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One way the media may influence the way people think of religion is not only in the actual media commentary about religion, but in the manner the media (television, radio, physical/online print resources) presents a 'religious' point of view. The media (intentionally or not) may overgeneralize and exaggerate religious viewpoints, simply as a function of the debate-style format of most news stories.
News stories very often are designed in a point/counterpoint set-up, where two 'sides' of an issue are discussed and/or debated. An easy formula for a brief television news segment, for instance, would be to have two guests commenting on something newsworthy, from a neighborhood event to a Supreme Court ruling. The anchor then serves as a moderator/facilitator for the two guests. The invited guests are seen as representing a certain group's official/general point of view. One obvious problem with one guest representing the 'religious' point of view is that there are numerous religions and religious sects in the United States, and it is beyond the scope of one guest to represent them. However, when the guest is asked to respond to a Supreme Court ruling on Marriage Equality, the guest is seen by viewers as responding from the 'religious' perspective. This discounts the widely varying official responses one might hear from a Universal Unitarian or a Roman Catholic. Viewers generalize, and the media format encourages this generalization. Simply by presenting the religious guest as holding the opposing viewpoint, the media is non-verbally stating 'the other viewpoint is opposed by the religious establishment.'
Also, depending on the guests' and moderator's styles, the discussion can become quite heated. The guests' views are necessarily polarized, as each has been invited to give an opposing view. This set-up is not conducive to collaboration or reconciliation, and shows are more interesting to many viewers when the guests are more apt to disagree. The result is that the 'religious' perspective (as presented by the media) is often much less moderate than it may be in general practice.
I hope this helps.
The media can (but does not necessarily) influence the way people think about religion because many people get much of their information about the world through media. If we get much of our information about the world through media, the media will control what information we are exposed to. That would mean that the media controls what we have to think about, even if it does not necessarily control what we think.
Imagine that you are going to think about religion. You are going to think about whether religion is, in your opinion, a good thing or a bad thing for the world. Now imagine that the media only reports on the good things that religion brings about. It reports on charities that churches run. It does features about people who have had their lives transformed by religion. It reports on studies that show that people who pray and go to church are happier than those who do not. Alternatively, imagine that the media only reports on bad things about religion. It reports on sex scandals in churches. It reports on pastors who use donation money to buy themselves private jets. It reports on violence that is caused by religion. In each of these cases, you would have very different information available to you as you go to think about religion. This might influence you because it would give you different facts to mull over as you think about religion.
The media cannot force us to think in a given way about religion or anything else. However, it can determine what facts and ideas we are exposed to, thus potentially influencing the way we think about a given topic.
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