A panel of international journalists, authors and media experts led a dialogue on the representation of religious and cultural "Others" at the first in a series of public events at the KAICIID Hall of Dialogue in Vienna, Austria. In a dialogue-based event, the panellists engaged with the audience to discuss a range of issues, challenges, ideas and solutions around this topic.
The panellists were drawn from a range of countries, cultures and religions. Moderator Claus Reitan is an author and columnist, and former chief editor of noted Austrian news weekly Die Furche. Anat Saragusti, current director of B'Tselem USA, a journalist, feminist and human rights activist, is an expert on how media affects society. The former CEO of AGENDA, an NGO established to change the way the media cover key issues, Saragusti brought to the panel her extensive knowledge of peacebuilding processes and conflict transformation. Fauzia Shaheen, head of the Women Media Center (WMC) in Karachi, Pakistan, spoke on the reporting of religion in South Asia and her experience promoting creative ways in which the voices of Pakistani women may be reflected in the country’s policymaking.
Author and media expert Khaled Hroub is Professor of Middle Eastern studies at Northwestern University in Qatar. As a senior research fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, where he is the director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project (CAMP), he brought his experience working with Arab media, and bringing together academics and experts in the field.
Alan Rosenblatt is a digital/social media strategist, professor, thought leader and a partner at Turner Strategies. He taught the first college course on digital politics (1995), created and built the Center for American Progress’ social media programme (2007-13) and has trained more than 15,000 people across the world in digital/social media strategy, including civil society leaders across the Arab world, in 2009.
The panellists discussed the challenges of ensuring fair representation of people of different communities, as well as the dangers of marginalizing people who do not have a voice or the opportunity for self-representation in the news media. In the words of Saragusti: "The media plays a role in decision making processes. If communities are not represented in the media, this means that this community is not participating in the public debate. If we are not participating in the decision-making processes, the system will not take us into account."
The participants highlighted several key challenges in transmitting a fair Image of the Other, including the issue of "newsworthiness", an emphasis on the sensational and the extreme which results in overemphasis on stereotypes and extremes, and the marginalization in the media of the vast majority of peaceful people of faith, and the friction between nuanced reporting and the media as profit-oriented businesses. Shaheen mentioned a significant challenge to the fair representation of religions in many parts of the world: "Extremism and fundamentalism are challenges in reporting on religion in Pakistan. Journalists seeking to report objectively on other religions can frequently face threats. Pakistan is one of the most deadly countries for journalists in the world."
Responding to a criticism from the audience that social media can lead to polarisation of populations, Rosenblatt countered that social media, far from being a source of polarisation, are a "lens, through which pre-existing ideas are shared".
In conclusion, the panellists agreed on the need for dialogue between media and religious representatives. "Dialogue is without alternative", said Hroub. "Critical thinking in the media and acceptance or faith in religions are two different spheres: the only way to reconcile these two different spheres is through dialogue. We are different, and we embrace this."