ABC devalues religion reporting at its peril

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Religion, which in Australia is thought of as a private matter, pops up in surprising areas of public life. In the past, Australian media outlets have tried to capture this reality by employing religion reporters who are specially equipped to cover the religion angles of the stories that affect our society and culture.

ABC officeThese journalists do not have to be religious by any means, but they do have to take religion seriously and be familiar with theological language and practice to do these important stories justice.

That's why today's report from the Catholic Weekly that the ABC will no longer require the head of the religion unit to be a religion specialist is more than a little surprising.

There's a skill to conveying ideas from a specialist area and translating that into language understandable to regular people — all the while maintaining the accuracy of the report. Like any other skill, it needs to be practised.

To ensure these skills continue to be honed and valued, specialist units are a necessary part of any news organisation. Some specialist areas like politics, sport and business are highly valued, and it would be crazy to give them an editor that hasn't invested considerable time and energy into forming a deep understanding of the subject.

Why should religion as a specialist area be any different? That the ABC's religion unit could be helmed by someone without such a level of understanding undervalues the importance and complexity of the religion beat in Australia.

The ABC has a commitment in its charter to 'reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community'. Without religion reporting from people with specialist journalistic backgrounds, the ABC risks losing what talent it has left in this area, which jeopardises its ability to fulfil its ongoing functions and responsibilities.

The ABC, like media outlets everywhere, is under considerable budgetary strain, which has meant cuts in some areas of specialist reporting. As Australia grows increasingly secular, the temptation is to erode religion as a separate beat. Why employ religion specialists if the country is becoming less religious?

 

"The low value placed on specialist religion reporting has become very clear. Coverage has either disappeared, or religion stories are only understood in terms of the left-right political spectrum and associated culture wars."

 

Like it or not, religion still plays a huge part in public life in Australia, which affects the lives of everyone, religious and nonreligious. The biggest, ongoing stories right now all contain a religious element and if journalists don't understand that element, how can they fairly and accurately report the story?

Religion is important to making sense of the west's response to the threat of Islamic terrorism. It continues to influence politics in the United States. The current discussions in Australia around free speech, same-sex marriage and abortion are all (in part) religious moral debates. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is mostly dealing with religious institutions. There's a religion story around every corner, so keeping people who have a sound knowledge of religion is a good investment.

But if religion weaves its way into multiple subject areas, why keep it as a separate beat with a separate editor? We've seen what happened in commercial news agencies when they made their specialist religion reporters redundant; the low value placed on specialist religion reporting has become very clear. Coverage has either disappeared, or religion stories are only understood in terms of the left-right political spectrum and associated culture wars.

This is one reason why conservative lobby groups like the Australian Christian Lobby have become the de facto Christian voice in Australian public discourse. They may only represent one aspect of Christian practice and belief in this country, but they're freely available for comment and they make sense to a media used to looking at the world through a political lens.

Why are Margaret Court's comments about same-sex marriage the biggest religion story of the week? As a world tennis champion-turned-Pentecostal pastor she is an unusual and significant person, yes, and her comments have begun to cause ructions in the international tennis scene. But her comments also fit easily into the pre-existing political narrative, and the resulting stories leave our received understanding of the world unchallenged.

Catholic social teaching doesn't make any sense on a left-right spectrum. It's taught by the largest Christian denomination in the country, but is it understood by those reporting on the Catholic Church?

There's grumbling about political siloing and how it's detrimental to public discourse. Protected in our bubbles, we're vulnerable to forces we don't understand, causing political surprises like the election of Donald Trump or the passing of Brexit. Religion continues to have a huge influence on Australian society while at the same time the population at large is becoming more secular and understanding of religion is dropping. Watering down religion reporting risks increasing this phenomenon as the religious forces which shape our society go unexplored and unexplained.

Religion specialists are vital to the fair and accurate reporting of Australian society and culture, and having an editor who understands the religion beat is vital to guiding their work.

