The impact of the media in shaping cultural and religious views
What are minorities in our media and why do we still witness so much hate speech and cyberbullying towards them? Why are some groups represented less than others? Why, as in the real world, are certain cultures perceived as extremist on social media? Why are there so many cultural and religious stereotypes?
Cultural references determine our identity and the ways in which we construct reality; they affect our perception of self, the way we encounter others and the way we interact with the world. The media greatly influences not only what we think, but also how we act. Increased interaction among people, the free flow of information and cultural interdependence are also consequences of our globalising world. Communicating across cultural differences is a central challenge of the contemporary world. The media, then, has a true ‘mediating’ role to play in encouraging global awareness (UNESCO).
While discussing the role of media and information literacy in relation to cultures and religions, it is necessary to think about the representation of different groups in media, migration and its outcomes as well as dialogue.
The BBC defines representation as “how media texts deal with and present gender, age, ethnicity, national and regional identity, social issues and events to an audience”. What we know about these topics is largely shaped and influenced by the media texts we consume. In the BBC bitesize guide on representation, we find several key terms we should be familiar with in order to be able to analyse media texts to determine how they have represented ideas and issues.
Key terms in representation (BBC):
- Construction: This is the way a media text is put together. In a film or television programme, this includes the editing and choice of camera angles; in a magazine or newspaper, this includes the layout and writing as well as the choice of images.
- Mediation: This is the process everything goes through before it reaches an audience. This can be how a film script is written and rewritten before it makes it to production, how newspaper or magazine photographs are cropped and captioned or how real-life events – like a protest or a speech by a politician – are portrayed in a news report.
- Selection: This refers to what has been selected to be included in a media text. This can be particularly important in newspaper articles, where selecting certain facts over others can change the angle of a story; what is omitted is sometimes as important as what is included.
- Anchorage: These are the words that go along with images to give those pictures a certain meaning in a specific context. This includes captions and headlines in newspapers and taglines in adverts or on film posters.
- Stereotypes: These are simplified representations of a person, groups of people or a place, through basic or obvious characteristics, which are often exaggerated. They can be used to describe characters quickly, relying on existing audience recognition. Stereotypes are dangerous as they can lead audiences to make generalisations about people or places.
- Ideology: These are ideas and beliefs held by media producers, which are often represented in their media texts. In a newspaper, the ideology of the owner or senior editors could influence the way certain stories are represented, such as lending support to a particular political party. In a documentary about asylum seekers, the representation of their story could be influenced by the ideology of the filmmaker or producer.
Representations in media are constructed through camera shots and angles that can make someone seem more or less powerful; editing (for example, choosing how much screen time is given to each character); audio codes, which can make something sound worrying or suspicious; visual codes or ‘iconography’ (the visual images or symbols that appear in a scene). For example, iconography can have a big impact on the representation of femininity – a character carrying a briefcase and wearing a smart suit creates a very different representation of femininity than a character carrying a changing bag and pushing a buggy (BBC).
Representation is crucial when it comes to gender, age, and ethnic, national and regional identity. Minority groups, for example, black or Latino racial groups, LGBTQ people and refugees are also largely influenced by the way the media represents them. “Audiences substitute stereotypes they see on screen for reality when they have not had any direct interactions with particular racial groups. For instance, Latino stereotypes in the media can lead audiences negatively to associate immigration with increased unemployment and crime. In addition to aggravating racial tensions, the erasure and negative portrayals of people of colour can adversely affect how people of colour see themselves. Prolonged television exposure predicts a decrease in self-esteem for all girls and for black boys, and an increase in self-esteem for white boys.” (Forbes).
Migrants and Refugees in media
3.6% of the global population, or almost 272 million people in our world, are international migrants (World Migration Report, 2020). This percentage may not seem high; however, it is reported that over the past two years the world has witnessed historic change in the global level of migrants caused by major migration and displacement events – events that have caused great hardship and trauma as well as loss of life.
The article entitled How the refugee crisis is changing the world economy by Huffington Post, is an interactive investigative report into the shady economics of the migrant and refugee crisis in four countries: Niger, Italy, Turkey and Germany, and is a great example of digital storytelling and bucks the trend by actually involving the personal stories of refugees affected by the crisis.
Pushed out from their homelands by political conflict and wars, migrants form minority communities or social groups in their new countries of residence that often face oppression in the form of hate speech, blaming them for their nations’ struggles. “History has shown that rhetorical excess and unbalanced or biased historical accounts of certain events in relation to any ethnic group, place, culture or religion can give rise to a climate of prejudice, discrimination and violence.” (UNESCO.) Such climate, in turn, often compromises individual human rights to cultural and religious expression, security and peace, freedom of expression, education, information and other. In such situations, people lose the opportunity to socialise and participate in environments such as technological platforms and media. Additionally, extremist and violent organisations use the media to radicalise and recruit young minds. In this situation, the relevance of media and information literacy in formal, non-formal and informal settings becomes more urgent to enable citizens to challenge their own beliefs effectively and critically engage in these topics (UNESCO).
