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Prospects of Media in fostering Inter Religious Dialogue

Prospects of Media in fostering Inter Religious Dialogue


Introduction

Science and Technology has changed the lives of people in many ways. The world continues to become smaller as physical distances continue to diminish through the achievements of modern technology and secular culture. But at the same time, Samartha (1969), claims that there has also been a rise in the suspicion and distrust between religions. Similarly, the memories of fanaticism, intolerance and persecution built up during centuries cannot be erased by arranging a few conversations between individuals of different religions most of whom are academicians. There is a need to spread the ideas of peace and tolerance far and wide so that it can reach the very grass roots of society. It is in this regard that the proponents of inter-religious dialogue can turn to media to disseminate the message of change, peace and toleration.

Media occupies an important place in the lives of the people. The public tends to turn to media for insights regarding vital issues that affect their lives. In a way, media in the world today are not only providing information, but are shaping the way people perceive issues. Similarly, it is quite apparent that the media has the ability to influence how people perceive issues and respond to them. Coleman (2010), states that as religion involves uses of media technology with their material and formal dimensions, there is a need to understand the issue of religious diversity and difference from the viewpoint of media practices. This would involve print and digital which includes mass reproduction of images, sound reproduction and audio-visual media as well as the field of contemporary digital media. This paper will attempt to highlight several salient features of mass media and its contribution towards fostering an atmosphere of peace and harmony. The paper will also emphasize the fact that social media is replacing traditional forms of media and can be used effectively to promote inter-religious dialogue. Similarly, the necessity of content analysis to prevent misinformation disrupting the work of inter religious dialogue will also be highlighted. The paper concludes by shedding light on a few useful traditions of communication theory that can help the cause of inter-religious dialogue by focusing on adequate communication strategies.


1. Present Scenario of Inter-Religious Dialogue

Morgan (2005), claims that there has been tremendous interest in most parts of the world with regards to inter-religious dialogue. The enquiries and outcomes of such meetings as well as the press coverage of inter-religious dialogue by religious magazines as well as secular news media indicate a level of enthusiasm and seriousness to promote peace and harmony among religions in the world. At the same time, Saipera (2010), indicates that the task of nation building and social prominence is something that is gaining momentum especially among the younger generation. Inter-religious dialogues can help in this task by challenging people of different religions to bring in various perspectives of their faiths to solve some of the pressing issues in the world.

1.1 Religious Diversity in Today’s World

Campbell (2010), recognises that visible forms of religious activism in the contemporary world rely on techniques of mobilization which is common to the modern public spheres. This is turn brings into perspective the relation between religious diversity and media. Meyer (2006), suggests that in order to approach religious traditions as institutionalized forms of interaction with the religious otherworld, there is a need to analyse the different media technologies and the embedded understandings of what media are and do. Hence one needs to construct a connection between religious practice and uses of media technology with regards to promoting inter-religious dialogue.

Media in its various forms produce information about religion and its various teachings and ethical guidelines. This in a way tends to help individuals with or without religious membership to transcend geographical boundaries and facilitate learning about different religious traditions and their activities. Mass media plays an important role in revealing, conveying and reproducing ideas and views about religion in modern times. With dissemination of knowledge on a large scale and the accessibility of such sources due to the advancement in media technology, it thus becomes possible for any individual with access to the internet to learn more about other religions.

1.2. A Dialogue among Living Faiths

Samartha (1969), indicates that inter-religious dialogue goes beyond religion and is basically between people of living faiths. It is only in the context of personal relationships that dialogues can most profitably be carried out. Dialogue involves larger relationships of living together and working together. Though careful theological discussion of religious concepts play an important role in inter-religious dialogues, access to forms of knowledge of religious traditions is required for informed understanding, critical appreciations and balanced judgement. It is here that mass media and its various forms play an important role in the dissemination of adequate knowledge of religions and their traditions. Hjavard (2008), indicates that since religion and media may appear at times to be inseparable, it could lead one to assert that media with its formats and institutions shape religion to an extent that religion is increasingly subsumed under the logic of media. Hence there is a need to analyse how media can truly help in fostering inter-religious dialogue.

