aim is to help Charlie’s life change, in a spiritual way. To do that I’m going to introduce him to four practices that he’s going to use in his life for the next four weeks. I’m not asking him to believe in any of these religions or even in God…’ (Jonathan Edwards, Spirituality Shopper, Channel 4, 2003)
Spirituality over religion?Key ‘buzz’ word – but most used in a sensitive way or positive way when relating to mainstream religion.‘Alternative’ spiritualities treated with suspicion or derision.
Personalisation/IndividualismStrong emphasis on personal journeys, personal experiences, personal interpretations, personal values.Group expressions of spirituality can be uplifting but there is also suspicion over collective religious/spiritual experiences.
‘Acceptable’ and ‘Unacceptable’Panorama: Scientology and MeAround the World in 80 FaithsChristianity: A History
What is acceptable?Moderation, tolerance, liberalism, acceptanceWillingness to change or be questionedDoing ‘good’ deedsEmotional/sensory – within limitsPeacefulness, silence, stillness‘Natural’ or ‘authentic’ practices and beliefsRationality‘Meaningful’ to those experiencing itThe exotic – in its proper place‘Journey’ or personal transformation
‘Acceptable’‘Ithink she’s, she’s the epitome of the English Muslim because in the United Kingdom really there’s a need to create a culture, not preserve a culture, not preserve a Moroccan or an Egyptian or a Pakistani or an Indian way, but the need to create a British Islam, which meets the spiritual needs of the British people, people in modern times’. (The Retreat, BBC Two)
‘Acceptable’ ‘For these people a love of God is at the heart of their community. In these merciless conditions, their faith is what breathes life into their existence’. (Around the World in 80 Faiths, BBC Two)‘It’s impossible not to be drawn in by the beauty of the ritual of prayer’. (Dan Cruickshanks’ Adventures in Architecture, BBC Four/Two)
‘Acceptable’‘Ithink our Hindu faith is very very important to us. I don’t sit in a temple and pray for hours on end. Even if it’s expected of me, I don’t think I’d be able to carry that out, I’m not that religious. But yeah, we do have our two minutes in the morning, myself and God’ (Karma Babies, BBC One).
‘Acceptable’‘I truly believe that Christianity is not on its last legs, that the faith I learned from my grandmother is still as strong as ever. If the traditional churches of the west can only resolve their problems and reach out to and work with people of faith across the world then Christianity can not only survive, but prosper’. (Christianity: A History, Channel 4)
What is unacceptable?The exotic – out of context‘Extreme’ emotional or physical manifestations and expressionsBeing ‘too formal’, cold or closed-mindedConservative, ‘fundamentalist’ views‘Flaky’ insubstantial beliefsIrrational or suspicious/sinister beliefsControlling others, especially childrenTrying to force beliefs on others
‘Unacceptable’‘Issomeone who believes the Holy Spirit speaks to them in the language of angels worthy of our respect, or in need of psychological treatment?’ (Am I Normal?, BBC Two)‘Are these children just innocent conduits of the work of God, or are they the result of desperate parents and overzealous congregations in search of the miraculous?’ (Baby Bible Bashers, Channel 4)
‘Unacceptable’‘Well, my first impression is that this is just… silly. There may be hidden truth in that but it… looks like a sort of er, just a kind of sell for people who are desperate’ (Imagine: The Secret of Life, BBC One)‘Hardline Christians are not just campaigning to change our laws. A group meets regularly in London to campaign against the building of a large mosque’. (Dispatches: In God’s Name, Channel 4)
‘Unacceptable’‘Green Lane mosque (shots of promo material) calls itself a centre for interfaith communication, welcoming people of all religions, but our reporter filmed there over four months, and found this speaker, Abu Usama, was their main English Language preacher. He says Christians and Jews are enemies to Muslims’. (Dispatches: Undercover Mosque, Channel 4)
Industry Research: InterviewsUnderstand lack of diversity within religious programmes, but feel there aren’t good programming ideas for some of the under-represented faiths.Don’t know how to present ‘spirituality’ outside of religion.See importance of religion to mainstream and within non ‘God slot’ genres.
Industry Research: InterviewsFeel emphasis on personality can be at expense of deeper, more intellectual discussion.Constrictions of budgets, timeslots etc.9/11 was a key turning point.Some topics are seen as more audience- friendly (e.g. Da Vinci code).Feel less experimental commissioning now compared to earlier in decade.
Industry Research: InterviewsSome freedom to choose projects, sometimes response to ‘hot’ topics.Wanting to make programmes that have a reaction.Sometimes wanting to expose an issue, sometimes to debate it, sometimes to discuss a new perspective.Programmes often have a longer life and are circulated/discussed a long time after broadcast.Dissatisfaction with some scheduling slots.
Industry Research: interviewsDimitri Collingridge ◦ [on moderation] I dont know if thats a sort of editorial line at Channel 4, but thats what I certainly think, it seems pretty you know kind of bad because as soon all you have to do is look at the twentieth century and the extremes of ideology and various groups of people cos as soon as you have an extreme, as soon as youre actually convinced you are right, be it a secular ideology or a religious one… you know, I do think that all channels are trying to sort of say that extremes are bad, you know.
