Religion in the Media: How has it Changed, Where is it Going, Why does it Matter?

Barney Zwartz

essay on religion and media

Barney Zwartz, a former religion editor of The Age, is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity and media adviser to the Anglican Primate of Australia . This article is a revised version of an address delivered at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion and Society , the University of Queensland, on 19 August 2016.

I always like to start with a comment that neatly encapsulates the dilemma of twenty-first century communications. It comes from the nineteenth century, from Mark Twain, who observed that when it comes to the news media you have two choices. You can ignore it, and be uninformed. Or you can pay attention, and be misinformed.

Twain also provided the famous dictum that many believe is the journalist's motto: First get the facts. You can distort them later.

Few human activities are as imperfect as journalism, flawed as it is by a capacity for inaccuracy, for bias, for following agendas, for missing important aspects, for rushing to conclusions, for laziness, gullibility, self-interest and the long litany of all the aspects of human failure.

Yet few human activities are as important for the proper functioning of democracy or the pursuit of social justice. We don't operate in a vacuum. To stand, to act, to fight, we have to know, we have to be moved, we have to be motivated.

One of the maxims I remember from theological college is that Christians are to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The same, with caveats, could be said of journalists. Amid all the entertaining and informing and distracting that the news media fill their and your time with, much the most important work is when they act as Ezekiel's watchman on the walls, alerting us to criminality, corruption, special interests, hypocrisy, secret deals, undue influence, manipulation and injustice.

Some of this essential work is now under threat from the spectacular decline in mainstream news media - of which more later.

Soon after I began working part time for the Anglicans in 2014, having left The Age after 32 years, I went to a social media course in Sydney. One session had the heads of the media departments for the AFL website, a big bank and a big department store. All of them were capitalising on the opportunities provided by this decline, filling the vacuum. The AFL editor spoke of what a tremendous job his 125 staff were doing, reporting on the clubs honestly without fear or favour. The bank spokeswoman, a former senior journalist, told how her department was putting articles of widespread interest on their website, hoping the mainstream media would pick them up and run them, which was starting to happen.

In question time, I pointed out to the AFL editor that his site was indeed uncompromising in covering club issues, but I had never noticed criticism of then-CEO, Andrew Demetriou, or much serious examination of head office. But the sparks flew when I asked the bank media head whether she would put on her website the negative coverage the Commonwealth Bank was getting at the time for one of its episodes of unscrupulous behaviour. She admitted quite honestly that she could not. Coverage of her own bank would be positive or, at best, neutral. I told her activities like hers were subverting and corrupting the access to accurate information on which business, and indeed democracy itself, relies. Oddly, she seemed a touch affronted.

There are now far more spin doctors and press officers in the corridors of power than there are journalists, while governments work tirelessly to reduce the information they have to reveal. This, combined with the cataclysmic upheaval in the news media and huge reduction of journalistic numbers, means there is a heavy cost in access to knowledge and, therefore, to the proper functioning of democracy. Social media, while often highly effective, has not been able to replace it.

Here, I would like to look at my own experience of covering religion in the mainstream media, and then consider some systemic challenges.

The religion beat

I've been a journalist longer than I've been a Christian. I was an adult convert at 24, having been a fairly determinedly hostile agnostic. I joined The Age a year later, and worked there for more than 32 years in various roles: chief sub-editor, special projects editor, letters editor and opinion editor among them. But, though I enjoyed all my roles, the one I loved by far the most was religion editor, from 2002 until I left the paper at the end of 2013.

The editor at the time, Michael Gawenda, was surprised that I applied for the religion round when it was advertised internally, because it was usually given to a junior reporter to test whether he or she was up to a "proper" round, like health or industrial relations. I argued that the paper typically only covered three religion stories: priests molesting children, the church in decline, and the troglodyte church holding back women and gays. Now these were all important stories, but if that was all we covered we were missing some of the most vital and revealing aspects of modern society. Gawenda and deputy editor Simon Mann agreed, and really backed the religion round at news conference. Looking back recently, I was surprised at the variety of stories I was able to cover.

I went to Rome three times, to cover the elections of two popes and the canonisation of Mary McKillop. At the latter I asked Kevin Rudd, who had come straight from NATO at Brussels, how he coped with the constant travel. "The same way you do, Barney: drugs and alcohol," he said. Actually, I never touched drugs. I went to Turkey twice, and to Indonesia. I met many inspirational people, and sometimes - just sometimes - I felt I made a difference.

Besides the big religions, there have been stories about Baha'is, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, Sabean Mandaeans and Mormons. Subjects have included interfaith initiatives, religious extremism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and why interfaith harmony is stronger in Melbourne than Sydney. I've written about religious festivals, from Christmas and Easter to Diwali, from Rosh Hashanah and Purim to Eid al Fitr, Iftar dinners and Noah's pudding.

I've covered electing bishops, electing archbishops, electing the Pope, and electing women bishops and gay bishops. The Christian-Muslim hate case under the Victorian religious tolerance act attracted international attention. There have been Anglican splits, Uniting Church splits, Catholic rows, Muslim rows and Jewish rows, rows over church appointments, rows over church buildings, rows even over church music - newspapers love a good row. And so do newspaper readers.

I've written about church opposition to the Iraq war, the Buddhist approach to parenting, miraculous Madonnas, what the church can learn from McDonald's (making first-timers welcome), and whether you can have a gluten-free communion wafer (no). I've written about losing my luggage in Rome, and having a beard trim on the banks of the Euphrates.

I've interviewed people like Cardinal Kaspar, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez, Cardinal George Pell, John Shelby Spong, Tariq Ramadan, Faisal Rauf, Michael Nazir-Ali, Tony Campolo (Bill Clinton's spiritual adviser) and the scholar who thinks the devil has an image problem and should be rehabilitated.

I've written about alternative Christmas presents, the African pilgrims to World Youth Day who thought Adelaide was a suburb of Sydney, an hour's bus ride away, the Christian way to cook (ethical ingredients), diplomas for imams, bullied clergy, and an inadequate circumcision that cast doubt on whether a boy was Jewish.

I've written on religion and politics and why the two are not mutually exclusive, the problem of suffering, who really runs Islam, the myth of religious violence, standing firm against cults, the persecuted church, the international interfaith initiative called A Common Word , why Muslims make good citizens, and on the sexual abuse crisis.

I say all this not to boast, but to show how much is missing from news media today, from ordinary human stories of faith to great themes. I saw my job as offering a picture of the breadth and role of religion in society, the issues the religions are grappling with, its contributions and failures, some of the human stories, some of the conflicts and politics and trends. Outside the main Christian faiths, and sometimes within them, religious and ethnic issues can overlap. I also wrote about philosophy and ethics, and indulged myself in far more opinion pieces than most news reporters.

Ironically, in my last year or two I increasingly felt we were back to the first three sets of stories - especially clerical sexual abuse.

Religion reporting has several issues in which it was important to have a specialist, someone who could bring some perspective beyond the scandal of the moment and understand the context. These included the travails of Muslims in Australia, sex abuse and the rise of militant atheism through such figures as the four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I interviewed the first three, all of whom came to Australia.

I wrote a great deal about Muslims because I started soon after 9/11. I wrote many articles that annoyed them, about radicals, Shari'a law, calls to allow polygamy and the like, but I also worked hard to write stories that showed them as ordinary Australians contributing to society. I did this because I feel much of the media demonised them, set out to portray them negatively and sensationalise them. For example, the media went constantly to Sheikh Hilali, the head of Lakemba mosque in Sydney. They did this from laziness, ignorance of alternative voices and, by far the most important, the likelihood that he would say something embarrassing. Melbourne Muslims constantly told me he represented only Lakemba - that is, not even all Sydney Muslims, let alone Melbourne's.

It's no wonder the community felt under siege. I think of a story in Melbourne's Herald Sun about a Muslim father who withdrew his daughter from music lessons on religious grounds. Parents withdraw children from classes all the time for many reasons - this was simply a chance to bash Muslims, which News Ltd has indulged rather more often than it should. Generally, things are far better today, both with a more educated media and a far more savvy Muslim community. The generation for whom English is the first language is at the helm.

My period as religion editor coincided with the rise of interfaith efforts. When I began, Muslims and Jews getting together for a meal was an important story; today it is too commonplace to be worth a mention. That is unambiguously a good thing. I also covered the two global atheist conventions in Melbourne in 2010 and 2012, which were fascinating. There were striking similarities between their congregations and several Christian ones: grey hair dominated, but the people were full of zeal and eager to win converts to their lack of faith. And there was no shortage of unreflected faith in their own myths - notably that atheists are unbiased, guided by reason and evidence, whereas believers are mental or emotional cripples who need only to be taught to think clearly. But of course the atheists I interacted with tended to be the militants - the least attractive. It is no accident that six million Australians did not identify with a religion at the 2011 Census, yet only 65,000 called themselves atheists.

One area in which I feel I did make a contribution, was the gradual revelation of the clergy sex abuse crisis and in advocating an independent judicial inquiry. I wrote story after story, oped after oped, over a decade.

A question I was often asked was, need one be religious to write about religion? Obviously not, judging by the many non-believers who have written really well on the subject. But it is surely an advantage if one is familiar with religious culture, debates and challenges. It gives one a broad background against which to work, and when a journalist doesn't have that it often shows. Paul Marshall's book Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion , has a telling example of this. A Washington Post reporter was covering a protest at the White House by Pentecostal Christians, and reported that a speaker said "Let's pray that God will slay everyone on the Capitol." No one at the paper understood the Pentecostal practice of being "slain in the Spirit" - so it was reported as a call for mass murder.

