Religion in the Media: How has it changed, where is it going, why does it matter?

Barney Zwartz reflects on his long career in journalism - and the future of religion reporting.

I always like to start with a comment that neatly encapsulates the dilemma of twenty-first century communications. It comes from the nineteenth century, from Mark Twain, who observed that when it comes to the news media you have two choices. You can ignore it, and be uninformed. Or you can pay attention, and be misinformed.

Twain also provided the famous dictum that many believe is the journalist’s motto: First get the facts. You can distort them later.

Few human activities are as imperfect as journalism, flawed as it is by a capacity for inaccuracy, for bias, for following agendas, for missing important aspects, for rushing to conclusions, for laziness, gullibility, self-interest and the long litany of all the aspects of human failure.

Yet few human activities are as important for the proper functioning of democracy or the pursuit of social justice. We don’t operate in a vacuum. To stand, to act, to fight, we have to know, we have to be moved, we have to be motivated.

One of the maxims I remember from theological college is that Christians are to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The same, with caveats, could be said of journalists. Amid all the entertaining and informing and distracting that the news media fill their and your time with, much the most important work is when they act as Ezekiel’s watchman on the walls, alerting us to criminality, corruption, special interests, hypocrisy, secret deals, undue influence, manipulation and injustice.

Some of this essential work is now under threat from the spectacular decline in mainstream news media – of which more later.

Soon after I began working part time for the Anglicans in 2014, having left The Age after 32 years, I went to a social media course in Sydney. One session had the heads of the media departments for the AFL website, a big bank and a big department store. All of them were capitalising on the opportunities provided by this decline, filling the vacuum. The AFL editor spoke of what a tremendous job his 125 staff were doing, reporting on the clubs honestly without fear or favour. The bank spokeswoman, a former senior journalist, told how her department was putting articles of widespread interest on their website, hoping the mainstream media would pick them up and run them, which was starting to happen.

In question time, I pointed out to the AFL editor that his site was indeed uncompromising in covering club issues, but I had never noticed criticism of then-CEO, Andrew Demetriou, or much serious examination of head office. But the sparks flew when I asked the bank media head whether she would put on her website the negative coverage the Commonwealth Bank was getting at the time for one of its episodes of unscrupulous behaviour. She admitted quite honestly that she could not. Coverage of her own bank would be positive or, at best, neutral. I told her activities like hers were subverting and corrupting the access to accurate information on which business, and indeed democracy itself, relies. Oddly, she seemed a touch affronted.

There are now far more spin doctors and press officers in the corridors of power than there are journalists, while governments work tirelessly to reduce the information they have to reveal. This, combined with the cataclysmic upheaval in the news media and huge reduction of journalistic numbers, means there is a heavy cost in access to knowledge and, therefore, to the proper functioning of democracy. Social media, while often highly effective, has not been able to replace it.

Here, I would like to look at my own experience of covering religion in the mainstream media, and then consider some systemic challenges.


The religion beat

I’ve been a journalist longer than I’ve been a Christian. I was an adult convert at 24, having been a fairly determinedly hostile agnostic. I joined The Age a year later, and worked there for more than 32 years in various roles: chief sub-editor, special projects editor, letters editor and opinion editor among them. But, though I enjoyed all my roles, the one I loved by far the most was religion editor, from 2002 until I left the paper at the end of 2013.

The editor at the time, Michael Gawenda, was surprised that I applied for the religion round when it was advertised internally, because it was usually given to a junior reporter to test whether he or she was up to a “proper” round, like health or industrial relations. I argued that the paper typically only covered three religion stories: priests molesting children, the church in decline, and the troglodyte church holding back women and gays. Now these were all important stories, but if that was all we covered we were missing some of the most vital and revealing aspects of modern society. Gawenda and deputy editor Simon Mann agreed, and really backed the religion round at news conference. Looking back recently, I was surprised at the variety of stories I was able to cover.

