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VII. Religion.

Why Discuss Religion?

The Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture and Communication Research Trends were founded for religious purposes: to help the Church better understand the developing world of communication as illuminated by research in the social and behavioral sciences, and to apply that understanding to the needs of the Church. In fulfilling that mandate, the Centre and the journal have by no means confined themselves to strictly religious topics, and those cannot even be said to be the primary focus of interest. Instead, effort was directed towards understanding the communicative world within which church-related communication activities had to work, with the aim of making their work more functional in terms of that world and thereby more efficient. Also, although working within and for the Roman Catholic Church, CSCC and Trends always have been open to working with and assisting other Christian denominations as well as other religions in their own parallel communication efforts.

From time to time, Trends has addressed religious questions more directly. At first special religious supplements were published and circulated with the main section. Although this practice started with a supplement for each issue, it soon declined to two or three a year, and finally the religious supplement was abandoned, on the grounds that insufficient new religious communication research was being done to fill each supplement. Instead, the editor began to write an "Afterword" in each issue, in which he tried to explicate the meaning contents of the issue held for religious communicators.

An example of the difficulty of finding enough research for a separate religious supplement can be seen in the supplement to Trends second issue (White 1980: i-iv), on "The Church and the New International Information Order." The first line of that supplement read:
 The Church has made little or no explicit
 contribution to the international discussions
 leading toward the proposals for a New
 International Information Order. Nor is
 there much evidence that the proposals for
 the NIIO have had much influence on the
 Church's concerns in communication. (ibid.:

The supplement went on to report on a seminar on "Liberation Media," sponsored by the U.S. National Sisters Communication Service as part of the National Religious Communication Conference, in May 1980. Then it summarized some of the recommendations of the Third General Conference of the Latin American Bishops at Puebla, Mexico--calling for media training and education of both clergy and laity, for greater use of alternative media, for the Church's media to become "the voice of the dispossessed," and for the Church to support the social right to information--and a commentary on the Puebla Conference by the Venezuelan Catholic journal, Comunicacion. That journal noted that the journalists reporting on the Conference were ill-prepared to deal knowledgeably with religious affairs. It then showed how the Conference had been reported by the secular media in ways that were both sensationalistic and skewed to favor the ideological positions of the journalists.

Manuel Olivera, S.J., Secretary for Communications to the Jesuit Superior General, in Rome, commented in the same issue of Comunicacion, on the document itself, noting that it "largely ignored ten years of intense activity in Latin America regarding communication policies," as well as omitting references to the work of UNESCO and to "NIIO" (i.e., NWICO). The same issue reported on the publication of two books--on the use of group media in basic Christian communities and on advertising in Venezuela--by Jose Martinez Terrero, SJ, and on research on the Church and social issues being done by the Latin American Institute for Transnational Studies (ILET), in Mexico City (ibid., p. ii). The supplement closed with a page on "communication in pastoral studies," asking, "How can pastoral and apostolic workers be trained to communicate the Gospel to modern man in whatever ministry they undertake?" (ibid. p. iv).

Symbol-making Power

In the religious supplement to its Vol. 2, No. 4 (Kenney 1981: 9-12), Trends asked, with Gregor T. Goethals, "Is TV usurping the churches' symbol-making power?" (Goethals 1981). Humans are defined as symbol creating animals, and they live their lives guided and controlled by their symbolism. In the past, in both the East and the ancient, medieval, and renaissance West, religion provided much of the art, ritual and symbolism experienced by people throughout their lives. Today religious rituals and symbols, relatively isolated and inaccessible to many in a secular culture, confront the power of television images, which by contrast are all-pervasive (Kenney 1981: 9). In earlier times, religious symbolism enjoyed a distinct advantage over secular symbolism; but in the electronic age the balance is reversed.