I was surprised when, after we had both left the paper, Michael Gawenda, the editor who appointed me in 2002, told me he had been concerned that it might be a mistake to have someone religious cover religion. Why should it be riskier than an atheist? Reporters who write about politics vote and no doubt support political parties in private. The danger, of course, is that an enthusiast might see the role as advocating for religion.

And that was a second common question? Wasn't it my responsibility, as a Christian, to protect and advance the cause of religion, or at least of Christianity, or at least the Protestant evangelical Christianity that forms my own background? But that would be to betray my responsibility to the newspaper, to the readers and therefore, I thought, to God. Clearly the best way to serve was by being as accurate and fair a reporter as possible. Anything else would be an abuse of privilege. The Age is a secular paper, and a reporter's role is to present news rather than advocate. Of course that is not simple: what facts or quotations one includes or withholds in the limited space is important, and often, especially with religion, you have to take up valuable space providing a context or explaining the background. But if The Age 's editors had regarded me as a proselytiser they would - rightly - have removed me in a heartbeat. Against that, of course I wanted to rebut hostile myths and attacks, which is where the opinion pieces often came in.

I also got to advocate a Christian worldview much more directly, in the blog I ran for a few years, "The Religious Write." As militant secularists grew more aggressive, I wanted to argue the case that Christianity has a legitimate and important place in the public square. That was one of the reasons I was delighted to join the Centre for Public Christianity after leaving the paper. The blog, which I moderated myself, ran for about five years and was long one of the paper's most popular, sometimes attracting more than 1000 posts. It sounds impressive, but in fact these tended to be dominated by atheists delighted to find a public forum to attack religion. Even so they taught me much. The various ideologues would rush in, but gradually more intelligent conversations would emerge and sometimes run for days. The main irritation was that every topic would find new posters who thought that their arguments about "flying spaghetti monsters" or their believing in just one fewer god than I did were novel, clever and irresistible. And I have to admit a certain low taste for sarcasm myself that was sometimes misplaced. Once I had an email from my daughter saying, "Dad, get off the angry pills."

The Age took ethical responsibilities seriously, and there were often potential conflicts. For example, telling an abuse victim's tale could have profound effects on the victim, usually good but not always. Ethical issues were often discussed at news conference - how we should handle a story or if we should even run it at all. I was never told to write a story a particular way by the newsdesk or the editor to suit an agenda. Once or twice it was clear they hoped I would be more controversial or harder-edged, and my refusal to do so cost me a place on the front page from time to time, but they usually accepted that I was the paper's expert and my judgment should hold. After all, a moment's sensationalism can kill hard-won credibility.

Six times in my career writs were brought against me - nearly always, I believe, in an attempt to silence me. Without the powerful backing of the paper, that would have worked, because I can't afford to take on an institution like the Catholic Church. But the paper always supported me, and never told me to back off. "It's just the cost of doing business," one editor told me.

How things have changed

Media coverage of religion in Australia, perhaps never strong, has been swamped by three huge social revolutions. First has been the existential threat to established news media, electronic as well as print, bringing catastrophic cuts to revenue and thus to resources. Newspapers are struggling to survive, and it is far from certain that many or most will. They can cut costs by going digital only, but print still provides most of the income.

Second is the loss of trust in institutions, from governments to cricket clubs. It's been devastating for churches, but the news organisations have been swept up in this too, with people far more cynical or questioning. In fact we still get most of our news from mainstream outlets, even if it's through aggregator sites such as Facebook.

Third is the rise of the Internet, which is profoundly linked to problem one. I knew the writing was on the wall about 2002 when I looked up a fact on Google rather than walking five steps to a reference book. The vast resource of the Internet is a mile wide but, for most people, an inch deep. And the Internet has brought social media with its cacophony of voices and myriad specialist or niche sites. The risk is that increasingly people use it to confirm their biases, focusing on news sites, blogs and the like that share or support their worldview. And, of course, the anonymity it allows has also encouraged a deep incivility and crassness.

So this is the broader context in which we consider the media and religion specifically. I am often asked about a decline in religion journalism. When I began covering religion for The Age in 2002, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian both had highly capable religion reporters, and the ABC a large and active religion department. By the time I finished 12 years later, both the other papers had long been without religion reporters and the ABC had begun its radical truncation of its coverage which is still ongoing. Most news organisations, if pressed, will readily admit they can no longer cover many stories they once would have thought important, and religion is merely one of the casualties.

I have mentioned Paul Marshall's excellent book Blind Spot . But that deals with the situation in the United States, where religion is mainstream and newspapers still try to provide serious coverage. When I was in Rome in 2005 for the conclave that elected Pope Benedict, I was one of half a dozen Australian reporters. American newspapers, the Vatican Press Department told me, had sent hundreds. So when commentator Terry Mattingly calls for American editors to offer training and resources to people who cover religion, this would strike Australian news editors as ludicrous because they don't have anyone. In my last years at the paper, I used to joke that I was easily the best mainstream print religion journalist in the country - and, at the same time, much the worst.

Reporters often have to cover subjects they don't know much about, and the quality of their work in these cases depends on the quality of their contacts. Religion stories suffer because most journalists have neither the experience nor good, familiar contacts. This is especially pronounced in television news, with their very small newsrooms. Time and again, they provide the most superficial and inane coverage, often missing important points. Most secular journalists are uncomfortable if they have to report on religion: they know it's important to many of their audience and that the field is littered with banana skins. So coverage tends to range from supercilious and patronising to sycophantic. Pope Benedict's visit to Australia for World Youth Day in 2008 provides an excellent example. In the build-up the coverage was mostly criticism - the cost, the road closures and disruption, governments supporting religion, sexual abuse. Then Benedict arrived, and there was a massive outpouring of uncritical adulation. When he left, it was back to business as usual - neglect or disdain.

As I said, religion is not the only victim. Thanks to the halving or worse of newsrooms around the country, there are many subjects and stories that the papers no longer even try to chase. The Age that I joined in 1981 consciously saw itself as a paper of record, one that deliberately sought to cover everything of importance, with good grammar and without spelling mistakes. That is an ambition beyond the wildest dreams of almost any paper in 2016.

But religion does face extra impediments. News editors, themselves usually secular in outlook and uncomfortable in tackling it, have readily seized the myth that it is a private matter. And it's not just journalists. Reticence is embedded in the Australian psyche. Historian Manning Clark rather poetically described religion for Australians as "a shy hope in the heart." We are not comfortable, as many Americans are, in talking openly about it in public or even with friends. We do not welcome a stranger sitting down next to us on a train or tram and asking if we know Jesus as our personal saviour.

In my view, media failures flow from apathy and ignorance more often than hostility. And this failure to understand religion's role in the life of millions of Australians and billions around the globe is not restricted to the media. Roy Williams has pointed out how secular historians often fail to understand Governor Macquarie in colonial days because so much of what he did was motivated by his profound evangelical faith. And I have read that it took the CIA far too long to understand the importance of religion in the Middle East, however obvious that seems today.

However, ignorance does not explain enough. In his foreword to Blind Spot , Michael Gerson says that the reasons for the ignorant or distorted treatment of religion in the public sphere go much deeper than biblical or theological illiteracy. According to Gerson, the news media has an entrenched outlook that assumes religion should be actively excluded from matters of public concern. Gerson writes:

"It is often believed that public expressions of religion are themselves offensive - a violation of the truth of tolerance. Religious belief, in this view, is protected by the Constitution, but for the sake of pluralism must be confined to the private sphere ... This kind of secularism can lead to indifference - and, when religion becomes an unavoidable topic, suspicion."

Gerson is writing in the United States, where separation of church and state and the place of religion in the public square are far more controversial than Australia. As I suggested, I think that as a society Australians would rather not worry about such matters unless they think religious people are trying to tell them how to live. But active campaigning by aggressive secularists is having an effect here too, and increasing numbers of people tend to believe religion must be confined as a purely private matter.

Paul Marshall has said that the starkest intolerance in the West is that of the secular liberal unbeliever for the religious. It is true that small-l liberals feel able to speak about Christians with a contempt that they would rightly condemn if it were about women or indigenous. A young Melbourne writer, Fatima Measham, impressed me in an article I saw that unfortunately The Age did not publish. She said the biggest obstacle for young believers today is not temptation or excess but "the mockery and contempt from non-believers". Still quoting Fatima:

"It seems that you can be more easily forgiven for being a drunken lout, than for calling for prayer for victims of disaster ... Unfortunately for young, thinking believers, the media gravitates toward incongruities between basic tenets of faith and the behaviour of its proponents, including their language. A Muslim cleric describing women as 'uncovered meat' who ought to dress more appropriately. An Australian evangelist blaming the Queensland floods on a former Prime Minister who spoke 'against Israel'. A Catholic leader describing the parents of two daughters who had been abused by clergy as 'dwelling crankily on old wounds'.
"The media feeds on the sensational, and in effect disenfranchises. When it magnifies the flaws of specific believers, the ones who otherwise think critically and compassionately about the world and do a lot of good in it are rendered voiceless, easily dismissed and powerless to argue the strength of their case that religion is a force for good."

As an aside, having spoken of my concern about aggressive secularism, I want to mention an important counter trend. That is the way, in an increasingly atomised society, churches are regaining some appeal as a source of community.

