Liberty of Faith and Conscience

Media, Religious Minorities and Freedom of Religion


[Universidad Rey Juan Carlos]

The goal of this article is to have a look at the media agenda and the frames used to talk about religion in general but specially to report on minority communities and their right to religious freedom.

Keywords: Religious freedom, media, minorities, Spain

1. Introduction: Setting the scene

Talking about religious freedom implies thinking about the role of freedom of expression, as both are fundamental rights that are very close and the first one needs the backing of the second. Therefore it is important to highlight the role of the media in order to defend the right of religious freedom. The media play a central role in providing symbolic resources and give meaning meaning to our society and worldviews. For centuries religion has held this role and currently the media has since taken over as a social authority. So nowadays the media treatment of religion is an indicator of the status of religion in contemporary society. It is important to highlight the lack of information about religious topics in the mainstream media. When we look at the lack of media coverage of religion issues and the frecuent use of the negative frame used to talk about it, we realize that there is a real need for reflecting what is the role of the media in addressing the right to religious freedom. In particular, there are very few studies that address the role of the media to guarantee the practice not only of religion freedom but also freedom of concience.

In academic circles, in terms of political communication and journalism theory, there are deep questions that are asked every day about the relationship between the media and society and the media impact on public opinion. However the issue how to cover religion in the media and its influence in society is rarely on the research agenda. Nowadays, the media and its globalized information culture become the main bodyguards of the moral and value system in the world. They play a key role in protecting and defend the values and rights that they consider vital and ignore the ones that are out of the mainstream agenda. Therefore, here we will reflect about the role of the media to create public knowledge about religion and to be a platform for religious communities to have a public voice in society. Using Spain as a case study, we argue that in general the media gatekeepers put religion out of the agenda or use a negative tone and act as the spokesmen of the dark side of religion. We will also consider if there if there are some reasons inherent in to the religious discourse that make it more difficult for journalists to report objectively.

Within western societies, there are differenceS in terms of media and religious freedom however this article we will mainly focus on the general framework and analytical outline of European countries and, in some cases, we will specifically refer to the Spanish case.

2. Theoretical-methodological Framework

The goal of this project is to identify the main media discourse framework: how often and how they talk about religion and religious minorities. The data will help to evaluate in which terms the media is shaping the collective imagination about religion and contributes to generate perceptions and attitudes.

In this section in order to research in depth how the issue of religious and religious minorities are presented in the media, the concepts and methodology of Agenda Setting Theory and Framing are used. The Agenda Setting Theory1 has become one of the paradigms of greatest relevance in Communication. The central notion of the agenda suggests that the media influences the issues people think about and consider to be important2. The main hypothesis centers around the notion that the transference of visibility (salience) which suggests that issues which bear more weight regarding media coverage end up becoming the most accessible to receivers3. In this study, the hypothesis is that media coverage of religion and religious minorities is not significant so the issue is not very accessible to receivers and it is not open to give religious minorities the chance to exercise their right to religious freedom.

Agenda studies agree in pointing out that the media agenda has a certain degree of influence over the public opinion agenda. Therefore the lack of visibility of religious minorities could contribute to their lack of integration in the public sphere were they are not encouraged to exercise their right to religious freedom.

The observation that religion seems not to be relevant in the media agenda is only one part of the picture, as it is also essential to analyze the media frames. A frame is the way information is organized4; it is the perspective of the facts based on the selection and emphasis of some elements. In sum, the first hypotesis is that Religion is very rarely on the media agenda. The second , it is that religion is often portrayed in a negative way, with a risky frame or human drama frame, by the media (regardless which religion).

In general news about religion are reported with a risky frame and harldy ever with a possitive frame. Therefore, the media hypes about religion are directly linked with negative news-worthy events or situations of crisis. The third hypothesis is that minority religious groups are hardly ever represented in the media. By having a look at the way religious minorities are framed in fictional television series it is possible to find out what the stereotypes are that are often used to talk about minorities and how visible they are. In order to test these hypotheses, in this article we will explore the media coverage of religion in the quality press and the television series in Spain.

3. Case Study: Visibility and Frames of Religious Minorities in the Spanish Media

If we look at all the news published in the quality press and look at the visibility of different issues, it is very likely to find that religion is present in less than 1% of the total number of news items in the main newspapers5. When having a look at the visibility of religious communities, the result is very similar; religion is more present in the news items as a feature to describe people or groups, however, very rarely is incorporated into the headline or as the lead in a news item (G1).