 


Rohan SalmondRohan Salmond is a freelance journalist. He tweets at @RJSalmond and is the producer of Godbeat, a podcast about religion journalism. Hear Rohan talk more about the role of religion reporting in Australian society on the latest special episode of the Chattersquare podcast.

Topic tags: Rohan Salmond, Religion Reporting, ABC


 

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Religion, in particular, Christianity, has had a seminal role in forming the cultural consciousness of Modern Australian Society, even effecting those who are not Christian (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others). Sectarianism; the paedophilia scandals and the rise of modern anti-religious movements have led to the sidelining of Christianity in modern Australia. The ABC once had superb religious journalists e.g. Paul Collins and I believe Geraldine Doogue still works for them. Would someone like her want to be the ABC's Head of Religious Programs or would they see it purely, or mainly, as an administrative role where her knowledge and experience were wasted? Some of the issues confronting religious people are, by their very nature, controversial, such as same sex marriage. Would the ABC want to interview or bring together people representing different sides to the question, such as the Australian Christian Lobby and Australian Marriage Equality? Could they? In Australia these days we tend to be terribly polarised and intolerant of opposing views: we don't do dialogue well. Perhaps we, especially 'we' as people with any interest/finger in the religion pie, need to reach a new level of psychological maturity before the ABC treats us the way we think it should?
Edward Fido | 01 June 2017


ABC's Special Report: The world needs to get together for one big group hug... If only they could make us laugh like De Niro. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkzxdDy95rA
AO | 01 June 2017


Does anyone remember Stephen Crittenden? He was an outstanding religion specialist and editor at the ABC over many years. Perhaps he was too good at his job: he was sacked after the 2008 World Youth Day - and there was evidence that pressure was brought to bear on the ABC by some very senior Sydney Catholics who did not like his critical reporting of aspects of that event. Are these the same people now lamenting the plight of Religion reporting at the ABC ...?
Balthasar | 02 June 2017


Trouble is, there are many good reasons to despise religions of all persuasions, the reasons for this most definitely stemming from those religions themselves. But to further disable the religious expertise of the ABC's (our broadcaster), along with the schools of religious studies at universities (as part of the overall reduction of humanities in general - because they're sort of useless, aren't they????) yes, we certainly do so at our peril. Love or hate religion, as Rohan rightly points out, it is still central to what it means to be human. There are so many psychologically and spiritually mature religious thinkers who are basing their thinking on very healthy psychology, sociology, philosophy and all the humanities but who are conveniently ignored or even sometimes shut down at university level, just like their schools. Why? What is society so afraid of? And it is fear, just shallow fear based on unresolved adolescent anger, not to mention a requirement to transcend ourselves and to possibly have to live for others and not just ourselves as well. Australia and the ABC need to grow up when it comes to religion. Rather than just slamming it, try looking beyond the pathetic examples to the deeper elements it can teach us about what it means to be more than mere survival driven animals. We need to think more, not less about religion today, as our statistics on depression and suicide and violence should be telling us.
Stephen de Weger | 02 June 2017


Is this another special pleading variant on Let's Run to Nanny Government to Solve our Woes? Instead of meekly dissolving into the secular atheist mainstream, Christians should discipline themselves to be discrete movers in the world of advocacy. Fund a cable or Internet channel, field polished advocates for TV and radio, and, more especially, have disciplined Christian values parties, at least in upper houses, that don't, because of ego, implode.
Roy Chen Yee | 02 June 2017


With reference to the Rohan's comment "Like it or not, religion still plays a huge part in public life in Australia, which affects the lives of everyone, religious and nonreligious", how can anyone not place their trust, hope in some one or some thing? Surely all mankind is religious? Surely everyone has their god or gods?
Richard Collyer | 02 June 2017