I went to Rome three times, to cover the elections of two popes and the canonisation of Mary McKillop. At the latter I asked Kevin Rudd, who had come straight from NATO at Brussels, how he coped with the constant travel. “The same way you do, Barney: drugs and alcohol,” he said. Actually, I never touched drugs. I went to Turkey twice, and to Indonesia. I met many inspirational people, and sometimes – just sometimes – I felt I made a difference.

Besides the big religions, there have been stories about Baha’is, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, Sabean Mandaeans and Mormons. Subjects have included interfaith initiatives, religious extremism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and why interfaith harmony is stronger in Melbourne than Sydney. I’ve written about religious festivals, from Christmas and Easter to Diwali, from Rosh Hashanah and Purim to Eid al Fitr, Iftar dinners and Noah’s pudding.

When I began, Muslims and Jews getting together for a meal was an important story; today it is too commonplace to be worth a mention.

I’ve covered electing bishops, electing archbishops, electing the Pope, and electing women bishops and gay bishops. The Christian-Muslim hate case under the Victorian religious tolerance act attracted international attention. There have been Anglican splits, Uniting Church splits, Catholic rows, Muslim rows and Jewish rows, rows over church appointments, rows over church buildings, rows even over church music – newspapers love a good row. And so do newspaper readers.

I’ve written about church opposition to the Iraq war, the Buddhist approach to parenting, miraculous Madonnas, what the church can learn from McDonald’s (making first-timers welcome), and whether you can have a gluten-free communion wafer (no). I’ve written about losing my luggage in Rome, and having a beard trim on the banks of the Euphrates.

I’ve interviewed people like Cardinal Kaspar, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez, Cardinal George Pell, John Shelby Spong, Tariq Ramadan, Faisal Rauf, Michael Nazir-Ali, Tony Campolo (Bill Clinton’s spiritual adviser) and the scholar who thinks the devil has an image problem and should be rehabilitated.

I’ve written about alternative Christmas presents, the African pilgrims to World Youth Day who thought Adelaide was a suburb of Sydney, an hour’s bus ride away, the Christian way to cook (ethical ingredients), diplomas for imams, bullied clergy, and an inadequate circumcision that cast doubt on whether a boy was Jewish.

I’ve written on religion and politics and why the two are not mutually exclusive, the problem of suffering, who really runs Islam, the myth of religious violence, standing firm against cults, the persecuted church, the international interfaith initiative called “A Common Word”, why Muslims make good citizens, and on the sexual abuse crisis.

I say all this not to boast, but to show how much is missing from news media today, from ordinary human stories of faith to great themes. I saw my job as offering a picture of the breadth and role of religion in society, the issues the religions are grappling with, its contributions and failures, some of the human stories, some of the conflicts and politics and trends. Outside the main Christian faiths, and sometimes within them, religious and ethnic issues can overlap. I also wrote about philosophy and ethics, and indulged myself in far more opinion pieces than most news reporters.

Ironically, in my last year or two I increasingly felt we were back to the first three sets of stories – especially clerical sexual abuse.

Religion reporting has several issues in which it was important to have a specialist, someone who could bring some perspective beyond the scandal of the moment and understand the context. These included the travails of Muslims in Australia, sex abuse and the rise of militant atheism through such figures as the four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I interviewed the first three, all of whom came to Australia.

I had an email from my daughter saying, “Dad, get off the angry pills”.

I wrote a great deal about Muslims because I started soon after 9/11. I wrote many articles that annoyed them, about radicals, Shari’a law, calls to allow polygamy and the like, but I also worked hard to write stories that showed them as ordinary Australians contributing to society. I did this because I feel much of the media demonised them, set out to portray them negatively and sensationalise them. For example, the media went constantly to Sheikh Hilali, the head of Lakemba mosque in Sydney. They did this from laziness, ignorance of alternative voices and, by far the most important, the likelihood that he would say something embarrassing. Melbourne Muslims constantly told me he represented only Lakemba – that is, not even all Sydney Muslims, let alone Melbourne’s.

