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Language expert advises media to rethink the way they write about religion

0006 Dr Salman Al-Azami Monday 26 September 2016

A linguist whose research is one of the first in the UK to combine an analysis of the language used by the UK media, with a study into how followers of different and no religion respond to it, is calling on journalists and broadcasters to reassess the way they represent religions.

For his latest book, ‘Religion in the Media: A Linguistic Analysis’ (Palgrave), Senior Lecturer in English Language Dr Salman Al-Azami carried out a linguistic analysis of five TV documentaries shown on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 between 2009 and 2012, six news articles and columns in The Guardian and The Daily Mail published between 2007 and 2014, two episodes of a BBC TV drama broadcast in 2004 and 2007, and an episode of an American animated series shown on the BBC in 2015.  

He investigated how the media uses language to represent the three Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). He then held focus groups in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham and asked members of different faiths and of no professed faith to give their opinions on the same media representations he had analysed.

Dr Al-Azami said: “While we may all have our own opinions about the language used by the media, this research shows that it really does have an effect on the attitudes of those reading or watching it, especially when it comes to our opinions of other religions.”

The linguistic analysis found that coverage of Islam was overtly negative, and there was mixed coverage of Christianity, with Evangelical Christians receiving more bad press. There was little written about the practice of Judaism as a religion - rather, references to Judaism were mostly confined to issues related to Israel.

It also found The Daily Mail represented Islam most negatively, and even a relatively less hostile article in the newspaper displayed some covert negativity in its language, which made a correlation between an increase of Muslim converts and the rise in terrorism.

Negative language in a Guardian article about Evangelical Christians was also identified as covertly implying all members of this branch of Christianity were homophobic.

Dr Al-Azami said: “The linguistic analysis made it clear that most of the UK media look at Islam from an ethnocentric perspective, considering Western culture as the only ‘civilised’ culture and any religious or cultural practice that is different is portrayed as ‘other’. For example, terms like ‘shocking’, ‘disturbing’ ‘forced’ and ‘imposed’ were used in a Daily Mail article on gender segregation in Islam.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the media deliberately undermine Islam and Muslims all the time, but almost all research in this field, and now my own, agrees that the media is not playing a responsible role while representing Islam, and this is dangerous. While many media reports do not purposefully use emotive language, we also need to be aware of how language can covertly imply negativity. Ethnocentrism and lack of cultural understanding of Islam came out prominently in my investigation into why there is negativity on such a large scale.

“There is no winner in representing a religious group in this manner, apart from the extremist elements among the Muslims and some right-wing Islamophobic groups. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of our society, but that freedom needs to be practised to create a fair and just society free from prejudice and hatred. The media therefore needs to reflect on these issues while fulfilling their duties.”

Religion in the Media: A Linguistic Analysis is out now.

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