Media Portrayals of Religion: Overview

Since the 1990s, media educators Anita Day and Guy Golan have identified increased tension between people of faith and media outlets [1]. Media and religion are two concepts that can be challenging to partner: religion is frequently misrepresented in media for a wide variety of reasons, whether as a result of mistakenly held beliefs or by dramatizing religion to sell newspapers or attract viewers.

Religious stereotypes pervade all forms of media and all types of religions, from the portrayals of Eastern religions seen in Kung Fu Panda and Avatar, which conflate diverse faiths such as Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism into one ‘mystical’ tradition, to the action-packed portrayals of Christianity seen in The Da Vinci Code. At the same time, many religious groups see media as inherently secular and view new media as a threat to traditional religion [2].

Because of this complex relationship, it is important to be aware of the ways in which media outlets stereotype religion, as well as the most common religious issues covered in contemporary media. Three religions that are frequently covered in Canadian media are Christianity, Judaism and Islam. More than 70 per cent of Canadians report following a Christian religion; a significant percentage of Canadians likewise identify as being Muslim or Jewish [3]. Further, news coverage of Islam increased considerably in Canada following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

The Canadian mediascape is very small and many religions face a lack of media representation or complete invisibility. Canadians who do not follow a particular religion or who identify themselves as being Atheist or Agnostic – roughly 16 per cent of Canada’s population [4] – are also underrepresented in media. When they appear, they are often stereotyped as aggressive, fanatic and cold [5]. Coverage of Buddhists and Hindus is virtually non-existent, even though these communities each number roughly the same as Canada’s Jewish community, while the little coverage the Sikh community receives is almost exclusively focused on issues of accommodation (such as the wearing of the kirpan) or violence (such as coverage of the Air India bombing inquiry). Because Christianity, Judaism and Islam are the three religions that are most prominent in Canadian media, the following sections will explore issues relating to how these faiths are represented. However, because many of these issues are relevant to all faiths, these sections can help individuals from any religious background better understand the complicated ways in which religion is address.

 


[1] Day, A., & Golan, G. (2010). In God we trust: religiosity as a predictor of perceptions of media trust, factuality and privacy invasion. American Behavioural Scientist, 54(2), 120-136.
[2] Draper, S., & Park, J. Z. (2010). Sunday celluloid: visual media and Protestant boundaries with secular culture. Sociological Spectrum, 30(4), 433-458; Engelke, M. (2010). Religion and the media turn: a review essay. American Ethnologist, 37(2), 371-379.
[3] Statistics Canada. (2001). Religions in Canada. Accessed: January 4, 2011. http://www12.statcan.ca/english/census01/products/highlight/religion/
Page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo=PR&View=1a&Code=01&Table=1&StartRec=1&
Sort=2&B1=Canada&B2=1
[4] Statistics Canada, 2001.
[5] Goldberg, R. T. (2010). Counterpublics and media policing: Atheism and the challenge to public sphere boundaries. Dissertation Abstracts International, 70(9).

Diversity in Media Toolbox

The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.

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