G1. Visibility of religious minorities in the Spanish media*

Note: N=374 news in 2010 (Newspapers: El Pais & El Mundo) / 65% Islam / 19% Protestants-evangelicals / Jews (8%) / Orthodox (5%) / Other (3%)

It is very clear that the Islamic community receives more media coverage than other religious groups. It is important to highlight that most of the news items about the Islamic community are international news items. It is also within the framework of international coverage of religious issues linked with Islam and the Islamic community. From all the news related to Islam, most of them are focused on terrorism (45 %) and other issues such as the burke and veil (22%). In these cases, the members of the community are not present with an active voice. Most of this news is reported in an indirect way without giving a voice to the actors and members of Islam. Another rhetorical feature is the negative associations, especially with issues connected to the Islamic community. The more sensational and dramatic the issues, the greater the chance to be included in the media agenda. The mass media is especially interested in this kind of approach because it is easier to talk about them and they attract more of the audience’s attention. This is one of the reasons that Islam very often catches the media attention but not from a religious point of view, because it is more often related to politics.

In a secular society, it is considered that religion only sells when reporting a negative story with a certain degree of sensationalism as well as when religion is being devalued. Negative frames with a risk factor within the media could increase the fears that citizens have towards religion. Moreover, these kind media coverage could contribute to the misguided view of the reality of religion and its different communities.

When having a look at the occasions that religious groups appear or are mentioned in television series, we discover that the percentage of episodes that include a religious theme is also very low. Out of the 74 episodes analyzed6, only 16 mention or include religious groups. It is also very significant that 70% of these times, the person who belongs to a religious group is an immigrant. This confirms the findings of another study7 who researches the representation of immigrants in Spanish fictional television programmes8. In the same way in the press, there is a tendency to emphasize that believers that are not catholic are from other countries. This is the case, but it is overemphasized by the media. In fact, it is possible to say that the arrival of immigrants and the growth of diversity have contributed to the visibility of religious minority group even though they are still it is reported as minorities.

Taking this into consideration, it is important to remember that the minorities differ from majority groups not only because of their number. The majority is also the model that is socially accepted as the one to follow. However, it could be true that a minority could be even more numerous than a majority (Deleuze, 1999). This author states that all of us could be at some point a minority. Social trends have the power to reinforce the visibility or invisibility of different groups and in this way, make them more or less noticeable. If believers represented in the media are members of a different religious group as well as members of an ethnic minority, it further reinforces their identity as a minority. This dynamic could crystallize the stereotype that it is only foreigners that practice their faith, at least this is what we see in the Spanish television fictional series. In such series, the Catholics are pretty much left out of the discourse, even more than religious minorities.

Television series, at least in the case of Spain in the last two decades, have been playing a model role in the representation of society and its values. They have tried to accompany the evolution of society and the changes of mentality and moral values. For example, they have incorporated issues such as the woman in the working world, divorce, evolution in sexual behavior, etc. In this process, secular values have been reinforced, including the Catholic Church being criticized9. But in general, television series have excluded religion and traditional values from social debates. The silence towards religion has been a way to criticize it and push it outside of normal and daily life issues.

In general, these television series do not address religious pluralism or substantial issues related to religion, and when they do, it is with a more folkloric approach. In general, there is a lack of visibility of religious minorities in the news and in fictional television series. This conclusion reinforces the results of other studies, such as Garcia & Gonzalez that conclude that the media hardly ever report minorities giving them their own voice. The spiral of silence in the media is taking place by not giving them their own voice or the chance to explain situations when there is a crisis, reinforcing their invisibility. For historical reasons, the Catholic Church and the Catholic community still receive more media coverage than other religious groups. However it is important to highlight that until Democracy came to Spain, the Catholic Church had been losing media coverage. During the last 25 years, religious freedom become a reality from legal and political terms however religious minorities sometimes have to remind the public institutions their right for example to build a place of worship.

On the other hand, the right to practice religion is permitted however the right to have a public voice is not considered relevant. So it becomes really hard for religious group to be present in the media with their own voice. Most of the time religious issues are mentioned is through the voice of an expert, journalist or somebody outside the religious community. The media didn’t want to be the spokesmen for any religion anymore, but, at the same time, way they implicitly ignore religious minorities and their right to be visible in the public debate.