Another challenge in covering religion that does not apply to politics or sport is general public literacy. A football reporter does not have to say who the Collingwood club is, nor does a political writer have to define the Labor Party. I always had to write stories on two levels, making them accessible to untutored readers yet accurate and precise enough not to offend those deeply engaged in the issue. I had to explain context and possibly terms and descriptions as well as the story itself in a few hundred words. One senior editor would never let me say "Anglican Communion" when I was writing about divisions over sexuality or women bishops. He insisted on terms like "global Anglican Church." Few readers would understand the formal title, he argued, and he was almost certainly right. Stories about internal conflicts within churches usually had to be explained along the political conflict model, with winners and losers. Theological debates and issues of conscience were shoehorned into the same model, or were otherwise likely to seem alien, and too hard.

All this sounds as though I am being critical, but it's not so simple. The editors I worked for recognised that religion needed proper and professional coverage, they were open to ideas and I was always allowed to argue the case for a story, because of course I was always competing for limited space with other reporters and the newswires. I've already mentioned that I was never asked to angle a story a particular way to suit an agenda. Of course, the one agenda on religion the paper did have was in advocating for a judicial inquiry into clergy abuse cover-ups, but I was one of the people at the heart of that. And abuse is an easy issue to grasp, one of justice more than theology, with no need to understand arcane religious beliefs or practices.

Still the fact is the world of religion, for most newsdesks, is an alien world, and as budgets and space have shrunk they have focused ever more on politics and sport, court or crime stories - which are cheap and easy - lifestyle stories, and eventually clickbait.

A more general question journalists often get is why does the news media focus on the negative? That reflects human nature, and the nature of news. A mother cooking a nutritious meal day after day for her family is not news, obviously. But if she deliberately poisons them, then that is news. The old journalism school definition said "dog bites man" is not news; "man bites dog" is. In the religious realm, faithful priest ministering to his flock is not news; priest as paedophile predator is.

Another problem which applies more generally is that of stereotyping, where Muslims are always moderate or fundamentalist or radical, and Catholics are devout or conservative or progressive. I tried to avoid such labels, which tend to trigger an automatic response in the reader, but it simply wasn't always possible. Muslims often complained to me that the media stereotyped them, and it is true, we do. But we stereotype everyone, and usually oversimplify. That's because we don't have space or time to prepare a carefully nuanced PhD thesis on fast-moving news stories, and our readers and listeners wouldn't have time to absorb one. We have to sort and choose the facts and sources, and present summaries that can't always have the careful qualifications we would like. And sometimes we get things wrong.

In passing, I think anti-Catholicism is the new anti-Semitism (not that the old one has disappeared), a rank prejudice acceptable in large swathes of society. I was an outspoken critic of the church hierarchy, especially over abuse and transparency, but I want to put on record that I think the ledger is vastly on the side of good.

Yet another problem in reporting on religion is the breadth that is required in the twenty-first century. Mark Baker, a former deputy editor of The Age and a noted foreign correspondent, had the religion round as a junior reporter in the 1970s. What that mostly involved, he told me, was going to the two Melbourne cathedrals and a couple of other leading churches to collect the sermons and quote excerpts. In multicultural modern Australia there are vast numbers of faiths, often complicated by deep links to ethnic identity, with many sensitivities and ambiguities. All of them have to be treated with respect. Much of this I simply had to learn as I went, but it does highlight the importance of having a reporter dedicated to the subject over a long time.

Better tomorrow?

So is the absence in Australia today of proper reporting on religion a serious problem? Absolutely it is. Religion deserves much better than that. Religion has an enormous influence on society and its institutions: think of schools, social welfare, universities and, above all, values. Most intelligent people can see that its global importance has, if anything, increased in recent decades. They see that it can be a tremendous force for good or ill. It is far too important to ignore.

Yet even the three types of story I mentioned to The Age editor in 2002 have declined, with only sexual abuse getting much coverage. And while this is hugely important, and I am deeply grateful for the Royal Commission, I can't help lament that, like an iceberg, the vast majority of the religious story is below the surface. I'm afraid that the prospects for improvement are not strong. I certainly believe journalism will survive today's print media travails, but I can't find much hopeful to say about the prospects for mainstream religion reporting.

I would like to leave you with three mottos that have sustained me through the vicissitudes of 40 years in journalism. The first is from Noel Coward, who noted: "It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit." The second comes from Something Happened , a novel by Joseph Heller, and is very wise. It says: "Every change is for the worse." I balance Heller's pessimism with a quote from former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle: "The future will be better tomorrow." Isn't that comforting? But Christians know it is true.

Barney Zwartz, a former religion editor of The Age, is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity , media adviser to the Anglican Primate of Australia and a freelance writer, mostly about classical music and opera.

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Religion and the Media by Judith M. Buddenbaum LAST REVIEWED: 09 January 2017 LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0097

Churches and other religious organizations have always conducted or commissioned media research addressing their interests. Scholarly journals have always published occasional articles dealing with religion and media. However, as a distinct area for scholarly inquiry, religion and media owes its origin in the United States to a confluence of events during the late 1970s that made religion important in a way it had not been since the 1925 Scopes trial. Questions raised by the opening of television to paid religious programming as a result of changes in broadcast law and network policies led to a flurry of scholarship on the then-new electronic church by sociologists of religion and mass communication scholars. At about the same time, the election of the born-again Jimmy Carter as president, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the rise of the New Christian Right paved the way for scholarly interest in religion as news. Since then the continuing political influence of conservative Christians in the United States, an influx of Muslim immigrants in European nations, and the events of 9/11 have sustained interest in the field and broadened it to encompass both international scholarly attention and a new emphasis on the portrayal of religions beyond Christianity in news and entertainment media. In the 1990s international research conferences on religion and the media began to appear. The American Academy of Religion, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, and the International Communication Association all had units devoted to the subject. As a result, religion and media, although still closely identified in the United States with journalism and mass communication, developed into an eclectic, interdisciplinary field. Although European scholarly research in both the sociology of religion and communication predates that in America, the events that initially triggered the development of religion and media as an area for scholarly inquiry had little initial impact outside the United States. However, by the 1980s scholars from around the world with interest in the field had begun to find each other through organizations such as the International Association for Mass Communication Research, which scheduled a session on the subject at its 1994 conference in Seoul, South Korea, and the International Communication Association, which did the same at its Sydney, Australia, conference that year. However, the real impetus for international research came from a series of media–religion–culture conferences, the first of them in 1993 at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and from increasingly available funding for religion and media research from the European Science Foundation and similar organizations in individual countries. While the conferences moved audience-centered research from a culturist perspective to the forefront, the major funding promoted more traditional effects-oriented social science research in the wake of 9/11, European involvement in the US-led war in Iraq, and tensions between Muslim immigrants and traditionally Christian but increasingly secular host European nations.

By the 1990s a few universities had begun offering specializations in religion reporting or more broadly in religion and media. Some undergraduate journalism programs also were offering units on religion reporting within beat-based reporting courses, while others occasionally offered stand-alone courses. Although some upper-level textbooks include a chapter on religion reporting, Buddenbaum 1998 is the only available text for religion-reporting courses. With relatively few schools offering religion and media courses on a regular basis, options for those courses are also limited. Mahan 2014 and Stout 2012 are the only comprehensive, religiously inclusive texts designed specifically for religion and media courses, but Hoover 2006 is also a possibility. Therefore, many professors create their own reading lists. Books suitable for classroom use are noted in citations throughout this article. However, other professors choose from among a handful of textbooks with a Christian focus, most often Schultze and Wood 2008 , Romanowski 2007 , or Staley and Walsh 2007 . Forbes and Kilde 2004 works well for a special topics course.

Buddenbaum, Judith M. 1998. Reporting news about religion: An introduction for journalists . Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press.

This text is the only religion-reporting textbook. In addition to the chapters dealing specifically with reporting practices, there are chapters to help beginners understand their audiences and meet their needs. Other chapters provide an overview of the varieties of religions, American religious history, and the First Amendment’s religion clauses. Other features include a glossary and the “For Further Reading” list at the end of each chapter.

Forbes, Bruce David, and Jeanne Halgren Kilde, eds. 2004. Rapture, revelation, and the end times: Exploring the Left Behind series . New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

DOI: 10.1057/9781403980212

Although the book deals with just the Left Behind books, the authors’ nonsectarian approach, the study guide, and annotated list of works for further reading make this an appropriate text for a special topics course or supplementary text for religion or literature courses. However, some students may question the authors’ analysis of what the Bible says about the end times and of the social and political messages in the books.

Hoover, Stewart M. 2006. Religion in the media age . London: Routledge.

Although this work from the culturalist perspective was not designed as a textbook, the relatively short chapters covering topics common in religion and media courses with an audience focus work well in both undergraduate and graduate courses. Some may question Hoover’s downplaying of the importance of institutional religion and conventional religious authority, but the author’s discussion of the media as the forum through which ideas are presented and debated and meanings constructed is well worth reading.

Mahan, Jeffrey H. 2014. Media, religion and culture: An introduction . London: Routledge.

This text takes a historical and cultural approach that covers the religious content of traditional mass media and the development of new media through which new religious voices emerge and become a resource audiences draw on and use in their own religious work of religious identity construction. Noteworthy features include case studies drawn from a wide range of traditional and new religions. At the end of each chapter there are also discussion questions and short essays by well-known scholars of religion and media.

