Religion in New Zealand Media: Concepts, Complaints and Concerns
Diversity Action Forum 2013
Religious Diversity Forum
Religion and Media Workshop
Wellington,26 August 2013
Hare mai, Shalom, Salam, Namaste, Mōrena, Kia Ora, Kia Orana, Talofa lava, Malo e lelei,
Fakalofa lahi atu, Ni sa bula vinaka, Taloha ni and good morning, welcome to the 2013
Diversity Action Forum, and to this Religious Diversity Forum, supported by the Religious
Studies Programme at Victoria University of Wellington, UNESCO, and the Human Rights
Commission. Our theme is religion and the media, arising from Article 4 of The Statement on
Religious Diversity (2007, 2009):
The right of freedom of expression and freedom of the media are vital
for democracy but should be exercised with responsibility.
This is an on-going issue, the Diversity Action Forum in Christchurch, 2010, addressed
media issues, examining the balance between media responsibility and the media‟s freedom
of expression. We return to this important concern three years on in a much changed
environment shaped by increasing demands for press regulation to mandate responsibility;
new models of press and community relationships; ongoing complaints by religious
communities about misrepresentation in the media; and, that prejudice and negative attitudes
continue to be fostered by irresponsible media reporting.
I intend to address a number of new initiativesfrom other places;discuss a recent study on the
media reporting of religion;refer to the emerging academic field of religion and media and
what might be called“media religious literacy”i
; and conclude by returning to the New
Zealand context as a way of introducing our speakers, their local case studies, and some new
New Zealand research.
(1) Introduction: journalist codes of conduct
Journalists are bound by robust codes of practice that are designed to determine best practice
and set standards for reporting, complaints processes, procedures and remedies. So, for
example, the New Zealand Press Council (NZPC) considers complaints against newspapers,
magazines and periodicals in public circulation in this country, including their websites. The
Councilcannot order monetary awards to a complainant but can and does demand that
offending publications publish “the essence of the decision upholding a complaint, in full or
part” and that it be given “fair prominence”. They have a Statement of Principles: Accuracy;
Privacy; Children and Young People; Discrimination and Diversity; Comment and Factii
Headlines and Captions; Confidentiality; Subterfugeiii
; Conflicts of Interest; Photographs and
; and, Correctionsv
Whilst all eleven NZPC principles are important and bear directly on our topic today, the one
that is most pertinent here is “Discrimination and Diversity”, concerned with “issues of
gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental
disability”. These are held to be legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and
in the public interest, and “publications may report and express opinions in these areas”.
However, undue or gratuitous emphasis should not be placed on any of thesecategories when
reporting. This principle is regularly evoked in complaints about the reporting of religion.
Also essential for this discussion is the New Zealand‟s Broadcasting StandardsAuthority
(BSA). This appeals organisation was established to hear cases from those unsatisfied with
the responses of broadcasters in reply to complaints; and its decisions can be appealed to the
The BSA has a set of Standards covering4 areas (free-to-air TV; pay TV; radio;
and election programmes at election time): good taste and decency; law and order; privacy;
controversial issues – balance; accuracy; fairness; discrimination and denigration; responsible
programming; children‟s interests; violence; and, liquor.
The website also gives details of illustrative cases under these Standards, together with
information on how to make complaints. The BSA is tasked with determining in individual
cases of whether a particular Standard was “breached”. The BSA comes“under the umbrella”
of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage” and the Minister of Broadcasting, and as an
Independent Crown Entity has a degree of independence and autonomy.vii
Media organisations have their own codes tooviii
as does the union representing many
journalists, the EPMUNZ (Amalgamated Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union NZ)
Journalist Code of Ethics.ix
It is interesting to note the recent submission by the EPMUNZ to
the Law Commission on media regulations. x
We are not short on codes of conduct for
journalists, albeit overlapping, based on truth, accuracy, honesty, fairness and balance. The
Human RightsCommission has played an important role in taking cases to review.
Looking at the cases, upheld and not, reveals that the media reporting of religion is an
ongoing area of complaints and concerns. Further, that decisionsof the regulatory bodies
appear ad hocrather than forming a pattern of precedentsestablished on cases relating to the
reportage of religion as a foundation for future cases. It often appears as if every such case is
the first and any progress hard to discern.It is these modes of media regulation that have been
called into question in the US and Europe.
