Question Time – The Media: Religion’s friend or foe?

By Laura Knight, Director of the IPSCJ

The influence and role of the media in shaping our views and perceptions is a topic that has achieved plenty of attention in recent years, especially given the volume with which we now consume information from a number of different sources and platforms.

More than ever, with the number of different self-publishing options available for people to broadcast their opinions or views, there is a responsibility for the mainstream media to be accurate and factual in order to retain credibility, and also to cut through the noise of the plethora of modern day media channels.

The topics of reliability, credibility and accuracy featured heavily in the debate – The Media: Religion’s friend or foe? Hosted by Northampton Inter Faith Forum – that I was invited to chair recently.

As anticipated, the stance taken by mass media regarding conflict in the Middle East, international extremism and terrorism and the Syrian refugee crisis, were strongly criticised for their negative impact on perceptions of the Islamic faith and Muslim people. Inaccurate and lazy reporting coupled with ignorance and prejudice were considered to be key ingredients in the negative bias afforded to any story where Muslim identities can be found.

The impact of such reporting on breeding prejudice and hostility in communities is well documented in academic study and was passionately talked about by members. Faith-hate crime and victimisation are daily experiences for some and media reporting of the activities of terrorists presenting themselves as Muslims exacerbates these experiences and deepens the divides in our communities.

Gender inequality, sexuality, female genital mutilation and child sexual exploitation and abuse are other prominent news items which often use the likely religious identity of perpetrators to increase the impact of the message. The vehemence against the use of religion as moral reasoning for these acts was palpable in the room.

But are our media colleagues simply doing their job? Arguments were made for the media too; we use news apps, we watch news programmes, we buy newspapers – our behaviours drive this industry. Readership and viewing figures rise when there is something shocking or horrific that we can have an opinion about.

So to fix these representation issues, do we try to stamp out the consumerism for prejudice and sensational stories, or do we try to stamp out the capitalism of the industry? The media could do more to report on positive stories related to the social action aid provided by faith communities, but do the public want to know about this? Do the viewing figures tell us of a desire for these type of stories? And do people really want to pay for this content?

Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the views of anyone representing the media. Despite invitations directly to the Editor, Crime Reporter and News Editor of the Northampton Chronicle and Echo, the Editor and two news reporters from the Northampton Herald and Post and agreement from a local BBC radio presenter to join us, they all failed to show.

Ironically, it seems this debate is not newsworthy.