Romanowski, William D. 2007. Eyes wide open: Looking for God in popular culture . Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

This expanded and updated work has joined its 2001 predecessor as a popular textbook for undergraduate religion and media courses. Updates include material on movies in the late 20th and early 21st-centuries and whole chapters on media treatments of sex and of violence. Although the text combines communication theory with a basically Calvinist Christian theological perspective, it is designed to help all students understand media conventions, think critically about content, and consider their own reactions to it.

Schultze, Quentin J., and Robert H. Wood Jr., eds. 2008. Understanding evangelical media: The changing face of Christian communication . Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

The twenty-one chapters in this comprehensive text provide a historical overview and thoughtful critique of the efforts by evangelicals to support and promote their faith through both traditional and nontraditional modern media forms, such as theme parks, games, and Christian merchandise. Although it is written from an evangelical perspective for an evangelical student audience, concluding chapters give Jewish and Roman Catholic perspectives on evangelical media culture.

Staley, Jeffrey L., and Richard Walsh. 2007. Jesus, the Gospels, and cinematic imagination: A handbook to Jesus on DVD . Louisville: John Knox.

This book is a popular choice for use in undergraduate courses at both secular and religious schools. Chapters on eighteen important “Jesus films” ranging from the 1905 The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ directed by Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nonguet to Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ provide background information, plot summary, description of key visuals, and references to relevant Bible passages keyed to the accompanying DVD.

Stout, Daniel A. 2012. Media and religion: Foundations of an emerging field . New York: Routledge.

This comprehensive text combines history, theory, and cultural context to provide a comprehensive overview of professional and social aspects of media and of media genres as they relate to denominational, world, and cultural religion. A special feature is the inclusion of an original play designed to help students understand and think critically about the interplay between religion and media.

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Religion and Media: An Introduction

Profile image of Carole Cusack

Danielle Kirby and Carole M. Cusack (eds), Religion and Media, Routledge, 2017. 4 volume reprint series.

The intersection of religion and media is to date an emergent field of inquiry, yet is already arguably central to any understanding of religion in the contemporary world, and will likely yield an abundance of scholarship in the foreseeable future. The development and adoption of myriad new media has accelerated in recent times, and late modernity in particular has seen a massive expansion in Internet and communication technologies and a proliferation of accessible media. The dominance of personal computing and mobile technologies are but some recent developments in just slightly over a century that has also seen the invention and popularisation of photography, radio, film, and television. This era has also been marked by rapid and wide-ranging changes in religion. These include: the visibility and intensity of various fundamentalisms (Almond et al 2003); a falling off in traditional forms of religious participation such as mainline church attendance in the West (Bouma 2006); a substantial rise in atheism, secularity, and non-religion in the developed world (Bullivant and Lee 2012); and a proliferation of new and alternative religions and spiritualities (Partridge 2006). The complex interactions of these two distinct areas of human endeavour merit detailed consideration, and this reprint series is an attempt to capture the state of scholarship in the first quarter of the twenty-first century.

Related Papers

Correspondences: Journal for the Study of Esotericism, Vol. 8, 2020, pp. 281-306.

Carole Cusack

It might be argued that G. I. Gurdjieff and his principal pupils P. D. Ouspensky, John G. Bennett, and Jeanne de Salzmann wished the Fourth Way (or the Work) to remain esoteric or hidden from sight, and thus their mode of instruction was in the form of an oral tradition, passed from teacher to pupil, in classroom environments. For them, becoming exoteric or popular was not only undesired but undesirable. I argue that this intimate, initiatory teacher-pupil relationship and oral tradition was under threat from the beginning, as Ouspensky (and many others) made notes of Gurdjieff’s lectures and question and answer sessions, which were supplemented by choreographies for Movements and the scores of Thomas de Hartmann, who composed music with his teacher. Photographers and journalists also chronicled Gurdjieff’s career from the start. Gurdjieff himself later approved the publication of Ouspensky’s posthumous In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (1949), which became the “go-to” text for seekers interested in the Work and was extensively used in the Foundation, the “official” body established by Gurdjieff’s nominated successor, de Salzmann. Peter Brook’s film Meetings With Remarkable Men (1979) was a watershed in Work history, in that it was a public, visual, and dramatized version of Gurdjieff’s search for wisdom, presented to uninitiated seekers (film audiences) as a model of the esoteric spiritual quest. Ten years later the Internet transitioned from being an IT geeks’ domain to a popular playground, via the introduction of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web graphics interface. The fate of the Work online is not unique; in the three decades since the Web debuted “secret” teachings of many religions (prominent examples being Scientology and Mormonism) and esoteric spiritual teachings have been “published” online, becoming effectively public and available to any interested person. Since 2000 Fourth Way schools and websites (official and unofficial) have proliferated, as the Work in the “meat” world has aged and numbers dwindled. The outcome of this extraordinary cultural shift is uncertain; it may be, as some teachers using online platforms aver, that “real” spiritual work can be done in virtual environments, but it is equally possible that the tsunami of Fourth Way schools, products, books, DVDs, CDs, journals, and the like have resulted in Gurdjieff’s teaching being co-opted by what Guy Debord, theorist of the Situationist International (SI) called “the Spectacle.” This is an overwhelming form of consumer capitalism that replaced the religious worldview, rendering everyday life opaque, human relations unimportant, and the acquisition of goods compulsive. That this commodification and neutralisation could be the fate of a once-disciplined, powerful esoteric teaching with high spiritual aspirations, due to the viral replication of online material, is one possible future for the Work. Alternatively, the Internet schools may succeed in transforming the Work tradition, affirming its importance for the “digital native” generation.

essay on religion and media

Fieldwork in Religion, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2016, pp. 91-103.

Carole Cusack , David Pecotic

The occult and the Internet intersect in four ways: as a static medium for information; as a space where contested information or ideological conflict may occur; as a facilitator of communication; and as a medium for esoteric practice. The last type of activity is rare, but it is intriguing, in that technology can shape and inform beliefs and practices in unanticipated ways. Online engagement with the ‘Work’, the movement produced by the Greek Armenian spiritual teacher and esotericist G. I. Gurdjieff (c. 1866-1949) and his immediate followers, is an under-researched instance of online esoteric practice. This article addresses this scholarly desideratum, bringing the theoretical approaches of online religion and digital ethnography to bear on the Gurdjieff Internet Guide (GIG) website, founded by Reijo Oksanen (b. 1942) and later maintained by Kristina Turner, who created an accompanying Facebook page. The GIG manifests a shift away from the sectarian secrecy of the ‘Foundation’ groups, founded by Jeanne de Salzmann (1889-1990) after Gurdjieff’s death to formalise and protect the content of the Work, and the limited web presence that the Foundation permits. The GIG moves towards an ecumenical ‘open source’ approach to the dissemination of Gurdjieff’s teachings rooted in independent groups founded by other first generation followers of Gurdjieff who remained outside of the Foundation. It is argued that the deregulation of the religious and spiritual marketplace of the contemporary West, coupled with the dominant role played by the Internet in disseminating information, has radically transformed the Gurdjieff tradition, collapsing hierarchies and esoteric strategies, democratizing access for seekers, and creating new ritual and teaching modes.

Therha: Newsletter of the Religious History Association, No. 2, March 2013, pp. 23-31.


Correspondences: Journal for the Study of Esotericism

VOLUME 8, NO. 2 (2020) SPECIAL ISSUE: GURDJIEFF AND ESOTERICISM CONTENTS INTRODUCTION Carole M. Cusack. G. I. Gurdjieff and the Work: Transformations of an Esoteric Teaching 147–156 (PDF) RESEARCH ARTICLES Joseph Azize. Esotericism, Occultism, and Magic: The Case of Gurdjieff and Crowley 157–217 (PDF) Michael Pittman. Deliteralizing Christianity: Gurdjieff and Almznoshinoo 219–254 (PDF) Vrasidas Karalis. Gurdjieff and C. G. Jung: Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’ and the Question of Individuation 255–280 (PDF) Carole M. Cusack. The Fourth Way and the Internet: Esotericism, Secrecy, and Hiddenness in Plain Sight 281–306 (PDF) BOOK REVIEWS Roger Lipsey. Gurdjieff Reconsidered: The Life, the Teachings, the Legacy. Reviewed by Michael Pittman. 307–310 (PDF) Joseph Azize. Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation, and Exercises. Reviewed by David Seamon. 311–315 (PDF) Catharine Christof. Rethinking Religion in the Theatre of Grotowski. Reviewed by Anthony Blake. 317–321 (PDF) Boris Ferapontoff. Constantinople Notes on the Transition to Man Number 4. Reviewed by Carole M. Cusack. 323–325 (PDF) SUPPLEMENT TO VOLUME 8, NO. 2 (2020) SUPPLEMENTARY ESSAY Anthony Blake. Understanding What is Esoteric. 1–25 (PDF) OUR LATEST TWEET

Carole Cusack , Alex Norman

"It is a truth generally acknowledged that religions have been the earliest and perhaps the chief progenitors of cultural products in human societies. Mesopotamian urban centres developed from large temple complexes, Greek drama emerged from religious festivals dedicated to deities including Dionysos and Athena, and in more recent times Christianity has inspired artistic masterpieces including the ‘St Matthew Passion’ by the Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach (1686-1750), the motets of the Catholic William Byrd (1540-1623), and the striking paintings of the Counter-Reformation Spaniards Ribera, Zurbaran and Murillo in the seventeenth century. The Indian religious tradition contributes the magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor (Cambodia), and the exquisite Chola bronze statues, and Islam the sophisticated Timurid illustrated manuscripts of Firdausi’s Shahnama. Many more examples could be adduced, including forms of dance, systems of education, theories of government, special diets, and modes of costume and fashion. Yet the cultural products of new religions and spiritualities are generally ignored, derided or deemed to not exist. Much of this prejudice stems from the tendency to exclude new religions from the category of ‘real religions’. This edited collection seeks to remedy a scholarly lacuna by investigating the cultural products of new religions, both as exemplifications of the theological and spiritual principles of particular movements, and also in terms of their impact on wider society. Subjects for investigation include: the architecture of Mormon and Baha’i temples; Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical education system; the music composed by the esoteric teacher G. I. Gurdjieff; and the diet advocated by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness."

