The role of media is bigger than it has ever been. The best part is that media is still growing and influencing our lives as the days go by. The media plays a central role in informing the public about what happens in the world. People rely on media such as television, the press and online to get news and updates. Anyone can now find out almost anything they want to know by the click of a button on their smartphone or tablet. However, with how intoxicating the media is today, it does tend to have the power to shape public opinion, especially over major topics such as education and religion.

The role of the media is to transmit the reality and uncover the underlying facts of things. Changing the mentality of the people through media to be more permissive, understanding and educative is a very difficult task. Audiences form their beliefs and attitudes, either by themselves or with others, in response to media messages. The level of influence of media varies, however, and messages from the media are not received uniformly by all audiences.

Direct experience, knowledge from other sources and logic are a few factors that contribute to the degree to which audiences accept or reject messages from the media. The media has a massive responsibility in providing factual coverage that does not perpetuate myths or stereotypes, encourage generalizations or spread misinformation.

The agenda-setting theory is the primary emphasis on shaping public opinion. Pertaining to the news, there has been a phenomenal nationwide decrease in local news networks and papers and an increase in national news networks and papers. If a news item is covered more frequently, especially on national news, the audience will regard the issue as more important.

According to Lumen Learning, “Two basic assumptions underlie most research on agenda-setting: One, that the press and the media do not reflect reality, they filter and shape it; and two, that media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.” Agenda-setting occurs through a cognitive process known as “accessibility.”

Accessibility implies that the more frequently and prominently the news media cover an issue, the more instances that issue becomes accessible in the audience’s memories. Mass media coverage in general and agenda-setting in particular have a powerful impact on what individuals think other people are thinking as well.

The agenda-setting theory has a huge effect on shaping public education because a majority of parents have very strong opinions about where their child gets their education. Parents will pick schools for their children based on a number of factors: sports, religion, theater, teachers, reputation, etc.

Pertaining to public versus private school, parents also tend to favor one over the other depending on where they themselves went to school. If they hear bad news about one school or about an outbreak of sickness on some national news media, parents will be quick to form their opinions about certain schools. Especially since everything is online now, parents can see anything positive or negative about a school.

For example, with this flu outbreak I spoke to a number of parents about what they think of it, and a lot of parents were very mad and concerned. They started calling public schools unclean and dirty, even though the outbreak is all over, not just in schools.

Some parents only send their kids to public schools if they cannot afford a private education or do not have any religious beliefs. Public school generally has a reputation for not being as good as private schools; however, private and public schools are in fact very similar. Public school parents tend to believe they are judged for sending their child to a public school, like they are somehow doing less for their child. Private schools have the reputation of being academically superior and increasing the child’s chances of getting into a great college.

However, these are reputations and stereotypes that parents are feeding into. Both types of education have their ups and downs; therefore, parents should do their research on schools instead of automatically assuming a school is terrible or amazing. It could actually be the complete opposite of what they thought.

Religion is still a very controversial topic. In 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed the Butler Act, which made it a misdemeanor to teach the evolution of only one species—mankind—in the public schools. John Scopes was caught teaching the evolution of mankind, which is how “The Monkey Trial,” also known as the State of Tennessee vs. John Scopes, came about. This was extremely controversial because religion and science collided.

In current time, private schools will teach evolution because of Epperson vs. Arkansas, where Arkansas’ law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was in violation of the first amendment. In reaction to the Epperson case, creationists in Louisiana passed a law requiring that public schools should give equal time to alternative theories of origin.

According to Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors in “Religion, Media and the Public Sphere,” “Modernist assumptions about the decline of religion as a public force notwithstanding, religions are thriving all over the world.”

However, one major issue is the presence of religion in the public sphere, especially in politics. Religious convictions emerge in public debate only as opinions, and the holder of said opinions must engage other opinions within the boundaries of rational and discursive rules. But part of the reason religions are thriving is because of new religions that are being created or are a “branch” religion. These are mainly formed because of politics and to question the authority of the modern state to contain religion.

For example, one of the emerging religions is fundamentalist Muslim, which, in short, is described as a reaction against unreachable modernization. Every person tries to get their own opinion out, and creating a new religion is a great way to publicize yourself and find others who have the same belief. On the other hand, the adoption of mass media raises many concerns of authority and legitimacy. It is no secret people will do anything to be seen or heard, which would create another issue in a religious person going over the top and inappropriately expressing their religion.

Media is not just an enemy for religion. It has its positive aspects as well. According to “New Media and the Reshaping of Religious Practice,” “New media tools support networked forms of community, encourage experimentation with religious identity construction and self-presentation and promote drawing from multiple and divergent religious sources and encounters simultaneously.” This encourages an open, fluid and individualized form of religious engagement because the media is being used to redefine religious practice in contemporary life. A huge outbreak of religious blogs started, which could help people get a more personal view of religions as well as personal opinions.

In general, media is basically 50/50 in helping or hurting the public. Since everything is online now, it is very hard to hide information because people can just look anything up. Media has a huge impact on how people view things, especially religion and education. Religion and education will always be controversial in public opinion, especially because it has been all since the creation of both. As long as the reader uses informative and scholarly sources, they will be able to formulate a rational opinion over a certain topic through media.

Marie Bray is a fourth-year student at majoring in communication studies. ✉ MB822035@wcupa.edu.

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