In the Leveson enquiry in the UK it was the abject failure of major news outlets to be guided
by their voluntary codes that has led to the recommendation to set up independent external
mandatory bodies to ensure such regulation. In the US too there have been similar calls at the
federal and state levels.Lord Leveson‟s enquiry (the Enquiry into the Culture, Practice and
Ethics of the Press) attempted to strike a balance between regulation and legislation and make
recommendations that met the twin objectives of protecting the public and protecting press
freedom. The report published last year (2012) noted the concerns about media presentations
of religion and ethnicity, and gratuitous identification;alongside the inadequate provisions in
the Press Complaints Commission's Code of Practice to handle third party complaints, and,
its negative cumulative impact on processes for redress of grievance. But to paraphrase one
of its main findings: self-regulation has failed, and contra the press, Leveson concluded that
only statutory underpinning for codes of practice would work. The submissions report the
increasing concerns of Muslims, Hindus and a number of migrant groups over negative,
distorted and even fabricated reports in media coverage. Reference was also made to the 2011
research at Cambridge University that "a wider set of representations of Islam would signify
a welcome change to reporting practices. Muslims deserve a better press than they have been
given in the past decade."xi
And according to a recent ComRes poll, one in three people in
Britain today believe that the media is responsible for "whipping up a climate of fear of Islam
in the UK".xii
It is interesting to consider New Zealand in this regard. While we certainly do
not begin with the “hacking scandal” many of the UK issues resonate here, particularly in
relation to misguided and ill-informed reporting on religious matters. Do we need further
media regulation in this country?
In the UK and US religious identification in media stories continues to alarm. In one recent
case, a media outletfollowing the Boston marathon bombings identified “perpetrators”
incorrectly, seemingly based on religious stereotyping. These reports apparently had fatal
consequencesin that one of those so identified is suspected of committing suicide. xiii
(2) Religion and Media
Beginning in the 1990s with a growing recognition of the need for a new awareness and new
skills in reporting stories that reflected increasing religious and ethnic diversity, and, in the
aftermath of 9/11 the understanding that religion was a significant dimension of our
news;“media and religion” has become an acknowledged interdisciplinary area of academic
research,fostering increasingly sophisticated methodological analysis of media data relating
“Media and religion”researchers analyse news coverage of religious issues and
explore how particular religious communities use media.xv
They also continue to discuss the
difficulties of measuring religious objectivity. There are now three academic journalsxvi
“media and religion” has become the creative interface between journalists, media business
people, academics and religious communities, with academics writing guides for journalists
who report religion, joint conferences and research projects. The areas of interest range from
religious stereotyping in mainstream media, via sectarian groups and their use of social
media, to religion in Reality TV – there‟s a lot of religion going on in all those weddings for a
start, in this under-studied source of contemporary forms of religion.
A significant development for our purposes has been the application of Erving Goffman‟s
notion of “frame analysis” to the framing of religion in the media. Goffman sought to
understand the organisation of information within experience. He wrote:
Reporters‟ understanding of the world precedes the stories they write
about, determining which ones reporters will select and how the ones
that are selected will be told.xvii
We might want to add editors and publishers to “reporters” in the quotation above. A “frame”
is the central organizing idea for making sense of relevant events and suggesting what is at
issue and important. News and information are valuable only if embedded in a meaningful
context which organizes and creates cogency and coherence. News stories can be understood
as narratives, which include information and factual elements but also carry implicit
messages. “Framing” reveals the ways in which religion is depicted by journalists. Facts are
not simply reported but shaped in specific ways, or “framed”. So what used to be called
“bias”has come to be more helpfully seen asthe framing which determineswhat is news
worthy; how news is presented; from what POV (point of view); what associations are made
with protagonists (e.g. “terrorists and religion”);and, what repeated word associations link
particular religious adherents to actions, such as scandal. Media analysis of framing asks why
these emphases and what is their likely impact? Media frames are persistent patterns of
cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which
discourse is organised.These patterns determine specific problem definitions and causal
explanations, and, of course,moral evaluations. Framing operates, consciously or
unconsciously, every narrative making assumptions about how the world works, and this
implicit framing reinforces particular pictures and interpretations of the world, much as
For example, if stories about Middle East politics are regularly framed
focussing on demonstrating crowds and riots we can come to view the protesters as
dangerous, unstable and religious fanatics; while those who choose to frame such stories
emphasising actionsagainst the protesters are more likely to interpret those subjected to army
and police “violence” as victims.xix
(3) Two Recent Developments
Last year in March a new organisation was set up, the International Association of Religion
Journalists (IARJ), one of the founding members, American journalist, David Briggs, writes:
We are living in a global society and our understanding internationally
of religion is weak. With this association, journalists now have contacts
in various countries and can work together.
