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ABC devalues religion reporting at its peril

  • 01 June 2017


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.

These 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