4. Looking for some explanations: the limits of the journalistic discourse to approach religion

The observations and results of this pilot study about representation of religion and religious minorities lead us to analyze the media operative dynamic and the causes leading to this cycle of silence and negative representation. The fact that the media chose to include some topics on the agenda over others and cover the opinion on certain issues has an important impact over what the audience reads and watches and therefore, believes. Religion is a complex issue that is related to personal experience and has a component of abstract thinking, beliefs and interpretation that make it difficult to express in a news item. The most mediatic religious events are the rituals and big ceremonies that have visual value and are is easy to be presented in the audiovisual media. In the cases where the news talk about the personal spiritual life or experience, it is usually from extreme case of a very peculiar person that has an interesting or crazy story . For all these reasons, the religious events that are in the media are usually linked with the news values such as deviation, negativity, spectacle or scentric stories. On the other hand,there are the news connected with the dialectic conflict between different groups or the church and the government. So the human frame and the conflict frame are the ones that are more likely to make into the media agenda.

The other approach of religion is using the journalist opinion formats such as opinion columns and editorials. Some authors have pointed out that in the media, the spokesmen of media issues are writers, philosophers and journalist coming from an agnostic and ateistic background who make remarks about religion. Moroever in countries like Spain, the history of the close relationships between the Church and the State, the freedom of speech have been also interpreted from the approach of secular media that exclude religion from the agenda as a way to express the independence from institutions like the church. Some researchers have pointed out that the negative view on religion is stronger in Spainish newspapers that in the quality press of other European countries10.

5. Conclusions

The media play a role in establishing the public agenda and determining the hierarchy of the importance of the issues and it also plays a role in the structure and organization of our society. For this reason, it is possible to say that the media build a partial understanding of social issues because some of relevant aspects of reality are left out of the agenda, which leads to the disinformation of the audience regardless some issues or approaches.

The lack of visibility of religion and religious groups in the media is only one part of the picture, as it is also very relevant to analyze the media frames. A frame is the way information is organized; it is the perspective of the facts based on the selection and emphasis of some elements. In general, the media frame religion with a negative-risky frame and focus.

The predominance of negative frames is not a phenomenton exclusive to the news about religion, but rather is a trend in the media. However this trend becomes more evident when it is linked with a minority group that is only in the public sphere when there is a negative event. It is possible to say that by failing to cover religion seriously, the media have contributed to dim the religious issues into the invisibility and the salience only of the dramatic events, crisis or stories with a negative side. What becomes very clear is that the media do not encourage minorities to be present in the discourse or to exercise their right to express their religious believes in the public sphere. On the other hand, in general, it is possible to say that journalists are not really concerned with the importance of religious freedom worldwide. In the best case, when the media pick religious issues and talk about it, they usually focus on the individual story and the religious person´s rights.There is a tendency in Western media to not report properly on cases where there is government repression and violations of religious freedom. Journalists have to remember their role to defend religious freedom as it has a vital role in the growth of democracy and human rights.

6. Recommendations

As we had been pointed out, the religious reality is a sensitive issue. The right to believe and to express what one believe should be guarantee by the media and not only by the legal or political institutions. Therefore, here we propose some recommendations that may help to better media coverage of religious minorities that may contribute to a better understanding and exercise of religious freedom in the public arena.

– The journalist approach of the religious issue implies the application of the same professional criteria that to other topics. For example, it should be reported taking in consideration the opinions of the different sides of the debate. It is necessary to have a better contextualization of the events and to the include voices of the people who belong to that group.

– The notion of journalistic and newsworty event is not the best approach for religious issues because then there is a tendency to focus only on the conflict or the human frame. Due to the complexity of the religious issue, it should be more often reported from journalist genre such as deep interviews, documentaries, reports…that help to have a deep view and a better understanding of religion and spiritiual experiences.

– The analysis of religion and the media as a plataform for citizens to express their religion views and values demands that jornalist have a better knowledge of the religious issues in other to guarantee a balance view of the issues.

– In order to guarantee the freedom of religion and expresion of religious believes the media should have a deontologic code to have some guidelines to follow. In the same way that this kind of media watchers and moral-deontolotical approach have been used to report on issues such as immigration and the rights of ethnic minorities.

Regardless the rights of religious minorities, there are some general recommendations to be made:

– The different religious minorities should be part of the news coverage specially when that events concern to them , they should have the chance to practice their right to express their opinion about what happen.