Participant interviewsEditing to fit predetermined narratives.Many experiences left out.Conflict between initial expectations and final result.Dealing with negative press and hostile public response.
Audience ResearchMonitoring forums and blogs, both entertainment based and belief-group specific.Monitoring comments on broadcaster websites and YouTube – also what is circulated on YT, Google Video and blogs.Following Twitter discussions and hashtags.Focus groups – online and in person.Small amount of survey research.Not just monitoring opinions of programmes, but also discussions sparked off by them.Broadcasters’ own research.
Audience Research: LikesOpen-mindednessLearning something newWillingness to debateDetailed exploration of issuesAttractive visualsRespect for those featuredCovering wide range of beliefs and practicesBeing ‘fair’
Audience Research: LikesCreativity, something ‘new’Interesting narratives and ‘characters’Knowing the perspective of those involved in making programme – or at least of the key voices
Audience Research: Likes‘I have thoroughly enjoyed this series as the presenters have looked at the religion from their personal perspective but have gone to great lengths to see other positions and educate the viewer’. (Christianity: A History)‘It didn’t hit you over the head with the message’ (Saving Africa’s Witch Children)
Audience Research: Likes ‘Amazing programme last night. Not sure Id take part in the Punch-up at the top of those stairs, in Japan....then run down them. But overall this was a fascinating look at Faith in the Far East. Even better then last weeks programme. And that Mt Huashan Trail, stunning’. (Around the World in 80 Faiths) I love Jon Ronson and, like all of his work, it was interesting, entertaining and funny. I didnt know anything about the Alpha course before this and its always nice to feel youve learned something from television’ (Revelations: How to Find God)
Audience Research: DislikesMisrepresenting their own beliefsGiving a voice to people they don’t likeThe presenter/narrator patronising those featuredInaccuracyOmitting key points, facts or eventsStereotypical imagery and portrayalsLength of programmesSensational titles, trailers or opening monologues
Audience Research: DislikesNot being allowed to make up their own minds‘Flaky’ peopleNot getting to the ‘heart’ of an issueNot being able to see a particular programme (e.g. many are watercooler stuff, hear about it after event via friends, press coverage, awards; repeats happen too soon or at odd times; some programmes not publicised)
Audience Research: Dislikes ‘Unfortunately I am reeling from this programme, which I thought was another of the chain of Christian Bashing Programmes on over the Christmas Period…It would be good to have real Christian Scholars on the programme, so that two atheists don’t sped an hour trying to discredit Christianity which is what the programme is for I think’. (Christianity: A History)
Audience Research: DislikesA) ‘Caught a bit of this in passing... but is it really right for a 13 year old with strong views to be put up against older adults who apparently want to try and "catch them out“?’B) ‘No, indeed. I also wasnt keen on the shows general subtext of "look at all the things youre missing out on - underage drinking! Underage sex! Vacuous celebrities!" Yeah, good one’. (Deborah, 13: Servant of God)
Audience Research: Dislikes‘That’s exactly how you always see Africa portrayed’ (Saving Africa’s Witch Children)‘That woman was so patronising. Judaism is a really beautiful faith and they were really interesting people. They handled it with dignity though.’ (Jews ep3)‘I was cringing throughout’ (Wife Swap)‘He was trying to be Jon Ronson or somebody and just came across as patronising and weak’ (Gary, Young Psychic and Possessed)
Tweeting RevelationsChannel 4 series Revelations began last night.The first programme, ‘How to Find God’ was very popular with Twitter audience.Updates came very quickly, with over 800 tweets in three hours.
Tweeting RevelationsPartly due to Jon Ronson’s involvement and his presence on Twitter as well as his interaction with viewers during broadcast.Ronson asked questions about course itself, his own response to course, what participants and church were like, what Alpha thought of documentary and some technical queries (e.g. music, imagery).
Tweeting RevelationsSeveral ‘tweeters’ expressed interest in Alpha because of friends/family involvement.A number of responses discussed people’s orientation towards doing the course themselves.‘Tongues’ moment the moment of controversy as anticipated by framing of doc. Many people found the idea ‘cult’ like or disturbing.
Tweeting RevelationsThose who identified as Christians either tended to say they thought it was sensationalist or else distanced their own Christianity from tongues, or from the way tongues used in this example.Short ‘exit’ survey posted after revealed strong atheist audience (reflecting Twitter population rather than general?) but strong interest in religious programmes. Most (of all beliefs) positive about programme.
Tweeting RevelationsTwitter was monitored for all eight weeks, though the first programme was the most discussed.A live chat room was open afterwards. Participants varied.Programmes on death and spiritualism invoked most humour.Muslim School and Divorce: Jewish Style invoked most emotion.
SummarySense of importance of religion (this has increased over decade, less ‘why believe’, more ‘what is role of religion’).Emphasis on moderation and tolerance within religious belief.Desire for ‘fairness’ and detailed exploration of topics.Clear levels of what is and isn’t acceptable.