Therha: Newsletter of the Religious History Association, No. 5, March 2016, pp. 20-28.

Tradition and Innovation in Religious Movements in: East Asia, the West, and Beyond, CESNUR, Weixin College, Nantou County, Taiwan, 19-21 Jun

The Church of the SubGenius is a minor invented religion founded by Ivan Stang (b. Douglass St. Clair Smith), Philo Drummond (b. Steve Wilcox), and the late Dr. X (b. Monte Dhooge) in Dallas, Texas in 1979 (Chryssides 2012, 95). The mythos of COSG states that J. R. “Bob” Dobbs founded it in 1953, one year prior to L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) founding the Church of Scientology in 1954. The life story of J. R. “Bob” Dobbs in COSG is similar to that of Hubbard in Scientology. The key issue separating SubGenii from humans is their inheritance of Yeti genes. The SubGenii are hybrid beings descended from the Yetis of Atlantis, and have ‘Slack’, the power of the messianic J. R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs, that makes them independent and creative. When the alien Xists invade to liberate the earth, only SubGenii will be saved and escape the all-encompassing Conspiracy, due to their Yeti genes. The Otherkin are a group that has, to date, not been drawn into conversation with COSG. However, the key characteristic of Otherkin, is that people identifying as such believe and live as if they are partly other-than-human, for example, part-dragon, unicorn, zombie, vampire, angel, or other supernatural creature (Cusack 2017). This paper discusses discursive strategies that find the ancestry of these contemporary, chiefly online, communities in: a) religious and spiritual phenomena of the past, including shamanism, the hybrid animal-human gods of ancient world pantheons, and medieval and early modern literary monsters; and b) popular cultural texts, such as fantasy fiction, anime, and film (Kirby 2009a). It is argued that SubGenii are Otherkin when certain classificatory principles are invoked. These two groups draw upon recent traditions of pop cultural beings, but are innovative in going beyond theses genealogies in their self identification.

Discordianism, founded in 1957 and generally regarded as a “parody religion,” has only recently received scholarly consideration as a valid religious expression within modern Paganism (Cusack 2010). Yet ritual practice within Discordianism remains largely unexamined; Hugh Urban’s brief discussion of Discordian magical workings as a sub-category of Chaos Magic is the extent of academic discussion of the subject to date (Urban 2006). This article elaborates on Urban’s tantalising classification of Discordian magic. A brief history of Discordianism is sketched; then ritual and magic in the Discordian tradition is explored through an examination of key texts, including Malaclypse the Younger’s Principia Discordia (1965), and Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975). Similarities between Chaos Magic and Discordianism are noted, and an analysis of Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY), a magical order founded by British performance artist Genesis P-Orridge and others in 1981, elucidates the relationship between Chaos Magic and Discordian magic. It is argued that the essentially unorganised nature of Chaos Magic and Discordianism, and the trenchant resistance of both to any form of “orthodoxy,” justifies classifying Discordian magic as a form of Chaos Magic. Chaos magicians and Discordians both have a deconstructive and monistic worldview, in which binary oppositions collapse into undifferentiated oneness, and neither conformity of belief nor unity of practice is required to be an “authentic” Discordian or Chaote.

George Chryssides and Stephen Gregg (eds), The Insider/ Outsider Debate: New Perspectives in the Study of Religion, Equinox, 2019, pp. 393-415.

Early scholarly studies of conversion and apostasy in new religious movements (NRMs) tended to draw clear boundaries between the pre- and post-conversion identity of those involved, and to presume that apostasy, ‘leaving the fold’, and de-conversion (all fairly clumsy terms for the experience of no longer belonging) were similarly unproblematic. Like much of the scholarship on NRMS, this model was drawn from studies of Christianity, yet never took on the theological weight that conversion (being ‘born again’, ‘saved’ etc.) possessed in that context. This was generally because NRMs were assumed not to be ‘real religions’ but rather ‘cults’ or other types of social movements, and conversion was usually termed ‘recruitment’ and apostasy assumed to be a minor matter, except in cases where it was necessary to have recourse to deprogrammers. Since the 1990s the study of conversion and apostasy has become more methodologically nuanced, and it has increasingly become clear that distinguishing an ‘insider’ from an ‘outsider’ is not only difficult, but often impossible, given that individuals and communities typically inhabit multiple roles and realities. The academic subfield of conversion and apostasy links with two other specialist areas within Religious Studies. These are: the methodological debate commonly termed ‘the insider/ outsider problem in the study of religion’ (which often concerns researchers and the groups they research, and is heavily influenced by both anthropology and philosophical phenomenology); and the recent prominent debate regarding ‘believing’ and ‘belonging’ (and all potential interactions of these two positions) in the context of the secularisation thesis and multiple revisions thereof.

Gordon Melton has recently argued that in the 1960s when the study of new religious movements began, scholars treated these religions as a problem; they were trying to explain why these movements existed, and ‘what was wrong that people were turning to new religions?’ (Melton 2007: 109). He suggests that in the twenty-first century the mood has changed, and it is accepted that ‘the emergence of new religions seems to be one sign of a healthy and free society, and we can now see everywhere that the slowing of the process of the formation of new religions occurs only where the suppressive powers of the state are called to bear’ (Melton 2007: 109). This would seem to indicate that there is a relatively constant human tendency to create new versions of the collocation of narrative and practice that is distinctive of ‘religion’. This article argues that Melton’s ‘normalisation’ of new religions (which implicitly means that they are no less legitimate than old religions, just more recent in origin) should be extended to those religions that are explicitly based on fictional texts and include popular cultural phenomena and ludic elements. I employ recent research from the cognitive approach to religion, which is then integrated with older theories of social constructionism, to offer an explanation of the prevalence not only of new religions, but of a specific set of ‘new new’ religions that are based on fictions found in Western popular culture.


Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2020, pp. 257-259.

Frans Jespers and Eric Venbrux (eds), Enjoying Religion: Pleasure and Fun in Established and New Religions (Rowman and Littlefield), pp. 47-63

Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 18, 2016-2017, pp. 8-31

TheRHA: Newsletter of the Religious History Association, No. 8, March 2019, pp. 17-26.

Benjamin E. Zeller (ed.), Handbook of UFO Religions, Leiden and Boston, Brill, 2021, pp. 354-368.

Invited lecture, Dalarna University (Högskolan Dalarna), Sweden 23 May 2019

In Carole M. Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč (eds), Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion, London and New York, Routledge, 2017, pp. 40-57.

Wiley International Encyclopaedia of Anthropology, Wiley, 2022

Introductory essay to Volume 3 of Routledge reprint series

Valentino Gasparini , Adeline Grand-Clément

Fieldwork in Religion, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2016, pp. 3-9

Correspondences, Vol 8, No. 2 (2020), pp.

In Carole M. Cusack and Alex Norman (eds). Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, pp. 521–552.

Graham St John

Diana Walsh Pasulka and Michael D. Bess (eds), Human, Transhuman, Posthuman: Emerging Technologies and the Boundaries of Homo sapiens, Macmillan, pp. 167-177

Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Vol. 19, Issue 2, 2015, pp. 49-64. Special Issue on Religion and Conspiracism edited by David Robertson (Open University UK).

Handbook on New Religions and Cultural Production

Chiara Baldini , Graham St John

Journeys and Destinations: Studies in Travel, Identity, and Meaning

Alex Norman

Joseph Azize, Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation and Exercises (Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. xi-xvii.

Fictional Practice: Magic, Narration, and the Power of Imagination

Bernd-Christian Otto , Dirk Johannsen

Temenos - Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion

Eileen Barker

Religion and the Arts, Vol. 21, Issue 1-2, pp. 96-122

Reprinted in Lawrence J. Trudeau (ed.), Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 337, Detroit: Gale, Cengage, 2016, pp. 282-293.

International Journal for the Study of New Religions, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2019, pp. 139-158.

Religion and the Arts, Vol. 20 (2017).

International Journal for the Study of New Religions

Introductory essay to Volume 1 of Routledge reprint series

Robyn Lewis

Carole Cusack , Pavol Kosnáč

Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir

In Alex Norman (ed.), Journeys and Destinations: Studies in Travel, Identity, and Meaning (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), pp. 1-21. Reprinted in Alex Norman and Carole M. Cusack (eds), Religion, Pilgrimage and Tourism, London and New York: Routledge, 2014 (four volume reprint series).

Jacopo Ranzato

TheRHA: Newsletter of the Religious History Society, No. 13, March 2011, pp. 21-24.

In James R. Lewis and Inga Bårdsen Tøllefsen (eds), The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, 2nd edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 237-247.