2. Media as an Aid to Inter-Religious Dialogue

Media in its various forms has played an important role in disseminating ideas about religions. Schroeder (2018), argues that media and digital media are an autonomous subsystem, thus forming a transmission belt between citizens and religious experts in the world. Media encompass both information and communication. Kang (2004), insists that contemporary mass media consists of communicative processes that operate according to their own logic. Media can thus greatly contribute in fostering peace and harmony among various religions by providing individuals the freedom of choice as well as helping them to clear certain misunderstandings that may have been spread. The model of media regulation thus needs to be considered from the viewpoint of rights of expression and media freedom.

2.1. Media offers Freedom of Choice

Freedom of choice is provided to individuals and they are assured that they are free to choose which broadcast best represents their interest. Since they are an integral part of the modern society, media actors and organizations can also be influenced by changes in the social environment. Similarly, Krizay (2011), insists that the media appears to also exacerbate ethnic relations, intercultural relations and conflict resolution in situations where harmony between people of various religions appear to be hampered due to misinformation. Marshall (1992), insists that the relationship between the right of expression and media freedom is complex. Freedom of expression is important for a person to attain self-fulfillment. It is only when a person is assured of his freedom of expression, can he or she freely express the views of their respective religion. When this happens, it will help foster inter-religious dialogue. Similarly, minimalist government regulation will allow for a robust debate between people from different faiths and ultimately lead to the truth. This is important as the majority cannot participate in inter-religious dialogue if they are not informed about matters pertaining to religious truth and beliefs.

Rowbottom (2006), indicates that only a limited number of people can air their views on television or write their own newspaper columns. This creates a kind of a barrier between the audience and the religious leaders and experts. But at the same time there is also a need to have some recognition in a democratic society to protect self-interested viewpoints from generating negative ideas. However, given the advancements in technology today, we see that the people are increasingly turning to alternative media for more reliable, unfiltered and unbiased information. Access to media has also led to people sharing their testimonies and religious experiences on a large scale. The freedom that media provides has also led like-minded individuals united by the common cause of promoting religious harmony to hold philosophical debates on religious views, thus fostering respect and awareness for other religions. Media has the ability to frame issues in a way that influences individuals and religious leaders and experts to respond to the issues.

2.2. Media as mechanism of regeneration

Luhmann (1996/2000), claims that mass media fulfils the function of providing information and dialogue for society at large. Various forms of information in forms of texts and images are produced and reproduced in processes of the functional operation of mass media. The operation of the system of mass media requires the distinction to be made between mass media and their environment. Krizay (2011), states that mass media are oriented to the distinction between self-reference and other- reference. Luhmann (1996/2000), argues that the difference between mass media and the environment is secured by means of a binary code of information and non-information. Information is the positive value with which the system describes the possibilities of its own operating. However, to have the freedom of seeing something as information or not, would require the possibility of thinking that something is non informative.

In order to distinguish data into information and non-information, programmes are required to divide this data into different fields of selection, such as sports, politics and modern art. Luhmann (1996/2000) claims that the three strands of mass media namely news, advertising and entertainment employ the information/non information code. They however differ from each other in that they use divergent criteria that underpin the selection of information. Appadurai (1996), claims that texts and images circulated through media create meanings of religion in society. In today’s world, these collection of images and narratives play a key role to people constructing their own understandings of other religions. Hoover (1998), asserts that the manner in which mass media such as television documentaries and timely reports of the journalists on specific religious organizations or events, have a powerful influence over the configuration of social cognizance about the position, function and role in society. Thompson (1995), adds that these mediated meanings can be thus be formulated and reformulated through processes of intention, resistance and compromise. As media assumes a strategic position among different social sectors, Hoover (1998), argues that the identity of media workers and the content of mediated discourses play an important role in the manner in which they impact how media professionals select, frame and produce meanings about religion.

3. Participating through the Internet

Jones & Fox (2009), describe social media as the participative internet which encompasses a broad set of the internet – based communication tools and aids. Social media offer easy, cost-effective access to people in various parts of the world. Apart from this, social media also provides the platform for collaborative content development, blogs and two-way mobile messaging platforms that connect people through smartphones and other personal digital assistants. Social media provides a channel for social support and facilitates a sense of connectedness among individuals. This would allow users to share information that is consumer-centric and consumer controlled, enabling anonymity or personal connection as preferred.