It’s no wonder the community felt under siege. I think of a story in Melbourne’s Herald Sun about a Muslim father who withdrew his daughter from music lessons on religious grounds. Parents withdraw children from classes all the time for many reasons – this was simply a chance to bash Muslims, which News Ltd has indulged rather more often than it should. Generally, things are far better today, both with a more educated media and a far more savvy Muslim community. The generation for whom English is the first language is at the helm.

My period as religion editor coincided with the rise of interfaith efforts. When I began, Muslims and Jews getting together for a meal was an important story; today it is too commonplace to be worth a mention. That is unambiguously a good thing. I also covered the two global atheist conventions in Melbourne in 2010 and 2012, which were fascinating. There were striking similarities between their congregations and several Christian ones: grey hair dominated, but the people were full of zeal and eager to win converts to their lack of faith. And there was no shortage of unreflected faith in their own myths – notably that atheists are unbiased, guided by reason and evidence, whereas believers are mental or emotional cripples who need only to be taught to think clearly. But of course the atheists I interacted with tended to be the militants – the least attractive. It is no accident that six million Australians did not identify with a religion at the 2011 Census, yet only 65,000 called themselves atheists.

One area in which I feel I did make a contribution, was the gradual revelation of the clergy sex abuse crisis and in advocating an independent judicial inquiry. I wrote story after story, oped after oped, over a decade.

A question I was often asked was, need one be religious to write about religion? Obviously not, judging by the many non-believers who have written really well on the subject. But it is surely an advantage if one is familiar with religious culture, debates and challenges. It gives one a broad background against which to work, and when a journalist doesn’t have that it often shows. Paul Marshall’s book Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion, has a telling example of this. A Washington Post reporter was covering a protest at the White House by Pentecostal Christians, and reported that a speaker said “Let’s pray that God will slay everyone on the Capitol.” No one at the paper understood the Pentecostal practice of being “slain in the Spirit” – so it was reported as a call for mass murder.

I was surprised when, after we had both left the paper, Michael Gawenda, the editor who appointed me in 2002, told me he had been concerned that it might be a mistake to have someone religious cover religion. Why should it be riskier than an atheist? Reporters who write about politics vote and no doubt support political parties in private. The danger, of course, is that an enthusiast might see the role as advocating for religion.

And that was a second common question. Wasn’t it my responsibility, as a Christian, to protect and advance the cause of religion, or at least of Christianity, or at least the Protestant evangelical Christianity that forms my own background? But that would be to betray my responsibility to the newspaper, to the readers and therefore, I thought, to God. Clearly the best way to serve was by being as accurate and fair a reporter as possible. Anything else would be an abuse of privilege. The Age is a secular paper, and a reporter’s role is to present news rather than advocate. Of course that is not simple: what facts or quotations one includes or withholds in the limited space is important, and often, especially with religion, you have to take up valuable space providing a context or explaining the background. But if The Age‘s editors had regarded me as a proselytiser they would – rightly – have removed me in a heartbeat. Against that, of course I wanted to rebut hostile myths and attacks, which is where the opinion pieces often came in.

I also got to advocate a Christian worldview much more directly, in the blog I ran for a few years, “The Religious Write.” As militant secularists grew more aggressive, I wanted to argue the case that Christianity has a legitimate and important place in the public square. That was one of the reasons I was delighted to join the Centre for Public Christianity after leaving the paper. The blog, which I moderated myself, ran for about five years and was long one of the paper’s most popular, sometimes attracting more than 1000 posts. It sounds impressive, but in fact these tended to be dominated by atheists delighted to find a public forum to attack religion. Even so they taught me much. The various ideologues would rush in, but gradually more intelligent conversations would emerge and sometimes run for days. The main irritation was that every topic would find new posters who thought that their arguments about “flying spaghetti monsters” or their believing in just one fewer god than I did were novel, clever and irresistible. And I have to admit a certain low taste for sarcasm myself that was sometimes misplaced. Once I had an email from my daughter saying, “Dad, get off the angry pills”.