Brill Dictionary of Contemporary Esotericism, forthcoming


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essay on religion and media


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Hardcover ISBN: 9780804734967 Paperback ISBN: 9780804734974

The latter part of the twentieth century saw an explosion of new media that effected profound changes in human categories of communication. At the same time, a "return to religion" occurred on a global scale. The twenty-five contributors to this volume—who include such influential thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Talal Asad, and James Siegel—confront the conceptual, analytical, and empirical difficulties involved in addressing the complex relationship between religion and media.

The book's introductory section offers a prolegomenon to the multiple problems raised by an interdisciplinary approach to these multifaceted phenomena. The essays in the following part provide exemplary approaches to the historical and systematic background to the study of religion and media, ranging from the biblical prohibition of images and its modern counterparts, through theological discussion of imagery in Ignatius and Luther, to recent investigations into icons and images that "think" in Jean-Luc Marion and Gilles Deleuze. The third part presents case studies by anthropologists and scholars of comparative religion who deal with religion and media in Indonesia, India, Japan, South Africa, Venezuela, Iran, Poland, Turkey, present-day Germany, and Australia.

The book concludes with two remarkable documents: a chapter from Theodor W. Adorno's study of the relationship between religion and media in the context of political agitation ( The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas' Radio Addresses ) and a section from Niklas Luhmann's monumental Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft ( Society as a Social System ).

About the authors

Hent de Vries holds the Chair of Metaphysics and its History in the Department of Philosophy of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Amsterdam, and is Professor of Modern European Thought in the Humanities Center of the School of Arts and Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University.

—Rosalind Carmel Morris, Columbia University

— MEDIENwissenschaft

— Journal of Media and Religion

—Anthropological Quarterly

— The Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

essay on religion and media

Subcontractors of Guilt

Esra Özyürek

essay on religion and media

My Body, Their Baby

Grace Y. Kao

essay on religion and media

The Philosophical Pathos of Susan Taubes

Elliot R. Wolfson

essay on religion and media

Interiority and Law

Omer Michaelis

essay on religion and media

A Guide to The Guide to the Perplexed

Lenn E. Goodman

essay on religion and media

The Guide to the Perplexed

Moses Maimonides, Translated and with Commentary by Lenn E. Goodman and Phillip I. Lieberman

essay on religion and media

Sufi Civilities

Annika Schmeding

essay on religion and media

The Unknowable in Early Modern Thought

Kevin Killeen

How Mormonism Went Mainstream

Angel Moroni

S eptember 21, 2023 marks the 200th anniversary of the date that Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by the Angel Moroni in Palmyra, New York. According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ canonical account, the 17-year-old Smith was in bed when the divine visitor appeared in his room. The prophet-to-be was then instructed to dig up a sacred record inscribed on ancient golden tablets that was located in a nearby hill.

The resulting text, the Book of Mormon, published in 1830, became a cornerstone for a new world religion. Today, the Latter-day Saint church claims over 17 million members across the globe. But while they have achieved a degree of cultural acceptance, especially among American Christians, there remains a suspicion—sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit—that Mormon beliefs are fundamentally irrational, if not heretical.

While there are plenty of doctrinal principles that have drawn scorn, like their since-rescinded belief in polygamy and an anti-Black racial restriction, the story of an ancient scripture record found on buried gold plates has long served as a lynchpin for external skepticism. How could otherwise rational people believe in what appears to be a fundamentally irrational myth? And does such a belief forfeit their place within mainstream culture?

Read More: Why the Mormon Church Finally Let Black Men Into the Priesthood

Yet debates over the boundaries of religious respectability, and whether the Mormons could be accepted therein, reveal as much about America as it does about its most famous homegrown religion.

Charles Dickens once wrote that Joseph Smith’s true audacity was in claiming to have “communion with angels” in an “age of railways.” By that, he meant that the 19th century was supposed to usher in a new enlightened era in which eccentric frauds could no longer dupe the gullible. How is a religion that believes in ancient gold plates, angelic ministrations, and prophetic revelation supposed to function in a rational society?

Smith was raised in a family that believed in a miraculous world. That included buried treasure that could only be acquired through supernatural means. Smith was therefore part of an earnest though unsuccessful circle of treasure diggers who used seer stones to unearth priceless wonders. (It was on one such magic quest that Smith met his wife, Emma Hale.) So when Smith eventually produced a book of scripture—an alleged account of ancient Christians who had inhabited the American continent—his fellow seekers and skeptical neighbors alike connected it to his folkloric practices.

Indeed, few critics felt it necessary to actually examine the Book of Mormon’s text. Its purported origins were scandalous enough. An early dissenter exposed the fact that Smith had used the same seer stone with which he sought treasure to translate the gold plates. In response, Smith refused to detail the exact method through which he produced the Book of Mormon, only insisting it was through “the gift and power of God.” It was an indirect confession that some stories appeared too fanciful.

Of course, some who took the time to read the new scripture were still not impressed. Mark Twain claimed that the real “miracle” of the Book of Mormon’s origins was Smith “keeping awake” while dictating “chloroform in print.”

Read More : The Living Book of Mormon

But for the scores of believers who followed Smith’s teachings, the book represented an open canon of truth and a sign that God still spoke to a modern world. Their most successful proselytizing tract throughout the 19th century, Parley P. Pratt’s Voice of Warning , argued that the Book of Mormon’s appearance was evidence of the end times. Moroni, who had delivered the gold plates to Joseph Smith, was soon identified as the angel prophesied in the New Testament who would preach the gospel “to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Revelation 14:6). The image of the Angel Moroni and his horn therefore became the faith’s unofficial symbol, gold statues of which appeared on the top of their temples.

For the remainder of the 19th century, Mormons were proud of their “peculiar” image. Their founding stories set them apart from a fallen society and corrupt Christendom. Eventually other principles, most notably polygamy, became their doctrinal center. But when the church was forced to renounce their distinctive practices at the end of the 19th century, and encouraged to adopt more mainstream culture in the 20th, Latter-day Saints were forced to consider how their faith would fit in a society they had previously scorned.

After decades of slow, uneasy, but steady cultural assimilation, Mormons appeared on the brink of cultural acceptance by the 1970s. Yet an upswing in evangelical anti-Mormonism threatened such advances. Part of the resurgent animosity was rooted in resurrected fears of “cults” that accompanied backlash to the mass murder-suicide at Jim Jones’s People’s Temple in 1978. A wave of books, pamphlets, and movies dredged up old stereotypes of conniving Mormon leaders and duped LDS followers. Most successful was the film The God Makers , which showed a caricatured version of the gold plates story to millions of viewers across the nation.

Mormons were forced once again to adapt. They accomplished this by framing their faith’s story, including that of the Book of Mormon’s origins, as one of Christian sincerity. They announced a subtitle to the Book of Mormon meant to cement their Christian affiliation: “ Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Leaders even re-formatted the church’s logo so that the words “Jesus Christ” were far larger than the rest.

The most successful form of improved collaboration, of course, was in the political sphere. Starting with their fervent opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, followed by their central role in opposing same-sex marriage in the 1990s and 2000s, Latter-day Saint leaders formed firm alliances with Evangelical groups that otherwise found their truth claims blasphemous.

Mitt Romney’s presidential runs in the 21st century demonstrated both how little and how much things had changed. During his first campaign for the 2008 GOP nomination, he was blindsided by hostility from those on the left and the right. Progressive critics already prone to question religion pounced on the irrationality of stories like the gold plates. “Someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism,” wrote an editor at Slate , exhibited “a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.”

Meanwhile, evangelical opponents, like the supporters of Mike Huckabee, quickly identified the theological chasm between Mormons and “acceptable” Christianity. The outspoken Reverend Bill Keller went so far as to say that a vote for Romney was “a vote for Satan,” as it would validate Mormonism’s blasphemous beliefs. Though declared an early frontrunner, Romney’s candidacy fizzled well before the GOP convention.

Yet much changed in the succeeding four years. Once exposed to national attention, the vehement anti-Mormon sentiment seemed neutered, or at least drowned out by a cultural fascination with the faith. Dubbed the “ Mormon Moment ,” 2012 featured a wave of media obsession with the faith in the form of Broadway musicals, television hits, and a successful LDS public relations campaign titled “I’m a Mormon” that highlighted the faithful’s cultural commonalities. Either out of growing tolerance or forced necessity, Republican voters this time embraced Romney’s message. Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress explained that while Mormonism was still obviously a “cult,” he clarified that it was a “theological” cult, not a “sociological” one—a distinction that reflected the Religious Right’s emphasis on political over doctrinal fidelity.

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The supernatural elements of the Latter-day Saint faith’s founding stories no longer appeared so exotic. Stephen Colbert’s satirical Comedy Central character skewered Christians who dared to claim Mormonism illogical. Mormon beliefs that “Joseph Smith received golden plates from an angel on a hill” were “weird,” he protested, only because “everyone knows that Moses got stone tablets from a burning bush on a mountain.” The message was clear: Mormon supernatural claims were no more outlandish than traditional Christianity’s.

Indeed, the Latter-day Saint church has continued to be repackaged to appear less intrusive to mainstream Christians. Its most recent prophet, Russell M. Nelson, encouraged the media to no longer use the “Mormon” nickname, claiming it distracted from their Christian message. He also ceased their century-long production of the Hill Cumorah Pageant , where thousands of saints gathered each summer to witness a dramatic reproduction of Joseph Smith receiving the gold plates on the same New York hillside where he claimed to find them. And while the church has rapidly increased its construction of temples, most of the new sacred buildings no longer feature the Angel Moroni .