To add to the problem, "television abounds with rituals, but they are not recognized as such," and therefore gain a subtle power to orient viewers in the directions determined by the producers. The way television shows life is easily assumed to be the way it is. If it is mentioned on the evening news, it happened; if not, it did not happen, or at least was not worth mentioning. Sports can replace church attendance in the ritual lives of viewers. The secular icons of commercials can take the place of religious icons, and the pseudo-values of the commercials can crowd out the ultimate values represented by the religious icons. Religious leaders not only need to learn to use television and to use it more effectively--as exemplified by "spots" being produced by Franciscans, Mennonites, and others in the United States--but the false icons have to be challenged.
 Goethals also stresses the need for
 cooperation between the churches and other
 groups concerned for the good of society to
 speak out whenever there seems to be
 injustice. She relates such protestation to
 the long tradition of iconoclasm against
 false idols that creep into the social fabric.
 (Kenney 1981: 10)

The Right to Information

In an early issue on "secrecy, privacy and the right to information," Trends confronted the delicate question of "the Church and the right to information" in its religious section (McDonnell 1982: 9-12). The research cited included both analyses of the Catholic Church's documents and practice, on the one hand (Deussen 1972; Communicatio Socialis 1977; Dulles 1982), and a sociological analysis of the recent history of the Church in the Netherlands, where polarization between "liberals" and "conservatives" had already created serious disunity (Coleman 1978).

Deussen found evidence of an internal church policy that dealt with information within the church by linking it to "the theological notion of proclamation." This view severed considerations of communication in the church from general human social communication, interpreted all church communication as "a kind of evangelization," and acknowledged no need "to reform the organizational and authority structures in the church in response to a new understanding of dialogue within the church" (McDonnell 1982: 10, citing Deussen 1972).
 One consequence of this internal church
 policy is that the generally negative attitude
 to public opinion and the press remains
 entrenched among church officials. This
 attitude can remain even though in principle
 the church proclaims the right to
 information as a positive human value.
 Perhaps even more seriously, modern
 theology has not yet managed to create a
 more adequate understanding of the
 relationship between information and
 evangelization. Theological understanding
 of communication remains largely bound to
 inherited attitudes. It is time, thinks
 Deussen, that the more positive insights of
 the church be taken up and applied to intra-church
 communication. (McDonnell 1982:
 10, citing Deussen 1972)

Dulles discerned a serious tension arising between the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which "so clearly endorsed civil freedoms of inquiry, opinion, communication and religious belief," on the one hand, and the view--which Dulles holds--that "a secular concept of freedom can at most be applied only analogously to the ecclesiastical domain ... a community having a corporate faith and witness ... [whose] members ... are not free to revise the nature and goals of this faith and witness" (McDonnell 1982: 11, citing Dulles 1982).

One problem Dulles describes is that secular media often oversimplify and distort religious news, emphasizing conflicts, and sometimes creating an appearance of conflict where none existed previously. "Unfortunately for the church, many of its members get their information about religious matters only from the secular media." Resulting confusion can create an environment in which "differences of opinion which occur between theologians and the hierarchy are subject to the pressures of publicity and to a consequent involvement of the general public. Within the church itself, parties can develop which exacerbate the problem by militantly supporting one 'side' or the other. Complex issues easily become gladiatorial combats" (McDonnell 1982: 11, citing Dulles 1982). But Dulles thinks that "theologians and hierarchy need each other," the latter "conservatively" preserving the continuity of church tradition while the former "tend to look for new ways to make old doctrine speak to contemporary people," updating formulations of faith with fresh insights (ibid.).

Dialog in Holland

Coleman's book is a study of a period in which the Dutch church "moved from being one of the most traditional of national churches to being the symbolic leader of progressive Catholicism" (McDonnell 1982: 10, citing Coleman 1978). The Dutch bishops recognized the need for reform and "believed that by implementing a new dialogic authority structure--in which bishops and priests listened to each other and to the laity, as well as speaking--they could better respond to the real needs of the whole church" (ibid.).

But dialog assumed good faith and all parties obeying rules designed to maintain mutual respect and understanding in the discussions. At first, it worked. "As Coleman demonstrates, the extraordinary elan displayed by the church between 1966 and 1970 was directly related to a marked increase in the intra-church volume of information flow and the number of information channels" (ibid.). But conflicts arose that undermined much of the good that had been accomplished. In particular, clashes arose with the Vatican, in which different styles of information handling played an important role. "In the Rome-Holland disputes, for example, the Dutch bishops relied on favourable press publicity and a policy of giving the fullest information to the public as a tactic to counter Roman attempts to conduct the dispute in secrecy" (McDonnell 1982: 11, citing Coleman 1978).

