Image: Kamal Nuriddin speaks to Michigan Radio reporters at the The Islamic Mosque being built in Grand Rapids, Michigan on April 2, 2010. Credit: Rodrigo Gaya/Michigan Radio.

Coverage of religious stories or perspectives in mainstream Australian media is almost exclusively relegated to a very narrow set of divisive issues such as terrorism, abortion and gay marriage, save for token stories about special occasions. Does it matter that reportage is like this?

ABC Radio National’s Dr Rachael Kohn says it’s a problem.

“There are many important developments both social and theological that have a major impact on societies, both here and internationally, that receive sporadic attention if any,” says Dr Kohn.

The host of The Spirit of Things (one of the very few specialist religion programs in mainstream media,) will co-lead the International Symposium on Religion Journalism, hosted by Griffith University’s Multi-Faith Centre, in October.

Dr Kohn describes “media reporting that is fixated on celebrities and driven by conflict”.

“The narrow focus… is why people generally are abandoning the mainstream media and going to digital media,” she says.

“It is incumbent on journalists to ensure that they do not report the problems without the larger context of what also makes communities work.”

Brian Adams, director of the Multi-Faith Centre, says in the long run it’s not smart to remove discussions of religion and spirituality from the public sphere.

“If we are talking about a good, strong, healthy democracy then a free, open, fair media, including journalism, needs to be a vibrant part of that, a great contributor to it,” says Mr Adams.

“As one of the great communicating institutions in our society, journalism should be part of the discourse and a responsible part of promoting social cohesion with strength and understanding.”

He says people, institutions and governments need to be able to develop a deeper understanding of the diverse faiths and cultures of people we interact with on a regular basis.

“To put it simply, people from all around the world don’t necessarily recognise the separation of religion or spirituality from their public persona.”

Dr Kohn says more co-operation and dialogue is needed among religious communities in Australia.

“It is very heartening to see that this has been happening increasingly over the last ten years.  There have been many interfaith initiatives at the local level and a greater degree of comfort in coming together and declaring common values and common ground, despite different theological beliefs and variations in practice.

“When religions model good interfaith relations, the rest of society can only follow!”

The International Symposium on Religion Journalism will be held in Brisbane on the 30th and 31st of October and features panel discussions and master classes for both journalists and faith leaders.

“The public will be able to hear from the top people in the field of print, digital and broadcast journalism in the field of religion, something that has never before been possible at this scale in Australia,” says Dr Kohn.

The line-up includes Paul Marshall, co-editor of the award-winning book Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion, editor of the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website, Scott Stephens and The Age’s Barney Zwartz, who will speak about the challenge of reporting on sensitive issues such as child sexual abuse in the church.

Mr Adams is expecting the event to have a positive impact on the broader community.

“I hope this contributes to us being able to discuss a bit more openly, some of the deeper challenges that we’re facing here in Australia that if we do so can really strengthen us for the next two or three generations,” he says.

For more information on the symposium, visit the website.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

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