Australia is rich with religious diversity. So why are our newsrooms falling behind?
A lack of religious literacy by journalists – and a failure of news programs to feature a wider variety of faith leaders – is having an impact on the quality of coverage of major news stories and events in Australia.
Our new peer-reviewed article, Blessed Be the Educated Journalist, sheds light on the media’s limited understanding of the range of religions and faith traditions in Australia.
We focused on a specific case study of producers selecting talent for the ABC’s Q&A program. However, we argue ABC journalists are not the only ones who have failed to improve their limited understanding of religions outside Christianity and Islam.
The country’s religiosity landscape is changing: while Australians are increasingly reporting themselves to be non-religious (from 22 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2016), more than half (52 percent) of the general population still claims affiliation with Christianity. And minority religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism are fast growing.
To responsibly report news in a country of religious “superdiversity”, knowledge of the full range of belief systems should similarly be superdiverse.
How reporting on religions has been flawed
Some well-funded projects have made substantial efforts to educate Australian journalists about Islam in the past 20 years, but there has not been equivalent education around other faiths. And very few of these other faith leaders are ever featured in the news.
Change can be difficult for Australian journalists who are, by nature, a sceptical bunch unlikely to align themselves to any particular faith. Journalists generally have a higher level of non-religiosity compared to other people (70 percent reported having no religion in 2016, compared to 30 percent of the general population).
And as newsrooms have shrunk, many have lost religion reporters and others with religious expertise who are able to report knowledgeably on different faiths.
As a result, basic factual errors can creep into reporting. For example, the Pentecostal church the prime minister attends is Horizon, not Hillsong – they are different churches. And the religion predominantly practised in the South Sudanese community is Christian, not Muslim.
Other times, the media lack proper balance when it comes to including a variety of faith leaders in their reporting. There’s also often a lack of awareness of the need to include voices from less-prominent faith and spiritual groups, such as Indigenous Spirituality, mysticism, animism, Bon and Wicca.
In recent reporting on the COVID crisis, some reporting has similarly lacked nuance and more detailed understanding of people’s faiths. This has led to generalisations and misconceptions in the broader community.
For example, Muslim, ultra-Orthodox Jewish, and Orthodox Christian communities have received negative attention for breaking COVID rules, without adequate explanation of the traditions or beliefs of those in the faiths.
The narrative that religion is the sole cause of many problems can also be misleading, especially if the media play a role in crafting that. The ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report recently reported on research dispelling the assumption that religion is a key driver of conflict.
Catholic perspectives dominated ABC panels
My (Weng) analysis of religions discussions on the Q&A program from 2009–13 found that Catholic perspectives dominated, while others were excluded.
These discussions also took place around Christian dates of significance or with regard to specific Christian topics, while other religious representatives played adjunct roles. Discussions related to Islam also occurred at times without Muslim representation and input.
I also questioned why the prominent atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were key contributors to discussions on Australian religions on the program. This allowed them to shape, influence and reinforce understandings of religions from their particular British colonial view.
Why does it matter?
The news media continue to be significant sources of information about religions, especially for those who are not part of a religious community themselves or personally know anyone religious.
Yet, the rich diversity of cultures and religions in Australia has not yet translated into increased media representation or more knowledgeable reporting on religions.
Australian journalists need to be exposed to a wider range of faiths through training programs similar to the Reporting Islam Project. Given the success of this initiative, the materials could simply be reproduced to deepen knowledge about other religions.
Research shows that investing a bit of time in training can have massive returns in the way journalists and journalism students think about and report on religion.
Our universities can do their part by retaining religious studies programs instead of dismantling them in the face of budget cuts.
Religious studies are more critical than ever before, especially in the training of those who shape the way others see the world, such as journalists and politicians.