Coleman's study raised serious questions about the functioning of information channels in the church. "He demonstrates clearly that opening up the internal information process is not necessarily a good means of ensuring a quiet life for the church," since it reveals conflicts, varying attitudes, and "plurality of parties," that might not otherwise have surfaced. "On the plus side, opening up channels of information can liberate the goodwill and enthusiasm of all the church members." There can be no return to a closed authoritarianism in church leadership. "Diffusion of information control, and the development of a responsible public opinion within the church is not only desirable but necessary for the well-being of the Christian community" (McDonnell 1982: 11, citing Coleman 1978).

Religion and Broadcasting

In its eleventh year, Communication Research Trends devoted an issue to "televangelism and the religious uses of television" (Biernatzki 1991). It was introduced by a brief sketch of the history of the interaction between religion and the broadcast media in Britain and the United States (Biernatzki 1991: 2-3, citing Wolfe 1984). Lord Reith, BBC's first director general, assumed that the promotion of Christianity, a foundation stone of British culture, was a central element of the Corporation's public service role. Nevertheless, the early overtures to the churches by the BBC met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. Some churchmen feared that religious broadcasts would be heard by the irreligious, thus trivializing and cheapening the religious experience. But Reith persevered, and a "Sunday Committee," later to become the Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC), was established by the BBC in 1923, comprising representatives from the Church of England, major Protestant denominations and Roman Catholics. By 1929, the BBC was broadcasting regular religious programming.

Catholic involvement continued to be somewhat controversial, since the network required advance clearance of sermon contents by lay BBC staffto avoid anything controversial--an interference with clerical control the Catholics regarded as inappropriate. Mass and benediction also were regarded as "too controversial" for airing by the BBC, as they were too distinctively Catholic; while some Catholics thought broadcasting them would be irreverent. Glitches continued into the television era, with Presbyterians objecting to broadcasts of the Catholic Mass and general Protestant misgivings that both Anglican and Catholic liturgies were more photogenic than their own (Wolfe 1984: 504). A broadcast of a service led by American evangelist Billy Graham, during a visit to Britain in the mid-1950s, was objected to on the grounds of his alleged "defiant anti-intellectualism" (ibid., p. 476), although the program was ultimately widely popular (ibid. p. 479).

Religious radio broadcasting in the United States began in 1921, with an Episcopalian service on Pittsburgh's station KDKA, the first commercial station in the U.S. That program also marked the first "remote" broadcast, from outside a station's studio (Abelman and Hoover 1990: 63). In 1922, an exclusively religious station was set up in Chicago, called WJBT--standing for "Where Jesus Blesses Thousands" (Cotham 1985: 105). One of the first church-state clashes in U.S. broadcasting occurred in 1925, when the federal government temporarily closed a station owned by the high-profile evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson for habitually drifting off its assigned frequency and thereby interfering with other stations. Ms McPherson dashed off a telegram to the Commerce Secretary asking him to "Please order your minions of Satan to leave my station alone. You cannot expect the Almighty to abide by your wavelength nonsense" (Hadden and Swarm 1981: 188-189).

Evangelical and fundamentalist preachers were in the vanguard of American religious broadcasting from its earliest days, simply translating to the airwaves the frontier revivalism that had prompted at least three "Great Awakenings" of evangelistic fervor in the U.S. between 1730 and 1920 (Biernatzki 1991: 5-8, citing McLoughlin 1978). Individuals from mainline denominations also bought air time, and the Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin also did so, but he alarmed the networks with his increasingly radical political opinions. As an alternative, the local stations, networks and Catholic, Jewish, and mainline Protestant denominations collaborated to use some of the "sustaining time" stations were required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to make available for free, public service purposes. Theologically marginal groups--fundamentalists and Pentecostals--were excluded, and made their own arrangements, buying time or establishing their own stations and networks.

Similar arrangements continued in the early years of television, but when the requirement for sustaining time was eliminated by the FCC, the mainline denominations almost disappeared from the networks, and from commercial and public service broadcasting in general, except for locally funded, and usually locally-originated broadcasts of church services. In 1959, paid-time programming accounted for 53 percent of all religious programming, but this figure had risen to 92 percent by 1977, after the sustaining time requirement was lifted (Hadden and Frankl 1987: 103). The theologically marginal groups either had more funds or were more willing to spend money on air time than mainline denominations, so they soon assumed the most visible religious presence on national television.

Who is Watching?