IARJ aims to develop a global network of journalists who report on religion, and develop the
skills necessary to cover religion news stories through religion data bases, industry training,
and ethical guidelines. Their website includes reviews of recent studies, articles on best
religious reporting practice, and discussion of potentially problematic and sensitive media
coverage of religion. Although it is early days, the first indications are that IARJ are
addressing significant issues in sophisticated ways that are relevant to the media reporting of
religion in New Zealand.xx
Getting the Facts Right: Reporting Ethnicity and Religionwas published last year by the
Media Diversity Institute/Cardiff University in partnership with ARTICLE 19 and the
International Federation of Journalists.xxi
The study is based on critical analysis of 199 news
reports and interviews with 117 journalists and editors in nine European countries: Denmark,
France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia and the UK. It asked about the
professional norms that guide editors and journalists when reporting on ethnicity and religion
and which newsgathering methods are most commonly used. The analyses also attempt to
determine the institutional constraints in reporting religion and ethnicity and the critical
differences between journalism that fosters intolerance and that that supports “intercultural
The study highlights the institutional realities of contemporary journalism, including: the
worsening financial situation of the media; the chronic workloads of reporters; the minimal
time allowed for research on stories; limited knowledge about religion and ethnicity and the
absence of such education as part of journalists‟training; and, the lack of opportunity for in-
service training on religion and ethnicity reporting. These factors were deemed to be “the
main obstacles to good reporting” on these topics. There was an insightful discussion of
“newsroom diversity”, with wide agreement that while valuable,this should not be a “goal in
itself” but that journalistic skills and training were more important, including having the
journalistic skills to make full use of one‟s own ethnic or religious background. It is also
reported that journalists who work on religion and ethnic issues demonstrate “significantly
higher ethical standards” than the general journalists interviewed.
The report tracks the themes in the stories on religion which were found to be predominantly
focussed on controversial, “button issues”,such as: the wearing of the hijab or burqa; the
teaching of Islam in schools; the potential integration of religious minorities; abortion;
religious extremism; homosexuality; and, sexual scandals in the church. Many of these
topics were deemed to be poorly reported on due to the reinforcement of stereotypes as a
result of inadequate knowledge about ethnicity and religion, and the pressures on journalist
and editors, mentioned above.
Getting the Facts Right: Reporting Ethnicity and Religion ends with a series of
recommendations that include attempting to change journalistic cultures, and using different
tools when reporting on religion and ethnicity while maintaining the application of good,
accurate, fair, balanced, responsible and trustworthy journalism. The report stresses the need
for journalists to become more aware of anti-discrimination legislation and develop
knowledge about religious and ethnic communities via specific training, contacts and the
creation of a new “culture of tolerance within the newsroom”.
(4) New Zealand
It is clear that we need detailed analysis of the framing of religion reporting in New Zealand
media. My intuition is that all too often crude and unhelpful frames are repeatedly used,
albeit without much awareness or subtlety. Equally, we need to undertake a version of
Getting the Facts Right here. The newsroom pressures are just as evident here as is the lack
of training and training opportunities and the recommendations are worthy of further
discussion in the New Zealand context.
One of the sponsors of this session, UNESCO, holds an annual UNESCO World Press
Freedom Day. In his 2013 UNESCO World Press Freedom Day address at AUT, Professor
Mark Pearson referred to what he called “mindful journalism”:
What I have in mind are what we might consider core religious values
- respect for others, showing some compassion, truth-telling with a
conscience where other traditions and cultures are respected, and where
you've done your homework before you enter the fray in a major conflict
which you might not know much about. xxii
We often seem a long way from Pearson‟s “mindful journalism” and “respect” and
“homework” are continuing areas of concern.