The Age took ethical responsibilities seriously, and there were often potential conflicts. For example, telling an abuse victim’s tale could have profound effects on the victim, usually good but not always. Ethical issues were often discussed at news conference – how we should handle a story or if we should even run it at all. I was never told to write a story a particular way by the newsdesk or the editor to suit an agenda. Once or twice it was clear they hoped I would be more controversial or harder-edged, and my refusal to do so cost me a place on the front page from time to time, but they usually accepted that I was the paper’s expert and my judgment should hold. After all, a moment’s sensationalism can kill hard-won credibility.

Six times in my career writs were brought against me – nearly always, I believe, in an attempt to silence me. Without the powerful backing of the paper, that would have worked, because I can’t afford to take on an institution like the Catholic Church. But the paper always supported me, and never told me to back off. “It’s just the cost of doing business,” one editor told me.


How things have changed

Media coverage of religion in Australia, perhaps never strong, has been swamped by three huge social revolutions. First has been the existential threat to established news media, electronic as well as print, bringing catastrophic cuts to revenue and thus to resources. Newspapers are struggling to survive, and it is far from certain that many or most will. They can cut costs by going digital only, but print still provides most of the income.

Second is the loss of trust in institutions, from governments to cricket clubs. It’s been devastating for churches, but the news organisations have been swept up in this too, with people far more cynical or questioning. In fact we still get most of our news from mainstream outlets, even if it’s through aggregator sites such as Facebook.

Third is the rise of the Internet, which is profoundly linked to problem one. I knew the writing was on the wall about 2002 when I looked up a fact on Google rather than walking five steps to a reference book. The vast resource of the Internet is a mile wide but, for most people, an inch deep. And the Internet has brought social media with its cacophony of voices and myriad specialist or niche sites. The risk is that increasingly people use it to confirm their biases, focusing on news sites, blogs and the like that share or support their worldview. And, of course, the anonymity it allows has also encouraged a deep incivility and crassness.

So this is the broader context in which we consider the media and religion specifically. I am often asked about a decline in religion journalism. When I began covering religion for The Age in 2002, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian both had highly capable religion reporters, and the ABC a large and active religion department. By the time I finished 12 years later, both the other papers had long been without religion reporters and the ABC had begun its radical truncation of its coverage which is still ongoing. Most news organisations, if pressed, will readily admit they can no longer cover many stories they once would have thought important, and religion is merely one of the casualties.

I have mentioned Paul Marshall’s excellent book Blind Spot. But that deals with the situation in the United States, where religion is mainstream and newspapers still try to provide serious coverage. When I was in Rome in 2005 for the conclave that elected Pope Benedict, I was one of half a dozen Australian reporters. American newspapers, the Vatican Press Department told me, had sent hundreds. So when commentator Terry Mattingly calls for American editors to offer training and resources to people who cover religion, this would strike Australian news editors as ludicrous because they don’t have anyone. In my last years at the paper, I used to joke that I was easily the best mainstream print religion journalist in the country – and, at the same time, much the worst.

Reporters often have to cover subjects they don’t know much about, and the quality of their work in these cases depends on the quality of their contacts. Religion stories suffer because most journalists have neither the experience nor good, familiar contacts. This is especially pronounced in television news, with their very small newsrooms. Time and again, they provide the most superficial and inane coverage, often missing important points. Most secular journalists are uncomfortable if they have to report on religion: they know it’s important to many of their audience and that the field is littered with banana skins. So coverage tends to range from supercilious and patronising to sycophantic. Pope Benedict’s visit to Australia for World Youth Day in 2008 provides an excellent example. In the build-up the coverage was mostly criticism – the cost, the road closures and disruption, governments supporting religion, sexual abuse. Then Benedict arrived, and there was a massive outpouring of uncritical adulation. When he left, it was back to business as usual – neglect or disdain.

As I said, religion is not the only victim. Thanks to the halving or worse of newsrooms around the country, there are many subjects and stories that the papers no longer even try to chase. The Age that I joined in 1981 consciously saw itself as a paper of record, one that deliberately sought to cover everything of importance, with good grammar and without spelling mistakes. That is an ambition beyond the wildest dreams of almost any paper in 2016.