Nevertheless, audience estimates seem to be a perennial bone of contention in the world of religious broadcasting, as they are among commercial broadcasters. Empirical researchers were nearly unanimous in concluding that the audience for religious broadcasting in general, and for broadcast evangelism in particular, comprised a small and relatively definable segment of the American listening and viewing public (Biernatzki 1991, citing Hoover 1988: 111-120, and Hadden and Swann 1981). Hadden and Swann claim that virtually all the television preachers "get carried away" in estimating the size of their own audiences. They say that in 1980 one particularly famous and politically conservative evangelist estimated his audience at 25 million, and one of his close associates claimed 50 million for the program, when "the truth is that fewer than 1 1/2 million tune in" to that broadcast each week (Hadden and Swann 1981: 47).

One of the most comprehensive American studies of religious broadcasting was the Annenberg-Gallup study conducted by the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Gallup Organization between 1982 and 1984 (Gallup Organization 1984; Gerbner, et al. 1984). However, controversy soon broke out over the meaning of the report, especially its divergent estimates of the size and character of the religious television audience, which the Gallup survey had estimated to total 22.8 million, while the Annenberg team estimated it at only 13.3 million (Hostetler 1984). The debate dragged on through 1987 (e.g., Hadden and Frankl 1987, 1989; Frankl and Hadden 1987; Gerbner et al. 1989). Quentin J. Schultz (1988) presented an informed, impartial analysis.

Hoover (1987) attempted to put the differing interpretations in context and to explain some of the reasons for the disagreement. He concluded that the project's findings generally supported those of earlier studies, as far back as that of Parker, Barry and Smythe (1955). Religious audiences tend to be older than average media audiences, lower in income, less educated, more conventionally "religious," more male than female, slightly more non-white than white, more rural than urban, and more southern than northeastern. Despite all the changes through the history of televised religion, Hoover says the studies, although widely separated in time, show that the composition of its audiences has stayed about the same. Factors affecting the differing estimates of total audience size include the criteria of what constitutes a "significant" amount of viewing--some researchers counting as little as six minutes per month, while others require at least fifteen minutes per week. Viewers, themselves, differ about what constitutes a "religious" program, with some regarding a secular mini-series or televised movie with a religious theme as equivalent to watching a televangelist or religious service (Biernatzki 1991: 15, citing Hoover 1987:140-145).

Religion in Secular Media

The ways the secular mass media treat religion have come in for special attention from serious researchers in recent years, and, if anything, that focus has become stronger since Trends' discussion of the topic (Biernatzki 1995). Misunderstandings and downright bad will in the relationship between religion and the mass media have had a long history. Trends summarized this background in its introductory box, in part as follows:
 Until sobered by evidence of the Holocaust,
 European media were not overly friendly to
 Jews, and the more vicious or gullible
 publications spread various canards about
 them, undoubtedly contributing to the Nazi

 Catholics, too, were at the receiving end of
 such "exposes" as that of "Maria Monk,"
 "guns in the church basement," and various
 other "papist plots."

 Caricatures of Protestant fundamentalists
 flowed from the pen of the famous
 journalist H. L. Mencken, as he reported on
 the "Monkey Trial" of evolutionist teacher
 John T. Scopes, in 1925. Every evangelist
 has had to overcome the negative
 stereotype fostered by the novel and movie,
 Elmer Gantry. The "religious right" has, in
 recent years become a bete noir in certain
 journalistic circles.

 Religious people, on their part, frequently
 voice an exaggerated distrust or disgust at
 the materialism and "immorality" they feel
 the media promote. Some denounce all
 advertising as "deceptive" and "exploitive."
 Movies are condemned, sight unseen, as in
 the case of Martin Scorsese's well-intentioned,
 if flawed, The Last Temptation
 of Christ. The slightest media criticisms of
 religious organizations or religious leaders,
 even when deserved, can provoke storms of
 protest. (Biernatzki 1995: 1)

Several efforts have been made to analyze the religious stance of professional journalists. As part of a broader study of the characteristics of 240 American journalists employed by the elite daily newspapers, Lichter, Rothman and Lichter (1986) obtained information about the journalists' religious practices and attitudes. Although professing professional objectivity--and probably sincerely trying to practice it--these elite journalists inevitably make choices that skew even the most straightforward news reports in directions determined by their own backgrounds (ibid., p. 165). The journalists in this research sample tended to be self-defined "liberals" (ibid., pp. 29-31), and religion played only a small part in their collective lives.
 A distinctive characteristic of the media
 elite is its secular outlook. Exactly half
 eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14
 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four
 (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish
 household. Only one in five identify as
 Protestant, and one in eight as Catholic....
 Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue
 weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never
 attend religious services. (Lichter, Rothman
 and Lichter 1986: 22)

The elite journalists were found to be power-oriented and "fascinated by machinations for power," and somewhat blind to "events and processes that take place outside its glare" (ibid, p. 130).

