Wednesday, September 22, 2010

When Evangelism meets Immigration in the Newsroom

While the Danish cartoon controversy spurred on by the Jyllands-Posten was an instance of a mass medium wielding their freedom of speech at the risk of offending other religious faiths, the Salt Lake city-based paper The Deseret News is creating its own waves of controversy because it is using its freedom of speech to promote a particular faith. The paper's editorial board has been taking a beating for its liberal stance on illegal immigration, something contrary to the conservative nature of Utah's policies. As explained in a New York Times article, the publication is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which views Hispanic immigrants as "a vast potential constituency." While the LDS church does not directly review what The Deseret News prints, and despite the fact that a variety of faiths are represented in the news room, editor Joseph A. Cannon views the newspaper as a positive outlet for promoting the Mormon values of family and neighborly love to the Hispanic population. For others, perhaps it is doing so too aggressively, and to the detriment of journalistic standards of objectivism.

In a blog entry for The Tucson Citizen, David Safier explains that such "anti-immigration...hysteria is being ginned up for political purposes," but that in reality, the issue is much more complex. Not only does The Deseret's coverage of the issue lack objectivity, it also simplifies a much larger issue to conform with the LDS church's concern over saved souls versus the unsaved, the accepted versus the rejected.

This is not the first time a religious group has openly admitted to using the mass media for their own agenda. As Paul Soukup, S.J. details in his essay "Vatican Opinion on Modern Communication" (from Quoting God), the Catholic Church has heartily embraced the use of mass communication to further the faith formation of its laity, including to "[build] up the human community," much as The Deseret News is attempting to do by welcoming Hispanic immigrants. However, there is a distinction between the Catholic Church's Archbishop Fulton Sheen and the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), which openly use knowledgeable clergy to broadcast religious messages, and the Salt Lake City newspaper, which is known as a mainstream paper despite the LDS church's ownership.

While it may be a good idea to have a publically Mormon journalist on staff discussing the openness of the LDS church to immigrants, regardless of their legality (much like American newspapers have designated Muslim journalists to cover topics of more sensitive religious nature), it meddles too much with journalism's proclaimed standards of fairness and objectivity for such a publication to slyly promote their own spiritual cause. Especially since, as the Times explains, several Latino Mormons have left the church over The Deseret Times' aggressiveness. Overall, this issue raises important questions about what is an acceptable (and effective) use of mass media by traditional religious groups.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

9/11 Media Terror Tactics and the "Victory Mosque" Controversy

With the ninth anniversary of the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks approaching this Saturday, the ongoing controversy over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero is creating more apprehension among Americans and has unleashed a new bout of anti-Muslim uproar. A recent article from the New York Times relates growing concern among Muslim Americans who feel exceptionally discriminated against, and rightfully so, considering a slew of recent vandalism acts against mosques across the U.S. Imam Abdullah T. Antepli, a Muslim chaplain at Duke University who was quoted in the piece, compared the current situation to “what German media was saying about Jews in the 1920s and 1930s.” Certainly broadcast television news, which is best at efficiently relaying brief, to-the-point news, fails to capture the intricate nuances of Islam—and thus distinguish the distinct differences between the radical group of terrorists and the vast majority of Muslims—while simultaneously providing a sense of immediacy and immense fear to distantly located Americans. As Douglas Kellner explains in his article “9/11, Spectacles of Terror, and Media Manipulation,” the September 11 attacks were some of the most heavily televised events in the history of the medium, creating an intensely personal “’you are there’ drama.”

In addition to vivid images of a smoke-filled NYC sky, the “we vs. them” rhetoric heavily used by former President George W. Bush during his television appearances created a clear idea of Americans as the unquestionably good force and the ambiguous “Other” (presumably, all Muslims, although this is certainly not the case) as the evil force to conquer. As Kellner explains, “such discourse legitimates any action undertaken in the name of good, no matter how desctructive, on the grounds that it is attacking evil.” Bush, as C. Welton Gaddy recounts in “God Talk in the Public Square” (from Quoting God), further defined “we vs. them” as “Christians vs. Muslims,” by comparing the U.S.’s retaliation to the terrorist attacks as a crusade against terrorism. Ultimately, such repeated usage of strongly divisive rhetoric, when broadcast to millions of citizens, “suggests that people who hold a different theological point of view do not matter to him as much as those who share his particular religious point of view.” This, in turn, only further legitimizes the hate crimes and harsh words spoken against the American Muslim population as a whole by other Christians, such as Internet evangelist Bill Keller’s proposal to construct a Christian center near what he calls “the victory mosque” as a means to counteract “the lies of Islam” with “the truth of the Gospel.”

In light of the recent debate over the mosque, it has become clear that television media must especially monitor the ways in which it presents major world religions. While it is difficult to ensure an audience interprets and comprehends given information correctly, the first step to amend misunderstandings is to cautiously examine the rhetoric and tone created by media coverage of a particular subject. However, American mainstream journalists are not entirely to blame. At least according to Tarek A. Ghanem of, Muslims could have done a better part of referencing terror as “an internal problem within the media—with the long history of its social, political, economic, intellectual, theological and historical contexts,” rather than simply distancing themselves as a people away from terrorism. It can be concluded that is the responsibility of both the producers and consumers of mass media to evaluate (and perhaps even more importantly, to voice criticisms of) its accuracy and fairness, particularly in regard to delicate topics such as religion.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Blogging for Extra Credit

Blogging is one of the ways you can earn extra credit in COMM 480. Posts must be relevant to the topics being covered in a specific week or unit and should be at least 200 words in length. They should also reference class readings and/or offer thoughtful reflections on news stories or popular culture examples of the intersection between media, religion and culture. Below is an example...

In the last 2 months there has been much debate within the news and online media regarding Obama's views about religion and personal faith. Recent polls conducted by the Pew foundation found many American believe Obama is a Muslim or are at least quite unclear about his religious background.  This claim  can be traced back to reports circulated on the Internet by pundits during the 20072008 election campaigns which were was revived  this summer surrounding discussion of the "ground zero community center/mosque". and Obama's support of these efforts. The Washington Post in a recent article The ignorance factor: Obama, religion and the media  posed an interesting question, "How have journalists failed to adequately communicate that the president is a Christian? Or does it no longer matter what we report if people choose to believe something with no basis in fact?" According to discussion in various news sources it seems both a case of the news media not doing an adequate job of verifying their sources and not clearly communicating the complexity of some of the public debates on these issues, as well as a public inundated with information from news and online sources being unable to discern Internet fact from fiction. This raises important questions of how the media construct reality and shape our understanding of what is truth.  It also highlights the need for critical literacy of the new media world, where personal blog and independent web sites are often viewed by the public as reliable news sources (though not subject to the same journalistic standards a news outlet would be).