Tackling interreligious encounters in today’s society is no easy task for the media. On one hand, religious phenomena must be understood and interpreted by taking into consideration the socio-cultural context in which they occur, which is increasingly complex due to their diversity. In intercultural meetings, the question of religion tends to be a source of conflict. On the other hand, mass media, when it comes to producing such content, should consider that we are living in a global and hyper-connected world, where people and messages circulate on a global scale, and that there are intercultural encounters that would have been unimaginable not so long ago. As a result, the media not only has to provide an account of the reality of their immediate and increasingly complex environment, but also to find ways to narrate the interactions and interconnections that occur in this global environment. It is no longer enough to look at the outside world as something exotic (Huertas Bailén, 2020).
If your organisation works with issues related to religion, you can check out the ‘Using Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) to Strengthen Peace, Reconciliation and Social Cohesion’ 8 WEEK ONLINE COURSE SYLLABUS (KAICIID Dialogue Centre).
The role of Media and Information Literacy (MIL)
Intercultural, interreligious and interracial conflicts are one of the many phenomena that today are largely mediated by social media, technology and the Internet. It is important that when we encounter any of these phenomena through media, we are able to make sense of them and critically assess what new dimensions media and technology bring to our experience, for example, how subjective meanings become social facts or what opportunities & risks are out there for us. With MIL, we gain a better understanding of how knowledge is created and thus connect better across cultures and often see for ourselves how cultural and other stereotypes do not hold true. Therefore, it is important for youth organisations and youth workers to actively work on these topics with young people and include these topics in a variety of activities.
Why do we need dialogue?
Intercultural dialogue promotes and helps maintain peace, which is “more than the absence of war, it is living together with our differences – of sex, race, language, religion or culture – while furthering universal respect for justice and human rights on which such coexistence depends.” (UNESCO.) Dialogue in this context is about our active participation and the choices we make to engage with other individuals offline and online.
KAICIID’s Dialogue for Peace (DfP) programme, jointly developed with the World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM), aims to provide participants with the tools needed to meaningfully participate in building a culture of dialogue, contribute to reconciliation efforts and dispel stereotypes within their societies and beyond. You can learn more about their inspiring five-year collaboration here.
Case: The Network for Dialogue was initiated in 2018 by the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) in order to bring together faith and civil society actors from around Europe to promote the use of dialogue and develop more effective recommendations for social inclusion policies for migrants and refugees in Europe. The following booklet includes 11 promising practices of Network for Dialogue members from seven European countries. Each case study was selected because it involves interreligious or intercultural dialogue as one of the potential approaches for better social inclusion of migrants and refugees in Europe. Situating each promising practice in a particular local context, our Network members shared their case studies, including the main challenges and recommendations.
If you are looking for resources on integration for migrants, you can check out the PROJECT INTEGRATION THROUGH DIALOGUE TOOLKIT – a 13-module interactive dialogue course by KAICIID that introduces participants to topics such as health services, opportunities for further education and their new legal rights framework as well as art and culture. Although the sessions are focused on familiarising participants with integration in Austria, the lessons and techniques are easily adaptable for universal use in organisations and government programmes across the globe. The Toolkit consists of a Handbook as well as two supplements: Activity Materials and Sample Information Handouts, which are free to download in both English and German.
If you are looking for cases and resources on immigration in media, you can check out My Story Project – a project funded by the European Commission Europe for Citizens Programme that assists journalists and organisations working with migrants and refugees in Europe in making better use of media, so as to contribute to an alternative to mainstream media bias and pass on these skills to the migrants and refugees they are working with so that they can tell their own stories. The project produced a series of events and a collection of audio-visual materials that can be used in youth work.
A good example of a case projects is #MyStory: Imprint Media Messages – The Migration Crisis and Agenda Setting Documentary, directed by Laszlo Hartai from the Hungarian Moving Image and Media Education Association, which explores the effect negative media representations of migrants and refugees has on the perceptions of Hungarian citizens and how these perceptions have been exploited by those in power.
A Dos & Don’ts Guide for refugees to tell their stories and for journalists to report them better is a short and helpful resource for those who create media content about refugees and migrants. It also gives specific advice for organisations that work with these groups.
Get young people involved in PLURAL+ video festival – a joint initiative between the UN Alliance of Civilizations and the International Organization for Migration. The festival encourages young people to create original videos addressing key challenges and opportunities related to social inclusion and cohesion, migrant integration, respect for identity, diversity, human rights and xenophobia.