A broader-ranging study, drawn from a wider range of media and journalists than that of Lichter, Rothman and Lichter found a much more open attitude towards religion (Dart and Allen 1993). In a nationwide study of 266 managing editors, Dart and Allen found 72 percent who responded "that religion was at least 'important' in their lives" (Hoover, et al. 1994: 32, citing Dart and Allen 1993). This finding supported that of earlier research by Weaver and Wilhoit (1991), that showed only 28.2 percent of a similarly broadly-based sample of journalists who said that religion was "not important" to them (Dart and Allen 1993, citing Weaver and Wilhoit 1991).

Turning to an analysis of the end product of journalism, Lichter, Amundson and Lichter carried out a study of the media coverage of the Catholic Church (1991). They did content analyses of influential American media--Time magazine, CBS Evening News, the New York Times, and the Washington Post--in three five-year time blocks over three decades, the 1960s, 70s and 80s, during which the four carried about 10,000 items about the Catholic Church (CBS archives were not available for the 1964-1968 period) (Lichter, Amundson and Lichter 1991: 11). Negative orientations tended to outweigh both favorable perspectives and straight reporting, especially in the outlets' reactions to Church positions on sexual morality and Church authority. Coverage emphasized conflict--typically between the hierarchy and "dissidents" among clergy, religious or laity. Descriptive terms "applied to the Church emphasized its conservative ideology, authoritarian forms of control, and anachronistic approach to contemporary society" (ibid., p. 74). Trends during the period included a sharp drop in the volume of coverage, a decline in the reporting of official teachings and more challenges to them when they do appear, and increases in descriptive language which "carries connotations of conservatism, oppressiveness, and irrelevance" (ibid., pp. 74-75).

Journalistic sources and academic observers often joined with religious leaders in voicing a rising concern about the seeming inability of the press, TV and radio to "get it right" very often when dealing with religious topics. The "hostility" perceived by the religious side often seems due to the journalists' feeling that they have to inject some conflict or scandal into religious news to give it interest they think it lacks.

Complexity and Avoidance

Everett E. Dennis feels that some of journalists' earlier coolness towards religion may have been due to the complexity of religious issues and the feeling that they were unable to cover all faiths with equal fairness. The alternative was "to avoid the topic altogether" (Freedom Forum Media Studies Center 1994: 1). This creates an impression that the press in general endorses what Stephen Carter has called a "culture of disbelief"--"'treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant'" with an accompanying "'rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion'" (ibid., quoting Carter 1993: 6).

Dennis nevertheless sensed a revival of interest in religion in the news media during the early 1990s. With the demise of Communism, the most newsworthy world conflicts often involve religion, and the importance of religion in all aspects of daily life is increasingly acknowledged. Thomas Johnson, et al., found "a continuing pattern of neglect" of religion on five TV network news programs, but the 225 stories on religion or religious issues found in 1994 marked a 6 percent increase over 1993. The Catholic Church was covered most frequently of any group in both years, but 24 stories on the Cairo population conference tended to attack both Catholics and Muslims as "'distracting' the Cairo conference with their anti-abortion stance" (Johnson, et al. n.d.[1995]: 18).


Although many Christians feel their beliefs are distorted by the media, there always seems to be some middle ground, a common cultural base with the media, that offers some hope of improvements in the coverage of Christian news. Islam, on the other hand, is likely to be distorted or even maligned whenever it is mentioned. The perspectives of Islam and the Western secular press are at such polar extremes that there seems little if any hope of rapprochement. For example, Western media often blame terrorism on "Islamic fundamentalism." But "fundamentalism" has no meaning from an Islamic perspective, since all true Islamic belief and practice must be "fundamentalist" in the sense of abiding by the strict letter of the Qur'an. Anything less is inadequate. Furthermore, "secularism" and "secularity" have no place in Islamic belief, wherein all dimensions of life--religion, economics, politics, etc.--form an indivisible unity, in a way incomprehensible to the average Western journalist.

