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BYU offers journal on media

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A new scholarly journal chronicling research on mass media and religion, headquartered at Brigham Young University, will publish its inaugural issue this month.

The Journal of Media and Religion is designed to fill a void among scholarly publications by providing a central "gathering place" for research that continues to grow with the advance of media technology, according to Daniel A. Stout, associate professor of communications at BYU.

Stout will edit the journal with Judith Buddenbaum, a professor of communication at Colorado State University and longtime media researcher who has spent the past 20 years looking at how religion and mass media intersect. As religion has become a larger part of public policy debates during the past several years the growing awareness of faith's role in society has nudged journalists who have long been hesitant to deal with a topic that seems so ephemeral, Buddenbaum said.

"That public willingness to speak out about religious faith and concerns about the media has translated into more scholars looking at religion and the media in various ways," she said. "It seemed like a good time to start a journal that would bring the research together in one place."

The need for information about such topics has become evident to Stout and Buddenbaum, who have co-authored a couple of books on the subject that have sold well, Buddenbaum said. While media have focused on politics and business constituencies, religion is "perhaps the most neglected topic in communications," according to James W. Carey, CBS Professor of International Journalism at Columbia University.

Mass media researchers acknowledge that religion has never been a strong subject for treatment by newspapers, television or radio, in part because many in the industry during the past century believed that faith had been transcended by reason.

Besides, how do you take pictures of the unseen reality that marks the world of the divine?

Yet society's "religious activism" during the past decade has forced a shift in how journalists consider the role of religion in public life, Buddenbaum said, and developing technology has changed how various churches use media to spread their own messages.

In his preface to the first issue of the new journal, Carey describes how "religion has unexpectedly returned to center stage, the site of both social solidarity and social conflict, of local bonds and transnational affiliations, shared beliefs and discordant world views."

That renewed focus is born out in the reaction by scholars to the new publication, Stout said. "We've already had numerous submissions and requests for information. I get e-mails every day inquiring about it," not just from communication professors, but from students, sociologists and theological seminaries.

The quarterly journal's inaugural issue will be released shortly, Stout said, but its focus will go beyond the "culture wars" discussions that permeate education, politics and the arts. While the debates are necessary, focusing solely on those questions "doesn't get to a number of the important and complex issues related to the topic."

For example, "religious groups use the media of popular culture as much as they criticize it," he said, noting the expansion of publishing, broadcasting and internet communications that have grown up within a variety of denominations. Several churches have guidelines about use of the secular media, yet they create their own media products to influence believers and non-believers alike.

Those topics, in addition to how religious media influence their secular counterparts, have yet to be widely examined by scholars, he said.

Related topics include how technology shapes people's relationship to religion.

"There is data that shows almost 20 percent of teens in the U.S. plan to worship exclusively via the internet," a concept that turns traditional ideas of gathering and shared faith experience on its head, he said. Yet internet chat rooms could make web-based worship a viable alternative, particularly for young people who have never known what it is like to be without a computer.

Stout also sees the journal as a vehicle to facilitate understanding about and between religious groups. Though initial public reaction to Islam was somewhat guarded in the days immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the change in public perception is "an example of what full and thorough coverage" of religion can do, Stout said.

The journal will also help document "the way media treat religion," Buddenbaum said. "There is a lot of speculation with the public. People tend to latch on to that one story they didn't like and forget the 100 that were so acceptable they didn't even notice them." And religion journalists tend to "think they do a great job of being fair when things slip off their radar screen" as well, so the journal will examine "the way things really are" rather than how those involved may want them to be, she said.

However the articles play out, both researchers agree the journal is a forum whose time has come.

"There is no greater challenge to the imagination than freeing ourselves of the view, now clearly discredited by history and politics, that religion is an atavism and religion and media a contradiction in terms," Carey writes in the first issue.

"No day signals this more clearly than Sept. 11, 2001, a day on which religion, media and politics dramatically merged, not only in carnage but in remembrance, mourning and the search for mutual understanding and tolerance."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com