3.1. Many to Many Connections

The growth of social media sites is ongoing. Schroeder (2018), argues that these sites have become an integral part of the lives of the younger generation. This implies that social media is not just a communication tool; it is also a connection tool. It enables the formation of interest group and solidarity in ways that do not conform to existing social groups or geographic locations. Spyer (2017), asserts that with the advent of social media, everyone is a publisher and everyone is a critic. This has led to a massive and revolutionary democratisation of information. This has enabled individuals to communicate their own interpretations of events and texts, rather than relying on the accounts of religious and political leaders. This has led to proliferation of information which has in turn led to shaping religious identity. The pandemic has magnified the way in which social media has been used to propagate religious beliefs and facts. Hence, religious activists and intellectuals from all faiths are taking to various forms of social media in varying degrees to communicate their own interpretation of faith.

Zeitzoff (2017), states that while a few decades ago, the religious leaders and editorials in religious sections of their local newspaper, influenced the judgements of the people in religious matters, today online blogs are a far greater influence. Social media also offer an opportunity to express personal spiritual beliefs and practices. This in turn reinforces the move to a democratisation of religious expression and demonstrates the challenge of social media to traditional authority. Spyer (2017), suggests that more experienced and older faith leaders believe that the impersonal nature of online communication significantly limits the potential for substantive dialogue, stressing the importance of being able to physically see and hear the other in an offline context. At the same time, there are younger and less experienced interfaith leaders who tend to view new social media more positively as a tool for initiating, building and maintaining positive dialogue.

3.2. Fostering Dialogue

Social media is tool that can be used to organise and promote meetings, demonstrations, create channels to bypass traditional state control of the media, so that the outside world can see what is going on. Zeitzoff (2017), states that social media has enabled people to break state censorship and intrinsically has the infrastructure to disseminate information far, fast and wide. Social media transcends borders and doctrines. Social media enables ordinary people to express themselves and share their understandings of their respective religious beliefs. Spyer (2017), suggests that the greatest sense of empowerment has come through the ability to use the internet as a location for doing what might not otherwise be done in reality. This would include to assemble to discuss ideas, concerns and complaints, and to share frustrations, while also providing the social networking opportunity to unite, strategize and plan for change. One realizes that in cyberspace, the social restrictions that exist in reality such as gender segregation disappear and thus provides groups of people who might otherwise never meet and converse, the opportunity to connect and recognise what they share in common.

Efficient use of social media in the positive sense can be used to garner change and promote an environment of peace and harmony. This is possible today as information technology now is used by a variety of people and as such, no one has monopoly over how it is used or for what purpose. Zeitzoff (2017), asserts that in today’s world there are a variety of voices that are instrumental in shaping the image of a religion or a society, thus helping to clear some of the long-held stereotypes. For example, in the United States, there are a number of Muslim websites that have been launched to confront harmful anti-Muslim stereotypes that have emerged since 9/11. The Muslims in America are using social media to help others understand their faith and to promote a positive image of Islam. Similarly, the other religions can use social media to respond to the ignorant and negative stereotypes. Morgan (2005), states that a lack of knowledge provides a seedbed for prejudice, demonstrated by increasing antisemitism both outside and inside communities. Social media will continue to evolve and expand. However, we need to understand its advantages and limitations to truly make it an asset in fostering inter- religious harmony.

3.3. Challenges Brought upon by Social Media

Though social media has a lot of constructive ways of fostering unity, it could also pose severe challenges if misused for the wrong intentions. Schroeder (2018), argues that anonymity harms society when the ordinary rules of behaviour are suspended, and people no longer take responsibility for their word. Psychologists generally use the term, Individuation to address such behaviour. Individuation refers to the concealment of identities when social norms are withdrawn. Another relevant and related term which is used is disinhibition. Disinhibition refers to certain developed attitudes that enables people to post comments that they would not normally in the real face-to-face world. Disinhibition often finds expression in various examples of harsh criticism, anger, hatred and threat. Siegel (2013), states that the anonymous trend in the social media, as well as the less personal nature of online communication, makes it easier for information to be distorted or misinterpreted. This in turn has its effects on inter-religious dialogue in many ways.