According to Hamid Mowlana, the paradigm of the Islamic Community calls for a unity of God, human beings and the universe "that determines the parameters of information." That view clashes with the current "Information Society" paradigm in which "the philosophy and theory of information and communication have replaced transcendental discourse as the prime concern of philosophical reflection" (Schlesinger and Mowlana 1993: 9-13).

Church and "P.R."

"Getting a good press" for the church often depends on the public relations talent of individual church people in their dealings with the media. Helen Alvare, spokesperson of the U.S. Catholic Conference, in a speech to one of three forums sponsored by Commonweal magazine on "religion and the media," in 1994, stressed that religious people have to explain clearly why they are addressing questions of concern to the secular world. She said, "The reason I do it in the area of abortion, is because I don't believe I'm speaking about revelation or theology directly. I believe I'm communicating natural law." But she quoted a reaction she often gets when explaining the issue in that way: "I thought this was about mortal sin for you guys. What's this natural law stuff?" She added, "It's my responsibility and the church's responsibility to make the world understand when it is that we are speaking theologically, and when it is that we are speaking from natural law" (Commonweal 1995: 35).

Michael Russo studied the different leadership styles of three major figures in the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, as manifested in their public statements about the abortion issue. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, aimed "to build a type of 'consensus,' a meeting-ground wide enough for all to stand on without shouting or rancour" (Russo 1993: 92). Russo felt that in discussing the U.S. Catholic bishops' 1989 statement that "No Catholic can responsibly take a 'pro-choice' stand when the 'choice' in question involves the taking of innocent human life," Bernardin failed adequately to explain differences among the bishops as to what a "pro-choice stand" might mean and about measures that might be taken to enforce the hierarchy's statement. Russo felt that Bernardin actually "reinforced for the larger public the idea that abortion was a 'Catholic' issue," which he had not intended to do (Russo 1991: 14, and 1993: 93).

Cardinal John J. O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, had told reporters upon assuming office, "I will use you in every way I can." He was outspoken and frank about the abortion issue, and his plunge into the media "minefield" on abortion and other controverted issues led to a continuing duel with the New York press, in which O'Connor sensed such deep-seated prejudices on the abortion issue that they cannot get it right even when they try. He was disappointed with the journalists, feeling that they compromised objectivity and the truth. "To me the most irresponsible thing a reporter can do, or an editor, is not to do his or her homework ... to take a story whatever the data are, ... and twist it to fit his or her preconception. That I suppose with the New York press corps is my most severe disappointment," the Cardinal told Russo (Russo 1991: 20).

Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B., Archbishop of Milwaukee, has long been regarded as a leader of the "liberal" wing of the American Catholic hierarchy. He was apprehensive about the strident character of some of his fellow bishops' statements and attitudes during their 1989 discussion of abortion. He felt that the opinions of women should be heard on the subject and decided to organize public meetings in his archdiocese for that purpose. These "listening sessions," as he called them, became a media event in themselves. Despite his long and friendly relationship with journalists, their distortions in reporting the "listening sessions" caused him some disquiet. He told Russo, "If they read the New York Times, then they got one impression. If they read USA Today, they got another Impression ... How do you ever get anything under control after it's out there ... We as a church haven't learned yet how to deal with all of that. I don't think we know how to do that effectively" (as quoted by Russo 1991: 38).

The interplay between church and press is a relatively new phenomenon--at least in terms of two millennia of church history--but Russo sees it as a continuing situation to which the church will have to adjust. "This connection between church and press is not simply an extra feature ... Rather, it is the pervasive culture in which their [the three archbishops'] messages and moral teachings are understood" (1993: 97).

Mutual Correction

Paul A. Soukup, S.J. (2000: 132-133), sees a mutual-correction function as a possible positive contribution of an interaction among "the churches' use of the media, academic theology, the mass media themselves, and the academic study of communication." Each of these areas has identified values in the human experience that might be overlooked or inadequately stressed in the outlooks of the other specializations. Frank and humble exchanges among them might help all "to place themselves more at the service of those values that enrich human life" (ibid., p. 132). Communication studies, for example, can assist theology by its ability to deconstruct communication systems and "by unmasking privilege or hegemony," thus revealing the social world in a new way. Theology, for its part, "in all its richness and with its lengthy tradition, can provide a context for reflection on values. In this way it reminds us, with a gentle insistence, that our communication behavior stands in a light not of its own making (ibid., p. 133).