But religion does face extra impediments. News editors, themselves usually secular in outlook and uncomfortable in tackling it, have readily seized the myth that it is a private matter. And it’s not just journalists. Reticence is embedded in the Australian psyche. Historian Manning Clark rather poetically described religion for Australians as “a shy hope in the heart.” We are not comfortable, as many Americans are, in talking openly about it in public or even with friends. We do not welcome a stranger sitting down next to us on a train or tram and asking if we know Jesus as our personal saviour.

In my view, media failures flow from apathy and ignorance more often than hostility. And this failure to understand religion’s role in the life of millions of Australians and billions around the globe is not restricted to the media. Roy Williams has pointed out how secular historians often fail to understand Governor Macquarie in colonial days because so much of what he did was motivated by his profound evangelical faith. And I have read that it took the CIA far too long to understand the importance of religion in the Middle East, however obvious that seems today.

However, ignorance does not explain enough. In his foreword to Blind Spot, Michael Gerson says that the reasons for the ignorant or distorted treatment of religion in the public sphere go much deeper than biblical or theological illiteracy. According to Gerson, the news media has an entrenched outlook that assumes religion should be actively excluded from matters of public concern. Gerson writes:

“It is often believed that public expressions of religion are themselves offensive – a violation of the truth of tolerance. Religious belief, in this view, is protected by the Constitution, but for the sake of pluralism must be confined to the private sphere … This kind of secularism can lead to indifference – and, when religion becomes an unavoidable topic, suspicion.”

Gerson is writing in the United States, where separation of church and state and the place of religion in the public square are far more controversial than Australia. As I suggested, I think that as a society Australians would rather not worry about such matters unless they think religious people are trying to tell them how to live. But active campaigning by aggressive secularists is having an effect here too, and increasing numbers of people tend to believe religion must be confined as a purely private matter.

Paul Marshall has said that the starkest intolerance in the West is that of the secular liberal unbeliever for the religious. It is true that small-l liberals feel able to speak about Christians with a contempt that they would rightly condemn if it were about women or indigenous. A young Melbourne writer, Fatima Measham, impressed me in an article I saw that unfortunately The Age did not publish. She said the biggest obstacle for young believers today is not temptation or excess but “the mockery and contempt from non-believers”. Still quoting Fatima:

“It seems that you can be more easily forgiven for being a drunken lout, than for calling for prayer for victims of disaster … Unfortunately for young, thinking believers, the media gravitates toward incongruities between basic tenets of faith and the behaviour of its proponents, including their language. A Muslim cleric describing women as ‘uncovered meat’ who ought to dress more appropriately. An Australian evangelist blaming the Queensland floods on a former Prime Minister who spoke ‘against Israel’. A Catholic leader describing the parents of two daughters who had been abused by clergy as ‘dwelling crankily on old wounds’.

The media feeds on the sensational, and in effect disenfranchises. When it magnifies the flaws of specific believers, the ones who otherwise think critically and compassionately about the world and do a lot of good in it are rendered voiceless, easily dismissed and powerless to argue the strength of their case that religion is a force for good.”

As an aside, having spoken of my concern about aggressive secularism, I want to mention an important counter trend. That is the way, in an increasingly atomised society, churches are regaining some appeal as a source of community.

Another challenge in covering religion that does not apply to politics or sport is general public literacy. A football reporter does not have to say who the Collingwood club is, nor does a political writer have to define the Labor Party. I always had to write stories on two levels, making them accessible to untutored readers yet accurate and precise enough not to offend those deeply engaged in the issue. I had to explain context and possibly terms and descriptions as well as the story itself in a few hundred words. One senior editor would never let me say “Anglican Communion” when I was writing about divisions over sexuality or women bishops. He insisted on terms like “global Anglican Church”. Few readers would understand the formal title, he argued, and he was almost certainly right. Stories about internal conflicts within churches usually had to be explained along the political conflict model, with winners and losers. Theological debates and issues of conscience were shoehorned into the same model, or were otherwise likely to seem alien, and too hard.