Stephen de Weger raises an important ancillary issue: the decline of Studies in Religion at independent tertiary institutions. In England it is possible to do a degree in Theology at many universities independent of whether you are in training to be a cleric, or, indeed, independent of whether you have religious beliefs. Sadly, with funding cuts to departments such as that of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland, all that is often available is to study in a religious atmosphere at one of those generally second rate theological colleges run by the denominations. There are honourable exceptions such as The Melbourne College of Divinity University, which includes my alma mater, Trinity College, whose alumni have worked at Cambridge. Religious literacy is dying in Australia. That is very, very sad.
Edward Fido | 02 June 2017


Are Australian reactions/responses to religion simply shallow, adolescent, group-think and often simply trauma-based, as in, religion hurt me once and therefore, it is bad? Very closely related to this may be the post-modernist fallout of a deep suspicion of beauty, love, truth and happiness - all things that somehow also represent concepts of God/the divine in the human, and which may open us up to the possibility of the demands of the higher consciousness of self-observation. Instead we continue to pursue that impossible goal of mere human-based social utopias based on nothing higher than ourselves or economics and requiring the leveling of individuality but oddly controlled by very wealthy and more than equal leaders. Someone once said, if religion is an opiate for people then atheistic utopianism is a methamphetamine.
Stephen de Weger | 02 June 2017


Thank you Rohan, definitely agree and I add music, with Easter as the example of total disregard for the most important Christian festival of the year. I was looking forward to sublime music on Classic FM but was shocked and disappointed to hear a program all day on Russian music. It seemed to me a flagrant disregard for the ABC charter. I thank the ABC of the past for the education and pleasure I have received, beginning with the Argonauts, what a great informative and enjoyable program that was for children including Jeffrey Smart as Phidias. Unbiased, broad reporting of all sides of any issue has long gone, as have the high standards of journalism and now, here is another reason why the ABC has become almost irrelevant for me.
Jane | 02 June 2017


Rachael Kohn, presenter for The Spirit of Things, demonstrates admirably that knowledge of things religious, in fact knowledge of many religions, is essential for the conducting of sensitive and revealing interviews with a great variety of people from many backgrounds. I could not imagine her job being done by someone who is ignorant of the subject matter.
Janet | 02 June 2017


re: The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is mostly dealing with religious institutions. There's a religion story around every corner, so keeping people who have a sound knowledge of religion is a good investment. How much religion knowledge is required to report on the global extent and impact of child abuse and in particular the rape of children by clergy and the religious as shown to us allover the past 4 years by the egregious crimes exposed under oat at the Royal Commission? Perhaps when religion cleans up and makes itself accountable for these horrendous crimes will religion be looked on as having some potential to be of value in a society that requires more than believe me and have faith statements. It was those types of statements that were used by clergy to seduce and to rape children as and when they wanted.
John Brown | 02 June 2017


Religion is the bane of humanity. Have a look around the World. It is toxic.Any devaluation is a step in the right direction.
Laurie | 02 June 2017


One of the problems with Australian Christianity (and any other 'imported') religion is that it does not have the sort of deep, ancient roots that it has in other countries, such as the Western European ones. In countries such as France or Italy, you have the sense of religion, although at times attacked and ignored, having been there since time immemorial, especially at a place such as Chartres or Sienna, to name just two. Even in England, where the Reformation, to a certain extent cut off the country from its Catholic roots, you can still feel that tradition in some of the great old cathedrals, such as Salisbury or Gloucester. I feel a particular thrill at Worcester where a cleric who bears my surname was once the organist. He was, I believe, an excellent organist, an authority on Early English Church Music and a man of fiery temper. I hasten to add I have no musical ability but I am proud that he came from the same part of England that my family originated from. That is a connection I cannot feel here: it does not go far back enough. T S Eliot, although American born, felt the same.
Edward Fido | 02 June 2017


I have noticed for a long time now the silencing of religious discussion, articles and references in public life eg. in the workplace and in the media. This Easter I was hard pressed to find much reference anywhere about Easter except for local churches advertising their service times in the local paper. No wonder when 12 year old school children are asked, "What have rabbits to do with Easter?" they seriously reply, "Well Jesus came back as a rabbit." Maybe people are happy that a generation of Australian children can be so ignorant and hold such misconceptions. I think it's sad and should be addressed. Otherwise something very precious is going to be lost.
Wendyjeffrey | 02 June 2017