Media and Church Authority

The relationship between religion and the mass media also was stressed by sociologist Wade Clark Roof, who has remarked on how the media have become not only a source of information about religion but even a source of religious authority.

He goes on to cite the "leveling effect" of television programming, in which there is a "softening of religious rhetoric and of truth claims." This functions to make the programming more acceptable to the wider audience--Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others--which the medium is ineluctably, and seemingly by its very nature, driven to seek. "Old dichotomies like private/public and holy/unholy fade. Belief in Hell, the wrath of God, and sin are de-emphasized; even 'religion' itself is often played down as a humanly created thing in favor of 'spirituality,' or a God-thing, as a frame of reference" (Roof 1999: 68). In a note supporting that statement, Roof quotes the remarks of two stars of the popular American television show, Touched by an Angel, denying that it is a religious show but insisting that it is "spiritual" (ibid., 68, and 331, note 38). Fantasy programs use symbols
 ... to evoke strong sentiments of a religious
 or quasi-religious kind ... [that] reinforce a
 cultural conception of an expansive
 self ... sustained through one after another
 experience in what amounts to a seemingly
 unending search for moments of
 transcendence. In this respect the media
 create "spiritual omnivores," that is, people
 hungry for new experiences and insights
 with the hope that some encounter or a
 revelation lying just ahead will bring greater
 meaning to them. (Roof 1999: 69)

Roof goes on to describe how the new, omnipresent purveyors of stories threaten to replace the storytellers of the past as primary sources of our dominant metaphors:
 Television and film ... assume some of the
 functions traditionally assigned to religious
 myth and ritual. They are the cultural
 storytellers of modern society formulating
 narratives of good and evil, of hope and
 promise, at times reinforcing, at times
 redefining the operative religious worlds in
 which people live. (Roof 1999: 70-71)

Religion, Myth and Storytelling

Robert White, in a Trends issue (White 1987), reviewed research on the role of television in creating the mythology of modern cultures. "Myth" is not a pejorative word, but a description of any story told through the use of "extended metaphor," without reference to its truth or falsity. Thus, both religious and scientific explanations may qualify as myths, even if they are true. White distinguishes between "national myths" and "cosmic myth," but emphasizes their common denominators:
 If national myths are concerned largely with
 national histories, cosmic myths are
 histories of the world which incorporate all
 known reality. The myth of universal
 evolution with its dreams of continual
 progress in every dimension of life is a
 cosmic myth. Religious philosophers merge
 a Christian or Muslim theological history of
 salvation' with theories of universal
 evolution to form an even broader mythic
 history. (White 1987:2, citing Kirk 1971:

Roger Silverstone (1981) and other media researchers, according to White, would "agree that one of the major functions of television is to gather up day by day the strange and unfamiliar and translate this into the audience's mode of perceiving the world." In other words, television performs
 ... a myth-making activity [that] serves as a
 point of integration for three horizons of
 culture: 1) common-sense, everyday knowledge
 which virtually everybody in a society
 shares and must have to cope with the daily
 problems of life; 2) specialized knowledge
 which may be familiar to groups of experts
 and professionals but is esoteric to people
 outside these groups, and 3) that area of
 experience which is so far beyond the limits
 of cultural acceptability that it is typed as
 untrue, irrational and nonsensical. (White
 1987: 2-3, citing Silverstone 1981)

White sees Horace Newcomb and Robert Alley as agreeing with anthropologist Victor Turner's concept of the "limmoid" when they show that "TV is a fictional world or a highly selective, constructed presentation of documentary and news that distances us from real life but also offers a running commentary and discussion of that life." While experiencing TV, we relax our expectations of rationality, enter other possible worlds of meaning, and then return to our 'real' world with somewhat changed perspectives on reality, a process that fits Turner's explanation of the "liminoid" character of theater (White 1987: 6, citing Newcomb and Alley 1983 and Turner 1982)

In the context of this intensive myth-making activity of the mass media, Wade Clark Roof feels that when religion is dealt with by television it "is subject to a considerable recasting," which, among other changes, tends towards instrumentality, making religion a tool to serve the perceived needs of individuals, and commodification, in which it becomes something to be sold (Roof 1999: 70-71). Whether what television is doing in this area is "religion" or "spirituality," it nevertheless must present it under a saleable aspect, palatable to the widest possible audience.