All this sounds as though I am being critical, but it’s not so simple. The editors I worked for recognised that religion needed proper and professional coverage, they were open to ideas and I was always allowed to argue the case for a story, because of course I was always competing for limited space with other reporters and the newswires. I’ve already mentioned that I was never asked to angle a story a particular way to suit an agenda. Of course, the one agenda on religion the paper did have was in advocating for a judicial inquiry into clergy abuse cover-ups, but I was one of the people at the heart of that. And abuse is an easy issue to grasp, one of justice more than theology, with no need to understand arcane religious beliefs or practices.

Still the fact is the world of religion, for most newsdesks, is an alien world, and as budgets and space have shrunk they have focused ever more on politics and sport, court or crime stories – which are cheap and easy – lifestyle stories, and eventually clickbait.

I can’t help but lament that, like an iceberg, the vast majority of the religious story is below the surface.

A more general question journalists often get is why does the news media focus on the negative? That reflects human nature, and the nature of news. A mother cooking a nutritious meal day after day for her family is not news, obviously. But if she deliberately poisons them, then that is news. The old journalism school definition said “dog bites man” is not news; “man bites dog” is. In the religious realm, faithful priest ministering to his flock is not news; priest as paedophile predator is.

Another problem which applies more generally is that of stereotyping, where Muslims are always moderate or fundamentalist or radical, and Catholics are devout or conservative or progressive. I tried to avoid such labels, which tend to trigger an automatic response in the reader, but it simply wasn’t always possible. Muslims often complained to me that the media stereotyped them, and it is true, we do. But we stereotype everyone, and usually oversimplify. That’s because we don’t have space or time to prepare a carefully nuanced PhD thesis on fast-moving news stories, and our readers and listeners wouldn’t have time to absorb one. We have to sort and choose the facts and sources, and present summaries that can’t always have the careful qualifications we would like. And sometimes we get things wrong.

In passing, I think anti-Catholicism is the new anti-Semitism (not that the old one has disappeared), a rank prejudice acceptable in large swathes of society. I was an outspoken critic of the church hierarchy, especially over abuse and transparency, but I want to put on record that I think the ledger is vastly on the side of good.

Yet another problem in reporting on religion is the breadth that is required in the twenty-first century. Mark Baker, a former deputy editor of The Age and a noted foreign correspondent, had the religion round as a junior reporter in the 1970s. What that mostly involved, he told me, was going to the two Melbourne cathedrals and a couple of other leading churches to collect the sermons and quote excerpts. In multicultural modern Australia there are vast numbers of faiths, often complicated by deep links to ethnic identity, with many sensitivities and ambiguities. All of them have to be treated with respect. Much of this I simply had to learn as I went, but it does highlight the importance of having a reporter dedicated to the subject over a long time.


Better tomorrow?

So is the absence in Australia today of proper reporting on religion a serious problem? Absolutely it is. Religion deserves much better than that. Religion has an enormous influence on society and its institutions: think of schools, social welfare, universities and, above all, values. Most intelligent people can see that its global importance has, if anything, increased in recent decades. They see that it can be a tremendous force for good or ill. It is far too important to ignore.

Yet even the three types of story I mentioned to The Age editor in 2002 have declined, with only sexual abuse getting much coverage. And while this is hugely important, and I am deeply grateful for the Royal Commission, I can’t help but lament that, like an iceberg, the vast majority of the religious story is below the surface. I’m afraid that the prospects for improvement are not strong. I certainly believe journalism will survive today’s print media travails, but I can’t find much hopeful to say about the prospects for mainstream religion reporting.

I would like to leave you with three mottos that have sustained me through the vicissitudes of 40 years in journalism. The first is from Noel Coward, who noted: “It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” The second comes from Something Happened, a novel by Joseph Heller, and is very wise. It says: “Every change is for the worse.” I balance Heller’s pessimism with a quote from former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle: “The future will be better tomorrow.” Isn’t that comforting? But Christians know it is true.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.

Barney Zwartz, a former religion editor of The Age, is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, media adviser to the Anglican Primate of Australia and a freelance writer, mostly about classical music and opera. This article is a revised version of an address delivered at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion and Society, the University of Queensland, on 19 August 2016.