by Greg Spearritt
What do Australians – or, at least, Australian newspapers – find newsworthy about religion?
After a year and a half of trawling through the websites of ABC News Online and the major Fairfax and News Ltd papers in search of articles about religious topics, I find some interesting facts emerging. Interesting, but probably not so very surprising.
If (God forbid) you were to rely on these news sources for a snapshot of our society, you would probably believe that Catholics and Muslims are the only religious people doing anything really worth reporting on, both in Australia and overseas. And much of what they’re up to is bad.
(The figures, very roughly, are these. In almost 70 weeks of reporting, here are the number of weeks in which the following are mentioned at least once:
Muslims 68, Catholics 67, Anglicans 60, Jews 45, Buddhists 43, Scientologists 24, Atheists 21, Orthodox/Eastern 20, Uniting Church 18, Exclusive Brethren 17, Baha'i 16, Witchcraft 15, Mormons 14, Hindus 14, Baptists 11, Hillsong 11, Salvation Army 11, Pagans 10, Sikhs 7, Lutherans 4, Presbyterians 4, Jehovah’s Witness 3, Seventh-Day Adventist 3, Spiritualists 2, Zoroastrians 1.
In a given week, however, there are usually far more articles about Muslims and Catholics than about any of the others.)
Why so much on Muslims and Catholics?
Religious violence, of course, accounts for many of the articles mentioning Islam. General reference to the Middle East accounts for many more. In articles about events in Australia, controversy over different cultural standards and issues like opposition to Islamic schools – as well as terrorism trials – feature strongly.
For the Catholics, child sexual abuse is right up there with the doings of the Pope. In reporting on Australia, sexual abuse by Catholic clergy again features, as does the Pope. In fact, whatever the Pope does seems to be considered newsworthy – did you know, for instance, that he just changed his doctor?
It should not be surprising, I suggest, that our news media especially pick up on the violent, abusive, outdated, intolerant, intransigent and illiberal aspects of religion. Certainly, there are articles which paint religion in a much more favourable light, but clearly these don’t sell newspapers. Nothing sells like controversy, and in the world of religion today, the Catholics and Muslims seem to have cornered the market on it.