Australia is rich in religious diversity. So why are our editorial staff falling behind?
Journalists’ lack of religious knowledge – and the inability of news programs to feature a wider variety of religious leaders – impacts 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 religious traditions in Australia.
We focused on a specific case study of producers selecting talent for the ABC Q&A program. However, we argue that ABC journalists are not the only ones who have failed to improve their limited understanding of religions outside of Christianity and Islam.
The country’s religious landscape is changing: as Australians increasingly declare themselves to be non-religious (from 22% in 2011 to 30% in 2016), more than half (52%) of the general population still claims affiliation with Christianity. And minority religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism are growing rapidly.
To responsibly report news in a country of religious “superdiversity”, knowledge of all belief systems should likewise be superdiverse.
Read more: Yes, religion plays a bigger role in politics. But “secular Australia” has always been a myth
How reporting on religions has been flawed
Some well-funded projects have made substantial efforts to educate Australian journalists about Islam over the past 20 years, but there has been no equivalent education on other religions. And very few of these other religious leaders are ever featured in the news.
Change can be difficult for Australian journalists who are by nature a skeptical group unlikely to align with any particular faith. Journalists generally have a higher level of absence of religion than other people (70% said they had no religion in 2016, compared to 30% of the general population).
Read more: Explanation: What is Pentecostalism and how could it influence Scott Morrison’s politics?
And as newsrooms have shrunk, many have lost religious journalists and others with religious expertise who are capable of knowingly reporting on different faiths.
As a result, basic factual errors can creep into the reports. For example, the Pentecostal church the Prime Minister attends is Horizon, not Hillsong – they are different churches. And the religion predominantly practiced in the South Sudanese community is Christian and not Muslim.
Other times, the media lack balance when it comes to including a variety of religious leaders in their reporting. There is also often a lack of awareness of the need to include the voices of smaller religious and spiritual groups, such as Indigenous Spirituality, Mysticism, Animism, Bon and Wicca.
In recent reporting on the COVID crisis, some reporting has also lacked nuance and a more detailed understanding of people’s beliefs. This has led to generalizations and misconceptions throughout the community.
For example, Muslim, ultra-Orthodox Jewish, and Orthodox Christian communities have received negative attention for breaking COVID rules, without an adequate explanation of believers’ traditions or beliefs.
The narrative that religion is the sole cause of many problems can also be misleading, especially if the media plays a role in shaping this. The CBA’s Religion and Ethics Report recently reported on research dispelling the hypothesis that religion is a key driver of conflict.
Catholic perspectives dominated ABC panels
My (Weng) analysis of discussions of religions in the Q&A program from 2009 to 2013 revealed that Catholic perspectives dominated, while others were excluded.
These discussions also took place around important Christian dates or in connection with specific Christian topics, while other religious representatives played auxiliary roles. Discussions related to Islam also took place at times without Muslim representation and input.
I also asked why prominent atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were key contributors to discussions of Australian religions in the program. This allowed them to shape, influence and strengthen the understanding of religions from their particular British colonial perspective.
Why is this important?
The news media continue to be important sources of information on religions, especially for those who are not part of a religious community themselves or who know a religious person personally.
Yet the rich diversity of cultures and religions in Australia has yet to translate into increased media representation or more informed reporting on religions.
Australian journalists are 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 material could simply be reproduced to increase knowledge about other religions.
Read more: United is killing critical study of religion, and it will only make campuses more religious
Research shows that investing a little time in training can have a huge impact on the way journalists and journalism students think about and report on religion.
Our universities can do their part by maintaining religious studies programs instead of dismantling them in the face of budget cuts.
Religious studies are more critical than ever, especially in training those who shape the way others see the world, such as journalists and politicians.