Religion, Ideology and Values

The rapid globalization of communication and most other features of life in recent years has encouraged increased attention to international communication, including the relationship of media and religion across national boundaries and in all parts of the world. Unfortunately the involvement of religion, or at least of religious symbols and slogans, in ethnic and nationalistic clashes has given it a negative image in much news reporting. Mark Silk, in the introduction to his edited collection of papers about how religion is treated in various media contexts around the world, insists that religion also has positive political roles to play in many places, especially in the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Communism and "in the context of a declining reliance on the power of secular governments to galvanize societies and solve social problems ..." (Silk 2000:1). The resulting perception that religion is now a rising force in the world, rather than it succumbing to the evolutionary inevitability of an all-encompassing secularization as some earlier social theorists would have claimed, has attracted special attention to it from the news media.

Religion probes the deepest recesses of the human spirit, appealing to values that are so deeply integrated in the cultures of traditional societies that to challenge them is to challenge the basis of culture and the reasons for living. Consequently, any challenge to a traditional religion--whether by another religion or by a secular movement--rouses understandable resentment, which can easily lead to violence, even to violence that violates that religion's principles as they are articulated at a more rational level. Examples are so numerous around the world that there is no point in citing any. The mass media, reflecting the values of modernization, on the one hand, and nationalism or ethnocentrism, on the other, are often caught in the middle; although their dilemma usually is resolved in favor of the ideology of the media's owners--whether government or private--who are the only ones who really enjoy "freedom of the press," when that freedom exists at all.

A wide range of attitudes towards religion across a sampling of international media can therefore result, including anti-religious secularisms on the one extreme and theocratic absolutisms on the other. Even media that attempt to avoid "taking sides" on religious questions in a state with an official religion tend to assume the position that "religiousness is an empty symbol rather than a compelling commitment," as N. J. Demerath III describes the political position of religion in "Lutheran" Sweden (in Silk 2000: 6). Other countries may be essentially theocracies, in which the religion is so deeply integrated into the culture's roots that no questioning of it can be tolerated.

Demerath also perceives a third variant on the combination of a religious state with secular politics which "involves states that carefully construct their own religion to frustrate the political mobilization of a genuine religious alternative," such the pancasila movement in Indonesia under President Suharto, which was intended to bind syncretistically the loyalties of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and animists--as well as the 85 percent of the population who are formally Muslims" (ibid.).

The same author also sees a different arrangement that, in theory at least, characterizes two of the largest and most religious countries, India and the United States. In them, the state is secular but respects religion and, at least constitutionally, is required to treat all religions equally. Some Indian religious groups have been dissatisfied with this arrangement, seeing it as a choice of secularism, rather than a more neutral secularity, and to them it thereby "seems like a reproach to every religion" (in Silk 2000: 13).

As far as foreign media reporting on India is concerned, "covering India is a bit like covering all humanity." The average reporter's or editor's grasp of the complexities of Indian religions is almost certain to be sketchy. The sensational and violent items are picked up, whereas normal, everyday lives and relationships are not news."
 ... even reasonably complete reporting of
 developments in Indian religion is
 unrealistic in a country where religion and
 caste considerations seem to pervade
 everything from dramas of personal life to
 tensions of electoral politics and foreign
 policy. To be fair, the Indian press does
 even worse in covering the U.S. (ibid., p.

Such lack of understanding of the religious situation in an unfamiliar culture is not surprising when one realizes the difficulty the media experience in sorting out the various religious threads of their own cultures. Full-time specialists are needed to deal adequately with religious reporting. As Stewart Hoover has pointed out, journalistic professional values, truly adhered to by journalists might play a significant role in improving fairness in their coverage of religion (Hoover, et al., 1994: 35). But fairness is still no full substitute for knowledge. In the early 1990s, only 67 U.S. newspapers were reported to have had full-time religion writers (Hoover, et al., 1994: 21). Although the same researchers perceived some improvement taking place, the complexity and importance of both domestic and international religious news requires a more serious and wide-ranging effort to cover it well.

Notes to Chapter VII: "Religion"

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W. E. Biernatzki, SJ

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Title Annotation:Twenty Years of Trends in Communication Research
Author:Biernatzki, W.E.
Publication:Communication Research Trends
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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