Last year over an advisory board meeting of the Multi Faith Centre at Griffith University in Brisbane, I suggested that a conference on religion journalism would draw together our mutual interest in the media as a powerful instrument in fostering greater understanding of religious groups in Australia. The director, Brian Adams, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was immediately interested.

Through the advice of David Briggs, Executive Director of the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ), and the assistance of Arne Fjelstad’s Media Project, as well as the generous help of the Australian Broadcast Corporation and the Multi Faith Centre and its sponsors, the Symposium’s line up of speakers took shape. When Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom and the IARJ’s Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune and Endy Bayuni of the Jakarta Post, accepted invitations to give keynote addresses we were on our way to success.

Other specialist presenters fell in after that, and with the panels of senior ABC religion journalists, as well as the contribution of professors Paul Morris of New Zealand and Naavras Jaat Afreedi of India, the two days of panels, talks and workshops were soon packed with fascinating, urgent and edgy issues. Not least was the set of latest challenges and opportunities posed by the digital universe, which were addressed by a panel including Fjelstad, Scott Stephens, Editor of the Religion and Ethics Website, and Sarah Pulliam Bailey of RNS.

The salient issues that emerged throughout the symposium included:

  • the role of freedom of speech as an essential ingredient in fostering a robust and fair society
  • the rise of religious conflict and violence in societies that suppress, curtail and control religious freedom
  • the social media’s highly emotional character which can be incendiary but also used to the opposite effect for good
  • the media’s addiction to conflict stories that can blind journalists to powerful stories showing religion’s constructive role in society
  • stereotypes are unavoidable in the short-hand of journalism but they can be countered through the types of stories reported
  • ‘balance’ for the sake of ‘balance’ is detrimental to journalistic standards if it clearly undermines the truth of a story
  • the majority-minority comparison may be overstated in a society like Australia where essentially all religious positions and groups are minorities (ie, Australia’s Christian majority is comprised of minority churches, within which there are theological divisions)
  • the digital universe is crowding out professional journalism with rogue reporting, citizen ‘journalism’, bloggers, etc., but it is also a source of the latest stories and a venue for instant dissemination
  • there is no substitute for specialist and deep knowledge of religion in general and in particular for the religion journalist
  • the Symposium should be repeated and act as a representative for best practice in religion awareness for journalists who don’t ‘get religion’.

Further issues were discussed in the public forum on Religion as a Weapon of War or Peace, which included Marshall, Bayuni, Fjelstad, Barney Zwartz of The Age and myself, as moderator. The forum audio can be downloaded from The Spirit of Things website:

Rachael Kohn is producer and presenter of The Spirit of Things on ABC Radio National and vice-chair of the IARJ board of directors.