This is not to say the church is forfeiting core doctrines. Far from it. Latter-day Saint belief in the Book of Mormon’s historicity, Joseph Smith’s divine calling, and prophetic revelation are as firm as ever before. But after two centuries of heated battles with Christian contemporaries, Smith’s successors have learned how to frame these fundamentals in less threatening ways. The Book of Mormon is no longer posited as a correction to an apostate world, but a supplement to the Christian canon; his followers are not separated from Babylon, but fellow travelers in a world of pilgrims.

Two hundred years later, Joseph Smith’s Moroni story is as salient as ever, even if its tone and significance have evolved.

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What Is Religion Essay

essay on religion and media

Writing for religious studies takes place within a secular, academic environment, rather than a faith-oriented community. This form of writing describes, interprets, compares, and explains religion, with an emphasis on cross-cultural, historically oriented, and systematic perspectives. When writing a religion essay, it helps to keep in mind that religious studies is an interdisciplinary field, and this affects the writing process.

While the interdisciplinary nature of religious studies makes the discipline interesting, it also makes writing religion essays quite challenging. Instructors expect students to use different methods and theories, borrowed from other fields. At the same time, religious studies remains a unique discipline, with its own writing conventions. Here are some essay writing tips to get you started:

  • Start by thinking about the topic and generating questions

It is easy to assume that a good essay means that the writer knows everything about the topic. In actual sense, most good religion essays start with creating an honest question, or a set of connected questions. When you begin to think about your assignment topic, consider finding a good question upon which to base your analysis. When have found a good question, you cannot lack material to write in your essay, in response to it.

There are some cases where a question may be assigned to you. However, even with such a directive assignment, you will still need to interpret the question and create your own ones as you read the prompt.

  • Choose between freewriting and outlining

  Understanding the essay topic and question is a good place to start your writing but is only the start. You still have to generate content for your religion essay. Different writers prefer different techniques for creating content, including idea journals, index cards, and freewriting. No one method is better than the other, and students should pick whatever works for them.

Freewriting implies ignoring the critical voice within you that tells you to be more cautious. Just sit down and write any idea that comes to your head, whether it makes sense or not. Freewriting is great for overcoming writer’s block. However, this type of approach often means that you need to do a lot of editing to refine your work in response to the prompt.

Outlining, on the other hand, involves creating a plan or map of the different sections of the essay, which you can then build on through research. For academic purposes, outlining is often preferred as it ensures that all aspects of the essay question are covered and that the writing is coherent.

  • Make sure to include a strong thesis

A crucial element of a good religion essay is a well-formatted thesis statement. Writing an essay without a thesis is akin to a mammal without a spine. Your thesis must be arguable, original and interesting. Here originality implies that the thesis statement must be your own formulation since your thesis is a synthesized response to the essay question. To be original, it is important for your thesis to be arguable. In other words, there must be enough evidence to support your thesis. Connected to the concept of being arguable, your thesis also needs to be falsifiable. Check whether there is evidence that would disapprove it. The thesis statement often comes at the end of the introductory paragraph.

  • Use authoritative evidence to support your arguments

Another important consideration when writing good religion essays is to support all your points with strong evidence. A strong thesis demonstrates that you have a claim worth arguing. However, proving that claim demands strong and consistent use of evidence. You must interpret the sources to make them relevant to the claims you make. Using evidence also requires that you consistently and accurately cite all the sources.

  • Make good use of topic sentences and signposts

It helps the quality of your religion essay to write in a way that sentences and paragraphs can support the ideas you intend to convey. A good strategy is to use topic sentences to open paragraphs. The topic sentence serves the same function in the paragraph as the thesis statement does for the essay. It announces the general point you intend to make in the paragraph. Make sure that each paragraph has an identifiable topic sentence at the beginning.

  • Conclude by highlighting the key points

At this point, you have put a lot of effort into writing your religion essay, and you may be going past the assigned number of words. However, you must not forget to include a tentative conclusion, in which you synthesize the entire argument, highlighting the main points. Avoid the temptation to summarize the entire paper merely. You should also avoid introducing new ideas in the conclusion section.

  • Always proofread and edit your draft

Proofreading is an integral aspect of essay writing. As you write the initial draft, not much focus is given to grammar and spelling. The focus of the initial draft ought to be on making your points and supporting them. However, once you are done, it is critical to painstakingly go through the text, making sure that the writing conforms to grammar, spelling, and formatting requirements at your level. In fact, it is preferable to take a break before returning to proofread. You could also ask a friend or a family member to help with proofreading, as they are likely to notice some errors you do not see.

This article is aimed at improving student’s understanding of religion essay writing. Strategies for improving student writing are discussed. Hopefully, this article should help you become familiar and comfortable with writing religion essays.

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A look at Canada and India and their relationship, by the numbers

FILE - Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, walks past Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Raj Ghat, Mahatma Gandhi's cremation site, during the G20 Summit in New Delhi, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023. Trudeau said that Canada wasn't looking to escalate tensions, but asked India on Tuesday, Sept. 19, to take the killing of a Sikh activist seriously after India called accusations that the Indian government may have been involved absurd.(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

FILE - Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, walks past Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Raj Ghat, Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation site, during the G20 Summit in New Delhi, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023. Trudeau said that Canada wasn’t looking to escalate tensions, but asked India on Tuesday, Sept. 19, to take the killing of a Sikh activist seriously after India called accusations that the Indian government may have been involved absurd.(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

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Tensions between Canada and India have escalated over the assassination of a Sikh independence advocate in June.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was investigating credible allegations that Indian government agents were connected to the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar , but India has rejected the allegations as absurd.

India has long demanded that Canada take action against the Sikh independence movement, which is banned in India but has support among the sizable Sikh diaspora populations overseas, including in Canada and the U.K.

Here is a look at the relationship between the countries, by the numbers:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks with Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)

Canada is home to nearly 1.4 million people of Indian ethnic or cultural origin, about 3.7% of the country’s total population, according to the 2021 census.

More than 770,000 people reported their religion as Sikhism, about 2% of Canada’s population, and in 2019, the government designated April as Sikh Heritage Month.

India is the world’s most populous nation with 1.425 billion people as of April, according to the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Sikhs are the majority in the northern state of Punjab state, but only about 1.7% of India’s total population.

With more than $13.7 billion in trade, India was Canada’s 10th largest two-way merchandise trade partner in 2022, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Jean-Pierre J. Godbout said. Canadian merchandise exports to India totaled $5.3 billion, ranking ninth, Godbout said.

But Trudeau had frosty encounters with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Group of 20 meeting in New Delhi. Trade talks have been paused and a planned trade mission to India has been canceled.

Visitors from India rank as Canada’s fourth largest international air travel market, according to the census. In 2021, the 89,500 tourists from India spent $3.4 billion, the most of any group visiting Canada. Canadians visiting India spent $93 million the same year.

In November 2022, Canada and India reached an agreement to remove the restriction on the number of flights between the two countries, which had previously been limited to 35 flights per week.

Of the more than 800,000 international students in Canada at the end of 2022, 40% were from India, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada data.

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Guest Essay

Trump Attacked Me. Then Musk Did. It Wasn’t an Accident.

essay on religion and media

By Yoel Roth

Dr. Roth is the former head of trust and safety at Twitter.

When I worked at Twitter, I led the team that placed a fact-checking label on one of Donald Trump’s tweets for the first time. Following the violence of Jan. 6, 2021, I helped make the call to ban his account from Twitter altogether. Nothing prepared me for what would happen next.

Backed by fans on social media, Mr. Trump publicly attacked me. Two years later, following his acquisition of Twitter and after I resigned my role as the company’s head of trust and safety, Elon Musk added fuel to the fire. I’ve lived with armed guards outside my home and have had to upend my family, go into hiding for months and repeatedly move.

This isn’t a story I relish revisiting. But I’ve learned that what happened to me wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t just personal vindictiveness or “cancel culture.” It was a strategy — one that affects not just targeted individuals like me but all of us, as it is rapidly changing what we see online.

Private individuals — from academic researchers to employees of tech companies — are increasingly the targets of lawsuits, congressional hearings and vicious online attacks. These efforts, staged largely by the right, are having their desired effect: Universities are cutting back on efforts to quantify abusive and misleading information spreading online. Social media companies are shying away from making the kind of difficult decisions my team did when we intervened against Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Platforms had finally begun taking these risks seriously only after the 2016 election. Now, faced with the prospect of disproportionate attacks on their employees, companies seem increasingly reluctant to make controversial decisions, letting misinformation and abuse fester in order to avoid provoking public retaliation.

These attacks on internet safety and security come at a moment when the stakes for democracy could not be higher. More than 40 major elections are scheduled to take place in 2024, including in the United States, the European Union, India, Ghana and Mexico. These democracies will most likely face the same risks of government-backed disinformation campaigns and online incitement of violence that have plagued social media for years. We should be worried about what happens next.

My story starts with that fact check. In the spring of 2020, after years of internal debate, my team decided that Twitter should apply a label to a tweet of then-President Trump’s that asserted that voting by mail is fraud-prone, and that the coming election would be “rigged.” “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” the label read.

On May 27, the morning after the label went up, the White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway publicly identified me as the head of Twitter’s site integrity team. The next day, The New York Post put several of my tweets making fun of Mr. Trump and other Republicans on its cover. I had posted them years earlier, when I was a student and had a tiny social media following of mostly my friends and family. Now, they were front-page news. Later that day, Mr. Trump tweeted that I was a “ hater .”

