The lack of religious literacy by journalists – and the failure of news programs to feature a variety of faith leaders – is impacting the quality of coverage of major news and events in Australia.
Our new peer-reviewed article, Blessed Be Educated Journalists, 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 ABC’s Q&A program. However, we argue that ABC journalists are not the only ones who have failed to correct 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 (up from 22% in 2011 to 30% in 2016), more than half (52%) of the general population are still Christians. Claims affiliation to religion. And minority religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism are growing rapidly.
For news to be reported responsibly in a country with religious “superdiversity”, knowledge of the full range of belief systems must likewise be diverse.
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How the reporting on religions has been flawed
Some well-funded projects have made substantial efforts over the past 20 years to educate Australian journalists about Islam, but similar education has not been found around other religions. 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 skeptical group unlikely to align themselves to any particular faith. Journalists generally have higher levels of non-religiousness than other people (70% reported having no religion in 2016 compared to 30% of the general population).
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And as newsrooms have shrunk, many have lost religion journalists and others with religious expertise who are able to report knowledgeably on various religions.
As a result, basic factual errors can creep into the reporting. For example, the Pentecostal church the prime minister attends is Horizon, not Hillsong – they are separate churches. And the predominantly practiced religion in the South Sudanese community is Christian, not Muslim.
Other times, the media lacks the proper balance when it comes to involving various faith leaders in their reporting. There is often a lack of awareness of the need to include the voices of indigenous spirituality, mysticism, animism, less-dominant faith and spiritual groups such as Bon and Wicca.
In recent reporting on the COVID crisis, some reporting lacks similar nuance and a more detailed understanding of people’s beliefs. This has given rise to generalizations and misconceptions in the wider 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 faith.
The statement that religion is the sole cause of many problems can also be misleading, especially if the media plays a role in fabricating it. ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report recently reported on research debunking the notion that religion is a major driver of conflict.
Catholic viewpoint dominates ABC panel
My (Weng) analysis of discussions of religions on the Q&A program from 2009-13 found that Catholic perspectives were dominant, while others were excluded.
These discussions also took place around the importance of Christian dates or in relation to specific Christian themes, while other religious representatives played a supporting role. Discussions related to Islam also took place at times without Muslim representation and input.
I also questioned why prominent atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were important contributors to the discussion on Australian religions on the programme. This allowed them to shape, influence and reinforce the understanding of religions from their particular British colonial point of view.
How does it matter?
The news media remains an important source of information about religions, especially for those who are not themselves part of a religious community or know someone personally religious.
Nevertheless, the rich diversity of cultures and religions in Australia has yet to translate into increased media representation or more knowledgeable reporting on religions.
There is a need to expose Australian journalists to a wider range of beliefs through training programs similar to the Reporting Islam Project. Given the success of this initiative, the material may be reproduced to deepen knowledge about other religions.
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Research shows that putting a little time into training can yield huge returns in the way journalists and journalism students think about and report on religion.
Our universities can play their part by continuing religious studies programs instead of eliminating them in the event of budget cuts.
Religious studies are more important than ever, especially in the training of those who shape the way others see the world, such as journalists and politicians.