Trends in Reporting Religions
May 24, 2010
International Media Dialogue on Cultures and Religions
Remarks by Ian Morrison - Spokesperson, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting
Thanks for the opportunity to participate in this International Media Dialogue! I represent Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a viewers' and listeners' watchdog group supported by 100,000 Canadians. You can learn more about our work by visiting www.friends.ca.
As a contribution to this discussion about trends in reporting religions, I offer a case study from my country.  By law and regulation, the programming offered by the Canadian broadcasting system must provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern. Until recently, our broadcast regulator took the view that since a broadcaster dedicated exclusively to the views of a particular religion, denomination or sect would, by its very nature, be predisposed toward one particular point of view, it would fail the test of satisfying the legal requirement to provide balance in its programming.
Accordingly, the first religious broadcasting service licensed for national television distribution in Canada, "Vision TV", was a multi-faith religious service dedicated to promoting tolerance and co-operation among different religious groups. The religious broadcasting policy at the time favoured a national, multi-faith model that, through its ownership and participation structure, would foster balance and diversity among the different religious faiths in contemporary Canadian society.
By the 1990s, with an explosion of new channel capacity, the Canadian regulator came to the conclusion that while Vision TV should be favoured over single point-of-view religious broadcasters through a licensing status ensuring its distribution to the largest possible number of Canadians, there should also be room in the system for single point-of-view religious broadcasters.
However the regulator began to license these single point-of-view religious broadcasters in a way that ensured that viewers must make a clear, positive choice to pay for and receive them. They had to be packaged and sold through cable and satellite TV distributors in packages bundled with other Canadian religious programming services, and could not be distributed in packages with foreign services.
This policy was designed to ensure a pride of place for multi-faith broadcasters while still enabling single point-of-view broadcasters to reach audiences who were prepared to pay extra to receive them.
The regulator also published a "code of ethics" for religious broadcasters and required adherence in order to continue to access the Canadian airwaves. The purpose of this code was to provide an effective guide to program development, production, acquisition and scheduling, and to protect viewers and listeners against intolerance and exploitation, particularly those viewers vulnerable to religious solicitations.
These guidelines recognize and support the freedom and rights of individuals and groups to state their beliefs freely and clearly, and are intended to enable individuals and groups to communicate those beliefs in an appropriate and meaningful manner. The regulator made clear that it expected that programming of a religious nature, like any other programming, must demonstrate tolerance, integrity and responsibility.
Here are some provisions of this code of ethics: the wording and tone of any solicitations for funds should not place an undue responsibility on the viewer or listener to respond to the appeal, or be alarmist in suggesting that the program might be discontinued in the absence of such a response, or predict divine consequences of not responding, or exaggerate the positive results of responding, or otherwise intimidate the viewer or listener in any way.
In addition, the regulator required that licensees who broadcast religious programs should observe the following practices:
- No programs shall have the effect of abusing or misrepresenting any individual or group.
- No group shall be targeted for the purpose of conversion or proselytism.
- While groups and ministries are free to express their views about activities that they deem to be "sinful", they shall not call into question the human rights or dignity of any individual or group.
- When programs are planned that deal with, or comment on the beliefs, practices liturgy or behaviour of another religious group, the broadcaster is required to ensure the accuracy and appropriate context of such content.
Also, the regulator insisted that any religious organization using the Canadian broadcasting system to solicit funds should also be licensed as a charity registered with the government under Canadian tax law to ensure transparency and financial accountability to Canadian viewers and listeners.
Finally, on the matter of "balance" the regulator published some criteria:
- The onus was placed on all religious broadcasters to determine for themselves when an issue is important enough to merit presenting a wide range of opinions.
- In general, a broadcaster need not necessarily give equal time to each point of view.
- Rather, the regulator expects that a variety of points of view would be made available in the programming offered by the broadcaster to a reasonably consistent viewer or listener, over a reasonable period of time.
The current Canadian policy has been operating now for the better part of two decades. In my view, it continues to work rather well.
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 This presentation draws from the 1993 "Religious Broadcasting Policy" published by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. This policy is available online at www.crtc.gc.ca. A number of statements in this presentation are paraphrased or drawn word-for-word from this policy. In the interest of simplicity and the needs of an international audience, I have elected not to further annotate this presentation.