4. Analysis of Media Content

One of the major tasks of inter-religious dialogue is to clear misunderstandings that may have arisen for various reasons among people from different religions. Content analysis can be seen as a technique used to evaluate how a communication may be expected to have an impact on the multi-dimensional information space of the average person. Berelson (1952), defines communication content as that body of meanings through symbols either verbal, musical, pictorial or gestural which makes up the communication itself. If one were to analyse the following statement-“who says what to whom, how, with what effect”- one would realise that the communication content is the what. He considers content analysis as a research technique for the objective, systematic, and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication. Content analysis illustrates how an issue can be portrayed with a bias that reflects a perspective that is not complementary with the efforts to reconcile a divided community. Thus, content analysis contributes to researching the role that the media play in influencing affairs at multi levels.

The first step towards clearing misunderstandings is to have access to sources of religious knowledge. This needs to include both the original texts as well as the commentaries, translations and adaptations of these texts. It is only when these texts are accessible to everyone, will it be possible for people at the grassroot levels to become aware. One may highlight here that literacy is also a factor worth considering. When it comes to religious principles and views, the common man mainly relies on oral tradition and information available at the local level. Another important step towards clearing misunderstandings is creating a system that analyses content being disseminated to the public. It is only when unbiased and accurate facts and details are provided to the common man through various forms of media, that one can truly think of creating an environment of acceptance and tolerance between religions.

4.1. The Need for Content Analysis

Misinformation may not always be intentional. Occasionally, misinformation occurs due to inadequate perspective or the failure of established perspectives to accurately determine the impact a particular piece of data will have on the audience. Content analysis becomes essential as consequences of misinformation become a factor that can negatively impact the harmony and dialogue attempts among people from different religions. Jowett and O’Donnell (1999), argue that propaganda is the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propogandist. In such a scenario, one realises that even a little imperfection of information could increase inadequacy and decrease the ability of the desired outcome. Hence there is a widely held consensus that unintentional misinformation demands greater scrutiny especially among the inter- religious theorists and their advocates.

Due to the impact that mass media has on the minds of the people, Krizay (2011), suggests that content analysis becomes a relevant tool for researching the role of media in inter – religious relations as it unveils the extent to which the media have the power to frame issues, establish impressions and set agendas in ways that have an impact on efforts geared towards inter – religious harmony. Media can also act as an information hegemon with reference to determining that information is made available and from what sources and the resulting impression that it leaves on the minds of the people with regards to certain issues. Media researchers have made evident the fact that contemporary news media produce news presentations from the perspective of special interest. This in turn influences the way in which information is filtered and presented.

Content analysis is thus used as a basis for comparing the practical daily perspectives from which individuals and groups are able to have impressions of other ethnic groups. Content analysis reveals, uncovers, specifies, indicates, and discloses biases that are implied in various media platforms, especially the established news sources. Certain news sources often tend to present information from a slanted perspective, depending on the allegiance to certain political parties or sponsors. Giddens (2005), asserts that when the interests of media are too closely tied to that of special interest groups, media can be used as a tool for promoting, maintaining and reproducing systems of power and control. In this regard, content analysis can indicate ways in which established media is used in a way that blocks efforts to implement religious tolerance and harmony.


4.2. Method of Content Analysis

Holsti (1969), defines content analysis as a multipurpose research method developed specifically for investigating any problem in which the content of communication serves as the basis of inference. He states that content analysis has proven to be an essential technique for making inferences by objectively and systematically identifying specified characteristics of messages. In general, content analysis has uses that can be stated under four broad categories: 1) to determine characteristics of content, 2) to develop insight into the source or producers of content, 3) to develop insight into the audiences or consumers of content, and 4) to determine the effects of content upon the audience.