Legions of Twitter users, most of whom days prior had no idea who I was or what my job entailed, began a campaign of online harassment that lasted months, calling for me to be fired, jailed or killed. The volume of Twitter notifications crashed my phone. Friends I hadn’t heard from in years expressed their concern. On Instagram, old vacation photos and pictures of my dog were flooded with threatening comments and insults. (A few commenters, wildly misreading the moment, used the opportunity to try to flirt with me.)

I was embarrassed and scared. Up to that moment, no one outside of a few fairly niche circles had any idea who I was. Academics studying social media call this “ context collapse ”: things we post on social media with one audience in mind might end up circulating to a very different audience, with unexpected and destructive results . In practice, it feels like your entire world has collapsed.

The timing of the campaign targeting me and my alleged bias suggested the attacks were part of a well-planned strategy. Academic studies have repeatedly pushed back on claims that Silicon Valley platforms are biased against conservatives. But the success of a strategy aimed at forcing social media companies to reconsider their choices may not require demonstrating actual wrongdoing. As the former Republican Party chair Rich Bond once described, maybe you just need to “work the refs”: repeatedly pressure companies into thinking twice before taking actions that could provoke a negative reaction. What happened to me was part of a calculated effort to make Twitter reluctant to moderate Mr. Trump in the future and to dissuade other companies from taking similar steps.

It worked. As violence unfolded at the Capitol on Jan. 6, Jack Dorsey, who was then the chief executive of Twitter, overruled Trust and Safety’s recommendation that Mr. Trump’s account should be banned because of several tweets, including one that attacked Vice President Mike Pence . He was given a 12-hour timeout instead (before being banned on Jan. 8 ). Within the boundaries of the rules, staff members were encouraged to find solutions to help the company avoid the type of blowback that results in angry press cycles, hearings and employee harassment. The practical result was that Twitter gave offenders greater latitude: Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene was permitted to violate Twitter’s rules at least five times before one of her accounts was banned in 2022 . Other prominent right-leaning figures, such as the culture war account Libs of TikTok, enjoyed similar deference .

Similar tactics are being deployed around the world to influence platforms’ trust and safety efforts. In India, the police visited two of our offices in 2021 when we fact-checked posts from a politician from the ruling party, and the police showed up at an employee’s home after the government asked us to block accounts involved in a series of protests. The harassment again paid off: Twitter executives decided any potentially sensitive actions in India would require top-level approval, a unique level of escalation of otherwise routine decisions.

And when we wanted to disclose a propaganda campaign operated by a branch of the Indian military, our legal team warned us that our India-based employees could be charged with sedition — and face the death penalty if convicted. So Twitter only disclosed the campaign over a year later , without fingering the Indian government as the perpetrator.

In 2021, ahead of Russian legislative elections, officials of a state security service went to the home of a top Google executive in Moscow to demand the removal of an app that was used to protest Vladimir Putin. Officers threatened her with imprisonment if the company failed to comply within 24 hours. Both Apple and Google removed the app from their respective stores, restoring it after elections had concluded .

In each of these cases, the targeted staffers lacked the ability to do what was being asked of them by the government officials in charge, as the underlying decisions were made thousands of miles away in California. But because local employees had the misfortune of residing within the jurisdiction of the authorities, they were nevertheless the targets of coercive campaigns, pitting companies’ sense of duty to their employees against whatever values, principles or policies might cause them to resist local demands. Inspired, India and a number of other countries started passing “hostage-taking” laws to ensure social-media companies employ locally based staff.

In the United States, we’ve seen these forms of coercion carried out not by judges and police officers but by grass-roots organizations, mobs on social media, cable news talking heads and — in Twitter’s case — by the company’s new owner.

One of the most recent forces in this campaign is the “ Twitter Files ,” a large assortment of company documents — many of them sent or received by me during my nearly eight years at Twitter — turned over at Mr. Musk’s direction to a handful of selected writers. The files were hyped by Mr. Musk as a groundbreaking form of transparency, purportedly exposing for the first time the way Twitter’s coastal liberal bias stifles conservative content.

What they delivered was something else entirely. As tech journalist Mike Masnick put it , after all the fanfare surrounding the initial release of the Twitter Files, in the end “there was absolutely nothing of interest” in the documents, and what little there was had significant factual errors. Even Mr. Musk eventually lost patience with the effort . But, in the process, the effort marked a disturbing new escalation in the harassment of employees of tech firms.

Unlike the documents that would normally emanate from large companies, the earliest releases of the Twitter Files failed to redact the names of even rank-and-file employees. One Twitter employee based in the Philippines was doxxed and severely harassed. Others have become the subjects of conspiracies. Decisions made by teams of dozens in accordance with Twitter’s written policies were presented as having been made by the capricious whims of individuals, each pictured and called out by name. I was, by far, the most frequent target.

The first installment of the Twitter Files came a month after I left the company, and just days after I published a guest essay in The Times and spoke about my experience working for Mr. Musk. I couldn’t help but feel that the company’s actions were, on some level, retaliatory. The next week, Mr. Musk went further by taking a paragraph of my Ph.D. dissertation out of context to baselessly claim that I condoned pedophilia — a conspiracy trope commonly used by far-right extremists and QAnon adherents to smear L.G.B.T.Q. people.

The response was even more extreme than I experienced after Mr. Trump’s tweet about me. “You need to swing from an old oak tree for the treason you have committed. Live in fear every day,” said one of thousands of threatening tweets and emails. That post, and hundreds of others like it, were violations of the very policies I’d worked to develop and enforce. Under new management, Twitter turned a blind eye, and the posts remain on the site today.

On Dec. 6, 2022, four days after the first Twitter Files release, I was asked to appear at a congressional hearing focused on the files and Twitter’s alleged censorship. In that hearing , members of Congress held up oversize posters of my years-old tweets and asked me under oath whether I still held those opinions. (To the extent the carelessly tweeted jokes could be taken as my actual opinions, I don’t.) Ms. Greene said on Fox News that I had “some very disturbing views about minors and child porn” and that I “allowed child porn to proliferate on Twitter,” warping Mr. Musk’s lies even further (and also extending their reach). Inundated with threats, and with no real options to push back or protect ourselves, my husband and I had to sell our home and move.

Academia has become the latest target of these campaigns to undermine online safety efforts. Researchers working to understand and address the spread of online misinformation have increasingly become subjects of partisan attacks ; the universities they’re affiliated with have become embroiled in lawsuits, burdensome public record requests and congressional proceedings . Facing seven-figure legal bills, even some of the largest and best-funded university labs have said they may have to abandon ship . Others targeted have elected to change their research focus based on the volume of harassment.

Bit by bit, hearing by hearing, these campaigns are systematically eroding hard-won improvements in the safety and integrity of online platforms — with the individuals doing this work bearing the most direct costs.

Tech platforms are retreating from their efforts to protect election security and slow the spread of online disinformation. Amid a broader climate of belt-tightening, companies have pulled back especially hard on their trust and safety efforts. As they face mounting pressure from a hostile Congress, these choices are as rational as they are dangerous.

We can look abroad to see how this story might end. Where once companies would at least make an effort to resist outside pressure, they now largely capitulate by default. In early 2023, the Indian government asked Twitter to restrict posts critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In years past, the company had pushed back on such requests ; this time, Twitter acquiesced . When a journalist noted that such cooperation only incentivizes further proliferation of draconian measures, Mr. Musk shrugged : “If we have a choice of either our people go to prison or we comply with the laws, we will comply with the laws.”

It’s hard to fault Mr. Musk for his decision not to put Twitter’s employees in India in harm’s way. But we shouldn’t forget where these tactics came from or how they became so widespread. From pushing the Twitter Files to tweeting baseless conspiracies about former employees, Mr. Musk’s actions have normalized and popularized vigilante accountability, and made ordinary employees of his company into even greater targets. His recent targeting of the Anti-Defamation League has shown that he views personal retaliation as an appropriate consequence for any criticism of him or his business interests. And, as a practical matter, with hate speech on the rise and advertiser revenue in retreat , Mr. Musk’s efforts seem to have done little to improve Twitter’s bottom line.

What can be done to turn back this tide?

Making the coercive influences on platform decision making clearer is a critical first step. And regulation that requires companies to be transparent about the choices they make in these cases, and why they make them, could help.

In its absence, companies must push back against attempts to control their work. Some of these decisions are fundamental matters of long-term business strategy, like where to open (or not open) corporate offices. But companies have a duty to their staff, too: Employees shouldn’t be left to figure out how to protect themselves after their lives have already been upended by these campaigns. Offering access to privacy-promoting services can help. Many institutions would do well to learn the lesson that few spheres of public life are immune to influence through intimidation.

If social media companies cannot safely operate in a country without exposing their staff to personal risk and company decisions to undue influence, perhaps they should not operate there at all. Like others , I worry that such pullouts would worsen the options left to people who have the greatest need for free and open online expression. But remaining in a compromised way could forestall necessary reckoning with censorial government policies. Refusing to comply with morally unjustifiable demands, and facing blockages as a result, may in the long run provoke the necessary public outrage that can help drive reform.

The broader challenge here — and perhaps, the inescapable one — is the essential humanness of online trust and safety efforts. It isn’t machine learning models and faceless algorithms behind key content moderation decisions: it’s people. And people can be pressured, intimidated, threatened and extorted. Standing up to injustice, authoritarianism and online harms requires employees who are willing to do that work.

Few people could be expected to take a job doing so if the cost is their life or liberty. We all need to recognize this new reality, and to plan accordingly.

Yoel Roth is a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the former head of trust and safety at Twitter.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram .


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