– The mass media should be a platform for religious groups to present their possitive contributions to society, such a solidarity events, rehabititions centers, social centers, contributions to culture and education….

– It should be avoid generalizations of negative behaviour from a single person and event to the general.

– Most of the representations of religious issues in media do not come from the institutionalized religions or groups but are produced and edited by the media. It seems that the freedom of press and religion is somehow guaranteed only to those who own one. At least that is a fact for small religions that now they had found on the internet a loudspeaker to broadcast their own articles, programmes… However it is also important the religion is addressed also in mainstream media.

– Television Fictional Series should include religious minorities without stereotypical roles that could help to the normalization of religious pluralism.

Finally, it is important to point out the possiblities open up by this kind of research. This should serve as springbroad for future studies about this field of media representation of religion, religious freedom and minorities. First of all, it would be very relevant to compare the results achieve in different countries, and try to find out if there are important differences or similiarities. In this way we could conclude what are the main trends of media protaits of religion and religiouns minorities and in this way it is possible to draw some recommendations that could contribute to the duty of media into the guarantee of religious freedom and expression of religious diversity.


COHEN, Bernard, The Press and Foreign Policy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.
CONTRERAS, José María, La protección de las minorias religiosas: algunas consideraciones en torno a la declaración de los derechos de las minorias religiosa:algunas consideraciones en torno a la declaración de los derechos de las personas pertenecientes a minorías, Anuario de Derecho Internacional,Madrid, Anuario de Derecho Internacional, Nº 15,1999.
DEARING J ; Rogers, E. Communication Concepts 6: Agenda Setting, CA, Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1996.
DELEUZE, Gilles, Conversaciones, Madrid, Ed. Pretextos, 1999.
ENTMAN, Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm, Journal of Communication, Vol. 43, n. 4, 1993):51-58.
GALAN, Fajardo, „La representación de los inmigrantes en la ficción televisiva en España”, La Laguna, Tenerife: Revista Latina de Comunicación social, 61, 2006.
FERNANDEZ José Luis; Alfredo Ramos, Presencia de las minorías religiosas en las series de ficción nacional, Madrid: Pluralismo y Convivencia, 2010.
GARCIA, Diego; Lucio González, „Las minorías religiosas y los medios de comunicación en la CAPV”, in Ruiz Eduardo (dir.) (2010). La diversidad religiosa en el País Vasco. Nuevos retos sociales y culturales para las políticas públicas. Publicaciones en la Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, 2010.
MCCOMBS Maxwell; Donald Shaw, D, The agenda-setting function of mass media, Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 36, n. 2, 1972.



1 Maxwell McCombs, M. & Donald Shaw, D. The agenda-setting function of mass media, (Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 36, n. 2, 1972), 176-187.
2 Bernard Cohen, The Press and Foreign Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963).
3 Dearing, J. & Rogers, E. Communication Concepts 6: Agenda Setting, (CA, Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1996).
4 Robert Entman, Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm, (Journal of Communication, Vol. 43, n. 4, 1993), 51-58.
5 0.3% of the total number of news in the Spanish quality press ( Newspapers: El País & El Mundo). The keywords used for the automatic analysis had been: religion*, islam*, protestante*,evangelic*, orthodox*, judio*; judaismo*. The visibility is measure in the headline and lead of the news item.
6 N=74 ( Television series: Aida, Física o Química, Hospital Central, Los Hombres de Paco).
7 Fajardo Galan, „La representación de los inmigrantes en la ficción televisiva en España”,( La Laguna, Tenerife: Revista Latina de Comunicación social, 61,2006), 64.
8 Television series: Hospital Central and Comisario.
9 Diego Garcia & Lucio Gonzalez, „Las minorías religiosas y los medios de comunicación en la CAPV”, RUIZ Eduardo (dir.) (2010). La diversidad religiosa en el País Vasco. Nuevos retos sociales y culturales para las políticas públicas. Publicaciones en la Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao (2010).
10 José María Contreras, La protección de las minorias religiosas: algunas consideraciones en torno a la declaración de los derechos de las minorias religiosa:algunas consideraciones en torno a la declaración de los derechos de las personas pertenecientes a minorías, (Madrid, Anuario de Derecho Internacional, Nº 15,1999), 159-204.


NOEMI MENA MONTES – Dr., Lecturer-Researcher, Communication Faculty, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos.




Sfera Politicii