UHV faculty member wins award for research on digital religion

Mark Ward Sr., a University of Houston-Victoria associate professor of communication, recently was selected as the winner of the 2020 Digital Religion Research Award for his research and article about the economics of religious media.

Mark Ward Sr.

Originally, the award was scheduled to be presented in August during the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture conference in Sweden, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference was postponed until 2021. Ward, who also would have given a lecture at the conference, will instead speak about his article this fall at Texas A&M University, home of the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies that sponsored the award.

The article, titled “Digital Religion and Media Economics: Concentration and Convergence in the Electronic Church,” was printed in the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture, Volume 7, Number 1, which was released in April 2018.

Beverly Tomek

“Dr. Ward continues to produce new insight and research into the religious community and culture,” said Beverly Tomek, interim dean of the UHV School of Arts & Sciences. “We are proud to see his work win another well-deserved award.”

Ward joined the UHV faculty in 2010, and in 2018 he received the UHV Research and Scholarly Activity Excellence Award. He has received several national awards for his research, including awards from the Religious Communication Association and the National Communication Association. He also has published several books, including “The Lord’s Radio: Gospel Music Broadcasting and Making of Evangelical Culture” and the two-volume series, “The Electronic Church in the Digital Age: Cultural Impacts of Evangelical Mass Media.”

For years, Ward’s research has followed two tracks. At the local level, he observes how members of evangelical Christian churches use language to create a shared culture. Then he explores how the norms of that culture are reflected and shaped by Christian radio, television and internet sites.

“In our media age, how people practice and experience religion through media is an important question,” Ward said. “As part of the field of media and religion, Digital Religion Studies look at how religion is practiced and experienced virtually through internet-based media.”

Ward’s article delves into how “digital religion” in North America is now dominated by religious media conglomerates.

“Size matters in media economics,” Ward said. “It costs a lot of money to produce radio and TV programming, which large media corporations can do. But it costs very little to repackage this content for on-demand streaming platforms.”

One religious media conglomerate alone generates 110 million computer sessions and 79 million mobile sessions a month, he said.

“Just as the internet is largely controlled by a handful of large media companies, this also is true in religious media,” Ward said. “These conglomerates control the religious messages that tens of millions of people see over broadcast and digital media every month.”

Such control has a real impact on civic discourse in America, he said. One in four Americans identifies as an evangelical Christian. Given the vast reach of religious mass media through radio, television and on-demand streaming, evangelicals can live in a media world in which messages are controlled and other opinions are excluded.

“This illustrates how research and scholarship address real problems of public importance and can benefit the community,” Ward said.

For that reason, he appreciates that UHV values and supports the research that faculty members do. Further, as faculty members are encouraged to be active in their field, they can, in turn, provide students with unique insights and knowledge.

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973 in Victoria, Texas, offers courses leading to more than 80 academic programs in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, Texas, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.

Amber Aldaco