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How are media the message?
How do media shape perceptions of faith?

Congregations generally feel anxious about declining numbers and difficulty attracting youth.  Given that insecurity, even fear, many may feel pressured to be popular, “with it” and, in my era, “relevant.”  In the 1960s, during my journalism studies, the slogan, “The medium is the message,” was coined.  Media tend to define the culture.  Some may play to insecurities of readers, viewers, listeners and visitors, hoping to foster repeat consumption of their media.

People of faith need to be attuned to best practices in media.  Today, we no longer mimeograph newsletters.  More congregations are going online to communicate with members and the wider world.  Just as the mimeograph had its limits, so do today’s media.

There’s need to use today’s media, sensitive to effective use for credible communication consistent with faith, so the messages and values of the faith community do not become lost in or subsumed by the style of the media.

We hear in communication circles of the faith community that young people are online, so we have to be online.  Often the push to be online includes ageism that overlooks that people of all ages are online.  Appeal only to young people may miss the mark of who’s online.

Because it is touted as the youth media, however, faith communities race to embrace the ever-changing website and social media tools, which require continual learning.  As The Fig Tree does more online, we reflect:  If media can easily frame or become the message, how do we avoid having the message of faith distorted by it?

Given the overwhelming maze and information glut online, how much information is enough and how much is so much that it is ignored and not read?  Do online media keep people busy online consuming content?  Do they draw people to events for face-to-face encounters or inspire involvement in community service?

Does the faith community allow its message to be changed by trying to fit it into the media?  While some mainstream media follow the old definition of “news” as the unusual, conflicts, sensation, violence, sex, celebrity and popularity, others realize that that formula often exacerbates polarizations, stereotypes and exclusion.  Some faith groups fall into the trap of allowing themselves to argue polarized perspectives captured in simplistic sound bytes or catch phrases, rather than engaging in thoughtful, respectful discussion, sensitive to the people behind the issues and ideas. 

Yes, faith communities hold differing perspectives, but years of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue have brought some areas of convergence that allow for understanding and collaboration.  Some media, however, still overplay differences, turning them into shouting matches that turn many people away from any interest in faith.

If we remember the adage “divide and conquer,” we may also realize how power politics accentuates differences, particularly related to attitudes about sexual morality. 

Media may also chase any hint of hypocrisy in faith communities, overplaying it and making it seem more widespread than it is.  What impact does that have on the voice of the faith community?  Does polarization on issues of personal morality divert attention from ethical issues related to economic justice, human rights and human dignity?

When people are informed by media that undermine the credibility of faith communities, it’s no wonder many reject religion. 

Even though the latest media may be a means to reach young people and new people, we need to be discerning, if it is to enhance faith life and communities. Does it help overcome divisions and isolation?  Does it build respect of diverse opinions and people so we can talk with each other?  Does it encourage people to think?  Does it give tools to help resolve problems?

We need to discuss how media influence faith formation in our society and lives.

Mary Stamp - Editor