I'm really missing Sunday evening Religious discussions on ABC radio -only religious thing left is Songs of Praise on Sunday morning-. There are some amazing religious events scross Australia every week - Cathedrals, Concerts, Drama
Mike | 02 June 2017


Laurie, I wonder if it would be possible to rephrase that to “ 'dogmatic' religion is the bane of society”. There haven't been many wars fought in the name of Buddhism or (the philosophy) of Confucianism. I sometimes wonder whether Jesus actually meant his teachings to be more akin to these - a philosophy of living, one in which the only wars fought are those within, those between our evolutionary past, and fully human future, taken on in one's own path to becoming as enlightened and as aware a human as possible. However, this would be somewhat shallow unless accompanied by the desire to perfect the art of loving (see Erich Fromm: https://archive.org/stream/TheArtOfLoving/43799393-The-Art-of-Loving-Erich-Fromm#page/n33/mode/2up ) as much as we possibly can. In doing so, then we 'create' God or allow God to 'exist', or be real because, God is love. Now, would this kind of religion be a bane to society? Secondly, if you were to remove ‘religion’ as some have tried, what do you replace it with because it will need to be replaced? Nature abhors a vacuum and people fear ‘freedom’. No, what is needed is religion based on deep and healthy psychology, philosophy, and the sciences, but more importantly, one based on responsibility, and mature love in all its expressions (see Fromm). At the moment, such religion seems almost impossible to find. But perhaps that's the problem...we're looking in the wrong places, and for the wrong things.
Stephen de Weger | 03 June 2017


The problem is most discussions on religion end up being hijacked by the more vocal fundamentalist groups with political/ideological/economic motivation devoid of any rational sense of spirituality and ethics. And I include fundamentalist atheism in this mix too - which as far as I'm concerned is as tired and unoriginal as inner city pretentious hipster culture (hipster uniforms now selling cheap at Target). The attitude of many ABC news presenters is to appeal to this "hip" atheist crowd and avoid admitting believing anything for fear of being humiliated by people with no reason to be so anti-God - except for the fact they've read Richard Dawkins' book. With such a shallow and cariacatured image of God - I'd be anti-that too! But it's now the athests who are the conformists - along the same line as the tribal/traditional/fundamentalist God botherers who wouldn't care if half the world was dying of hunger, as long as gays can't marry.
AURELIUS | 03 June 2017


Time to re-read T.S. Elliot's Four Quartets?: Four interlinked meditations with the common theme being man's relationship with time, the universe, and the divine. In describing his understanding of the divine within the poems, Eliot blends his Anglo-Catholicism with mystical, philosophical and poetic works from both Eastern and Western religious and cultural traditions, with references to the Bhagavad- Gita and the Pre-Socratics as well as St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. "All shall be well"... Just as the rings of a tree serve a purpose: "Religion specialists are vital to the fair and accurate reporting of Australian society and culture". And R. W Emerson said "Culture is one thing and varnish is another''. So religion specialists and tree rings alike tell and teach us: 1) to put the present environmental, cultural and social events into proper historical context. 2) to better understand current environmental, cultural, social and historical processes. 3) And suggest conditions to improve understanding of possible future environmental, cultural, social and historical issues.
AO | 04 June 2017


I guess Roy that it's a matter of what you are wanting to do, eg push a particular view, provide an independent and objective news coverage, or host fora for rational debate between people with differing views. There are plenty of televangelists on cable TV and religious journals pushing one or other viewpoint. But precious little informed reporting or analysis of religion or philosophy in the commercial media, either in print, on air, or on line. The ABC does a generally good job in science, economics, and other areas, why not in religion and philosophy?
Ginger Meggs | 04 June 2017