Content analysis would require one to follow the basic steps. Firstly, one would need to select the content that needs to be analysed. This will be done based on the research question. One would also have to give adequate attention to the inclusion and exclusion criteria to see whether some facts have been deliberately omitted or added. Secondly, one would need to define the units and categories of analysis. Determining the unit of analysis is a means for identifying categories and interpreting the terms used in media presentations. Krizay (2011), states that once the unit of analysis has been determined, a criterion for coding must be established for acquiring, categorizing, and quantifying the information. Researchers generally use a qualitative technique for assigning meaning to the texts. They devised a simple coding system to accurately decipher sentences and phrases in order to place the content in either positive, neutral, or negative categories. In this way, the content of news items is assessed as representing either (a) positive, (b) neutral or (c) a negative perspective toward their counterpart. Once the coding is complete, the collected data can be examined to find patterns and draw conclusions in response to the research question.


5. Analysing the traditions of Communication Theory

Everyday, we come across different signs, images, and symbols as well as impression flashing before our eyes. We are bombarded with various data and facts that prompt our own sense of reasoning. Hence, we need to analyse how individuals process and digest the diversity of information and understand the symbols of what each message means. Many theories that have tried to explicate the nature of human communication and how human comprehend symbols as well as how it is applied in a given society or community. Littlejohn & Foss (2008), claim that these have made different traditions of understanding, communication to be formed to better explain different concepts and viewpoint of communication. Hence it is imperative to take a look at some traditions of communication theory that can play a role in fostering peace and harmony among religions. In this study, the socio-psychological tradition, socio-cultural tradition and phenomenological tradition will be analysed.

5.1 Socio-Psychological Tradition

Krauss & Fussell (1996), state that socio- psychological tradition has been defined as the study of the ways in which people affect, and are affected by, others. Researchers argue that detailed and systematic observation makes it possible to discover the truth of communicative phenomena. Understanding cause and effect relationships leads to assuming the answer to the question - What else can be done to make people change their mind? The trait theory, on the other hand explores the attitude and the connection between personality and one’s communication. There is a need to analyse the relationship between communication and psychology. This is due to the fact that one’s personality or psychological influence will impact how they react to certain messages, accepting them or being biased against them, and how they communicate their own values, in certain stereotypical behaviour.


5.2. Sociocultural Tradition

The Sociocultural tradition considers communication as a process that involves concepts like social structure, norms, rituals, identities and collective belief systems. Ochieng (2014), suggests that this tradition focuses on the effects of the production, maintenance and reproduction of social formation. The sociocultural tradition holds firm the fact that, as people talk, they reproduce meaning and culture. Individuals generally assume that words reflect what actually exist. Instead, the sociocultural theorists assert that the process often works the other way round. Sociocultural tradition theorists are with the view that through communication we get to understand certain things and these shapes us as we grow.

5.3. Phenomenological Tradition

The phenomenological tradition gives importance to the interpretation of one's own subjective experiences. Podgorecki (2004), states that psychologist Carl Rogers claims that neither the Bible nor the prophets, neither Freud, nor research, neither the revelations of God, nor a man can take precedence over his own direct experience. This makes one realise that two individuals cannot have exact experience. Hence, it would make sense to hold the belief that if we cannot experience the experience of others, we tend to depart and feel people are not able to understand us. With the aim of getting a better understanding of this, Carl Rogers, established a personal and relational development between him and his patients outlining three factors of achieving experience barrier and understanding between humans.

Appropriateness of the behaviour of the speaker and the sender is very important. A person whose behaviour is appropriate shows authenticity, realness, transparency. This quality enables him to break the barriers of sender and receivers in a communication chain. Unconditional positive regard refers to the attitude of accepting a person without considering his performance, uniqueness and characteristics. Another important feature is the need for emphatic understanding. This would require one to keep aside their ego, values, and put themselves in the shoes of others.

Conclusion

Media in its various forms has a number of uses and is a tool to foster peaceful and harmonious relations among people of various religions. Negative consequences are equally part of the potential of the social media. However, democratisation of information and the increase in user- generated content can also lead to the proliferation of misinformation and negative content online. Similarly, there is also the danger of reinforcing pack identities and mob rule. Having seen the advantages that media has and the ways that it can contribute in fostering inter-religious dialogue are enormous. Hence, one needs to be prudent and us it in the most effective manner while at the same time being vary of any possible unintentional misinformation that may occur.


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