A PLEA for the media to show greater responsibility in its representations of religions concludes a new book by an expert in linguistic analysis.
For his latest book, Religion in the Media: A linguistic analysis, Dr Salman Al-Azami, a senior lecturer in English language at Liverpool Hope University, carried out a linguistic analysis of five TV documentaries, six articles in The Guardian and the Daily Mail, and an episode of the TV animated series Family Guy. He then carried out focus groups with Christian, Muslim, and non-religious participants, inviting them to comment on these materials. He also interviewed and surveyed members of the Jewish community.
He found “little positive representation of Islam”, and concluded that both news and broadcast media “stereotype Islam and Muslims, and criticise their religious practices with issues like gender segregation, women’s rights, women’s clothing, terrorism, and the interpretation of Qur’anic verses featuring prominently in the media, often from ethnocentric perspectives”.
A chapter on linguistic analysis demonstrates how elements such as sentence construction and vocabulary all shape an article, contributing in some cases to “covert negativity”.
Dr Al-Azami was “pleasantly surprised” by a finding that confounded one of his hypotheses: both Christians and members of the Jewish community reacted negatively to the portrayal of Islam in the articles they were asked to study.
“Because they are from faith groups themselves, and do receive quite a bit of a negative portrayal themselves, they take the negative portrayal of Islam with a pinch of salt, and look at them critically,” he said.
Most Christians involved in the study thought that the media was “anti-religious”, and that their faith received the least sensitive treatment. There was sympathy for Muslims “battered” in the wake of 9/11. Although only 20 per cent of the Jewish respondents to an online survey believed that the British media was unfavourable to them, most participants belonging to the three faith groups agreed that “the secular media in the UK were generally anti-religion, and that religious people were portrayed in the media as backward, less intelligent, and less progressive.”
The most argumentative group was the non-religious one, Dr Al-Azami reported. For example, while Humanists believed the negative portrayal of Islam to be justified, a non-religious group of students completely rejected it, describing it as Islamophobic. Responding to a Daily Mail article on apparent gender segregation at a meeting of an Islamic society at a university, which did not feature a Muslim woman interviewee, one participant in the Humanist group said that segregation was so wrong that “we don’t have to listen to the woman’s viewpoint on it”.
Within the Muslim groups, Dr Al-Azami found that people were prone to self-reflection: they criticised extreme elements, “and felt that these people had forgotten the tolerant history of Islam’s golden age and had given the media ammunition to attack their faith”.
Concerned that Muslims engage less with the media than other groups, Dr Al-Azami is planning to focus next on the portrayal of British Muslims, and how to improve their “media literacy”.