The media needs to be more informed about religions

The media needs to be more informed about religions
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With ever increasing media interests about religions, particularly Islam, it is important that journalists realise the importance of knowing more about religions before reporting on them.

In my recently published book Religion in the Media: A Linguistic Analysis (Palgrave Macmillan), which is being launched in London tomorrow, 16th November, it was clearly evident that the media tends to comment on religions without much understanding on the cultural practices, and often cover an ‘alien’ religion like Islam from an ethnocentric perspective. One of the key recommendations in my book is a call for more responsible reporting on religions, and that can only be achieved when the media is more literate about cultural practices of ordinary followers of faiths.

There is wealth of academic evidence that proves media’s lack of knowledge about religions. Hoover (1998) argues that journalists lack the knowledge and expertise to report the religious dimension of news stories adequately. Buddenbaum (1990) suggests that the reporting of religious aspect of news stories is often woefully inadequate because many secular journalists have an antipathy towards religion, and misrepresents ‘the reality of religion as most people experience it’. Biernatzki (2003) finds poor representation and interpretation of religion in the media where “it is either ignored or sensationalized -- and either of those extremes distorts its reality”.

Two examples from linguistic analyses in my book will illustrate this point further. In a Daily Mail article on gender segregation in Islam, ethnocentrism was manifested through words like, shocking, disturbing, inequality and passive sentences like, …. women obliged to sit yards behind chairs reserved exclusively for men or .. …women pushed to the back of the hall etc. implying that the culture of gender segregation in Islamic programmes is inherently patriarchal and women are forced to follow instructions imposed by men, whereas one of the speakers at the event categorically said that no one was forced to sit anywhere. The most noticeable aspect of this article is the absence of a Muslim women’s perspective, whereas they were portrayed as the victims of a ‘shocking’ religious practice imposed by men.

Another Daily Mail article uses correlation between the increase of Muslim coverts in Britain and the rise of terrorism by positioning two sentences together. The article says: In 2001, there were an estimated 60,000 Muslim converts in Britain. Since then, the country has seen the spread of violent Islamist extremism and terror plots, including the July 7 bombings. The article provides no evidence to show how these two are linked, and the report by Faith Matters the article is based on gives no indication that there is a link between the two. Not only that, while the article is fully based on that report where it categorically says that the increase in Muslim converts provide no indication of ‘Islamification’ in any way, the Daily Mail report writes exactly the opposite by saying, The numbers, revealed in a study by multi-faith group Faith Matters, have led to claims that the country is undergoing a process of ‘Islamification’.

The examples given above highlight the importance of responsible reporting on issues of sensitivity. They bring to light two major problems in reporting about Islam and Muslims – lack of cultural understanding and irresponsible journalism. Just because a journalist does not understand or agree with the culture of gender segregation among Muslims, which happens organically in most situations, does not mean it is wrong and misogynistic. Similarly, the spiritual journey many people undergo in their conversion to a religion may be difficult for some people to understand, but relating that to the rise in terrorism crosses the boundary of responsible journalism.

Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy, but that freedom is essentially linked to responsibility. There are approximately 3 million Muslims in the UK and overwhelming majority of them are proud British citizens. A study in 2012 by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex found that Muslims were more proud to be British (83%) compared to 79% general public. Unfortunately, the media does not represent this reality and often reports that a Muslim lifestyle is incompatible to the British way of life.

There is no evidence to suggest that the media misrepresent Islam deliberately and that they have a clear agenda against Muslims. What seems to be happening is that very few people in the media have any direct experience or much interaction with mainstream Islam and Muslims. Their lack of adequate knowledge, along with their insensitivity towards potential consequences of their negative portrayals on the lives of ordinary Muslims, needs to be addressed on an urgent basis. Thankfully, the process has started. Just last week, there was a one-day workshop called When Religion Makes the News in Cardiff, which brought together journalists who write about religions, representatives from different faith groups and those with no religion, and academics in order to help journalists understand, “… the nuances within religions or of the complexities of the relation of ethnicity to faith or, crucially, how to negotiate the minefield of claims within any faith as to who authoritatively represents its members”. It is certainly a stepping stone towards more interaction between academics, faith groups and the media.

On the other hand, different faith groups, particularly Muslims, need to engage more with the media rather than always blaming them for misrepresentation. Initiatives from Muslims in this regard will help the media know about all the positive things happening in the community that seldom reach the editorial team of a mainstream news outlet.

In post-Brexit Britain and in the era of President Donald Trump, hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia are being unleashed towards minority communities in Britain, America, and many parts of Europe. The rise of right wing fascist groups should be a wake-up call for all of us. In this hostile environment, the media has an important role to play to calm things down. Success of our nation, as we embark on a new journey outside the European Union, depends largely on how united we are within our diversities, and the British media is a crucial element in this cause.

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