The media’s power to promote religious tolerance
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
03 May 2011
Palm Beach Gardens, Florida – Much of the debate about the recent burning of the Qur’an in a Florida church by Pastor Terry Jones focused on its devastating impact overseas. But beyond the power of symbolic actions to stir up religious tensions, this event also demonstrated the degree to which new technologies can speed up the dissemination of hate messages in our ever-shrinking global village.
The proliferation of new media has a potentially very positive or negative impact on relations between ethnic and religious groups. Online social network sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, as well as global satellite stations, have facilitated the instant spread of news. The Qur’an burning, for example, was initially reported on YouTube and spread through television satellites on repetitive display.
We all know that bad news spreads much faster than good news. Acts of hate broadcast over and over again can have devastating consequences for relations between communities, as the events in Afghanistan following Jones’ despicable act demonstrate.
But what can be done to counter the negative impact of new media? How can we harness the power of new media to communicate actions and words that promote understanding, tolerance and compassion?
There are three categories where action can be taken: wider dissemination of inter-religious news that reflect compassion and understanding, advocacy for responsible use of the air waves, and monitoring of the media.
For the first category – how do we convince the media to redress the imbalance and bring in more “good news” stories? One possibility is to seek those stories that contain elements of suspense, courage and sacrifice. Events revealing how, say, a Muslim saved the life of a Jew during a crime, or how a Jewish boy saved an elderly Muslim woman in a hurricane, could be brought to the attention of television producers and creators of new media content.
Yet, even less dramatic events may be of interest. For example, a recent visit by a group from our Florida church to a mosque countered, albeit in a small way, what had happened in Jones’ Gainesville church, only three hours away. Our group engaged in a conversation with the imam. The particular experience of learning and the bonding generated through personal contact cannot be conveyed simply through preaching tolerance. The face-to-face meeting between our communities broke down barriers.
Such personal stories may not be of interest to the large television networks, but we could harness the availability of self-made media online to share our interfaith message and stimulate similar events.
The second category of action – advocacy for a free and fair media – is already emerging. Advocates educate people about the rights of local communities to have a say in radio or television programming. The dominance of the press is worldwide and corrective action is needed at the global level, perhaps region by region.
In the United States, Sue Wilson – a California-based film-maker and an advocate for a free and honest media – lobbies national officials for better legislation, shames fear-mongering pundits and mobilises local communities.
I heard Wilson speak passionately about media ownership last month after a screening of her film, Broadcast Blues. Wilson believes that people should own their local airwaves. She pleads: save your local newspaper, radio and television station from corporate ownership that is consolidated, autocratic, alarming and self-serving.
Yet new legislation and social action cannot, in and of themselves, tame the mainstream media. Regulation and monitoring of the media for religious diversity could add an important dimension of professional discipline. Such monitoring should be a global endeavour since the problem is not limited to the United States. The Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom annually compares countries on tolerance for religious diversity. Could we dream of creating an international body for rating the media on respect for cultural and religious diversity?
If we cannot stop religious bias in the media, we can dilute it with positive stories that demonstrate inter-religious understanding. Tolerant and diversity-based religious education can generate compelling stories. Challenging media standards and advocating socially responsible journalism – both within the main networks and in online forums – could allow for a greater balance in reporting. And creating significant institutions for monitoring the media would create greater pressure on editors, producers and reporters to disseminate content that gives us hope.
* Dr. Ghassan Rubeiz (email@example.com) is an Arab American commentator on issues of development, peace and justice. He is the former Middle East Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).