Speakers evaluated the portrayal of religion in the media and how this has shaped the public’s view on different denominations at the final panel event in the “Race, Faith, and Violence” series Tuesday evening at the University Club.
The semester-long series of speaker events was hosted by the USC Caruso Catholic Center in partnership with the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, and featured visiting scholars Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a Regenstein professor in medieval Judaism as well as a member of the School of Religion faculty; Amir Hussain, a professor who teaches courses on Islam and world religions at Loyola Marymount University; and Pim Valkenberg, a professor of religion and culture at the Catholic University of America.
Tuesday’s event, “Perception and Reality: Religion in the 21st Century,” focused on the three major global religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Hussain explained that “legacy media,” which includes traditional outlets such as newspapers, radio and TV stations, will find an “enemy” for America to see. Hussain said that right now, this group is the Muslim community, but that negative news reporting against Muslims is not a unique occurrence, as it has happened all throughout history.
“It’s melodrama, and melodrama means good guys and bad guys,” Hussain said.
Diane Winston, an associate professor of media and religion at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said that there is little interest in concepts like balance and democracy because media focuses on what gets the most attention. Moderate people, she said, are just as religious as extremists, but it is the extremists who are being reported by the media.
“Most of the time when ‘legacy media’ reports on religion, it’s in the terms of conflict,” Winston said. “If it’s not sensational and scandalous, then it’s about how people are opposing each other.”
Firestone added that people’s perceptions of media outlets are shaped by their coverage of religion as well. He talked about how, when he speaks to his Israeli friends about The New York Times, they believe the newspaper to be very pro-Palestinian. However, when he speaks to his Palestinian friends, they believe The New York Times to be a very pro-Israeli establishment.
“The media is certainly distorting, whether it’s intending to or not, our vision of religious communities,” Firestone said. “In the minds of people, what we see and read we interpret in ways that we are all programmed to interpret. It has meaning to us, and that affects the way we look at the world around us, and it’s hard to transcend this.”
Valkenberg added that the idea of perception and reality is a bit more complicated, because every take on reality is situational. This plays into the idea that because the American society has a secular overlay, there is a price for a lack of religious literacy from reporting staffs within news outlets. Their perceptions of different religious communities are not necessarily the same realities that the religious communities live in.