I wonder Edward whether there are at least three other factors that differentiate the traditional attitude to religion in Europe and the current attitude in Australia. firstly, the reversal of the seasons; so much of Christian celebrations are linked to the seasons - Easter in Spring, Christmas in winter, and so forth. Secondly, the urban nature of settlement in Australia right from the start vs the rural nature of Europe even as late as the early 20th century. Thirdly, the connection between religion and the ruling class in Britain, the one reinforcing the authority and power of the other. Such a link has never existed in this country.
Ginger Maeggs | 04 June 2017


I suppose we are stuck with the fact that we are human. All known cultures from time immemorial have had their gods whom they idealised or feared in rituals i.e. had a religion. In 2007, a global survey conducted by Encyclopaedia Britannica indicated that in today's world 80% of people believe in God, 17.5% don't know (agnostics) and 2.5% are committed atheists. Perhaps belief in God and formalisation of that belief in ritual is a God-given, instinctive human trait. Others, however, might interpret the findings of the survey in another way, viz, 80% of people are idiots, 17.5 % are mentally challenged and only 2.5% have any meaningful intellectual capacity (the mantra of today's atheists).
john frawley | 05 June 2017


I think both Wendy Jeffrey and Ginger Meggs have points. In regard to Wendy's, I am disappointed to see a concerted push by the politically correct anti-religionists to obviate any Christian association in public life. I believe Bill Shorten had to intervene over the cancellation of Easter celebrations at one of his children's schools. Ginger, you may not be aware, but apart from the Church of England ('The Conservative Party at Prayer'), England has a strong history of Dissent which actually helped give us the Scientific Revolution (e.g. Joseph Priestley). Quakers ( also Dissenters as in dissenting from the Established Church) had a huge influence on banking, trade and manufacturing. Catholics were also not part of the Established Church. There was an Established Church in NSW in convict times when everyone was forced to attend C of E services. This is one of the reasons I believe the Australian ethos has tended towards irreligion.
Edward Fido | 05 June 2017


Yes, Edward, I was aware of the dissenting, Catholic, and non-conformist traditions in English life and their influence in science, technology and business but 'the Tories at prayer' dominated the legislature, the government, the law, the 'county families' and the countryside until well into the first half of the 19th century. The majority of our early settlers, both convict and free, tended not to be among the forelock-tuggers or those willing to submit cheerfully to nature of the civil order supported by the established religion. The Anglican Church was granted resources and sought a monopoly but it was never legally established in NSW. Although the convicts were initially paraded for C of E services, it wasn't long before they (and, incidentally, the officers, soldiers and free settlers) stayed away in droves. Read Richard Johnson and Samuel Marsden for their views. I suspect that the link between religion and privilege in Britain was one of the factors leading to the irreligious ethos in this country.
Ginger Meggs | 06 June 2017


Well, Ginger, Australia is as much agnostic/irreligious as the UK. In earlier times in England you were fined for not attending services of the Church of England. Most of Western Europe - France, Italy, Spain et sim are irreligious. There are a number of reasons but the Church/State compact is certainly one. On a different note, if the ABC were to appoint someone, not a journalist, but certainly religiously literate and a person of considerable integrity and administrative ability to head the Religious Affairs department, I'd nominate Kristina Keneally.
Edward Fido | 06 June 2017


I think the loss of 774 Sunday night 3 hours of intelligent programming and now replaced by the trivial insulting 30 minutes of GOD FORBID is lamentable
Maureen Stewart | 06 June 2017


Ironically, the most religiously-literate ABC presenter/interviewer is an atheist - Philip Adams.
AURELIUS | 07 June 2017


For many years now I have relied on the only source of religion reporting, the ABC. To reduce the expertise in the manner described seems an intentional interference and somewhat Hansonesque political correctness. The ABC has provided informed comment available nowhere else..
Eric | 20 June 2017


I find one of the best things about Australia is our lack of interest in religion. It has kept the trouble it causes at bay treating religion seriously the last thing I want.
Name | 20 June 2017