There continue to be cases brought complaining about media reporting of religions and
religious matters and the number of complaints is increasing. The BSA recently considered a
complaint about a panel discussion on Radio New Zealand‟s Afternoons with Jim Mora
programme, where the host and panellists discussed the release of a controversial collectors‟
edition Barbie doll. A panellist suggested there was a market in the Muslim world for
“terrorist Barbie”, and in response the host suggested a “suicide bomber Barbie”. The
authority declined to uphold the complaint ruling that the comments were intended to be
“satirical”, and clearly “commentary and opinion rather than statements of fact”.
A clip on the New Zealand Herald website showing the Russian feminist punk band Pussy
Riot performing a protest song in a Moscow cathedral, was brought to the attention of the
NZPC. The complainant asked for the clip to be removed because it was extremely offensive
in showing a sacrilegious act. The Council dismissed the complaint saying that while the
performance was “sacrilegious”, the clip was brief and did not gratuitously dwell on the
performance, which was part of an important story about the band‟s arrest. It stated that:
In the overall context of an important political development, the video
was useful in giving the viewer a fuller understanding of the issues.
We must, perhaps, accept that in understanding the world we will at
times be offended, horrified, appalled. The more honest the reporting,
the worse it may be.
Drawing a firm line between acceptable and unacceptable satirical or sacrilegious materials
that clearly cause offence is not always easy, at least for those who enforce our journalist
codes of conduct. Reporting religion need not be so fraught, divisive and so regularly cause
I want now to mention two recent cases that will be taken up by those involved. The first by a
complainant, Anjum Rahmanxxiii
, and the second by Dita De Boni, columnist with the New
Zealand Herald and the journalist concerned. The first case was about a column in The
Waikato Times that referenced Islam and the purported treatment of women. The second in
the New Zealand Herald was a story about dairies and their responsibilities in relation to
policing the selling of specific items such as synthetic cannabis, glue, cigarettes and
In this case it was the attendant cartoon depicting a goddess figure that was
deemed offensive by members of the Hindu community. Both led to complaints that resulted
in the offending material being taken down from websites but both failed to satisfy the
complainants in important ways. It is clear that these processes can be improved and that we
can attempt to learn from the past rather than merely repeating it.Reverend Jenny Chalmers,
with a track record of interfaith activities and commitments,will share her original research
on the ways in which religion is reported in selected New Zealand newspapers, looking at
both major and more local press outlets.
I said that I would return to the issue of responsibility for responsible reporting. The majority
of editors and journalists in the Getting the Facts Right report agreed that they did have a
responsibility to foster intercultural understanding. This is in marked contrast to the
Australian journalists and editors on the media panel at the United Nations Alliance of
Civilizations (UNAOC) conference in Melbourne, 2011, where not one member of the august
panel would agree that their responsibilities extended beyond providing interesting stories as
measured by increased readership or viewer numbers.
I want to end on a positive note. In preparing for this address I read a collection of essays by
New Zealand journalists and academics published in 1990, Between the Lines: Racism in
New Zealand Media, co-edited by former Race Relations Commissioner, Wally Hirsh,xxv
focussed on the reporting of Māori and Māori matters in New Zealand media. It makes for
sober reading some 23 years later. The examples of what was understood as acceptable
reporting is rightly challenged by the contributors and gives a very graphic illustration of just
how far our media has moved away from the gratuitous stereotyping, negative framing, and
the role that the press once played in shaping negative Pākehā perceptions of Māori. The
book ends with two recommendations for addressing the then dire state of the reporting of
race in the media. The first, from Dr Jim Tully, is the need for a code for journalists reporting
on race, and the second from Allison Webber, journalist turned academic, is the need to
accept responsibility for the public impact of the media. The Pew Foundation in the US
reports that the single most important source for information about religions other than our
own is the commercial media. xxvi
This enormous influence bears a parallel responsibility to
get it right.
The number of complaints and reported concerns about the reporting of Māori is now
negligible. What we need to consider is how to draw on our considerable individual and
collective experience of biculturalism and apply this wisdom to our new religious diversity.
My positivity is based on this successful experience even as we acknowledge that this was
not easy and that the current reporting on religion may well be just as dire as it once was
regarding Tangata Whenua in the media. We have collectively raised our consciousness and
awareness and clearly have the capacity to do so again.
(5) Forum Outcomes
Do we need guidelines for journalist reporting on religion? How do we start the conversation
about media responsibility? What should we be doing?
This final section reflects the discussion at the end of the Forum. There was wide support for:
1. The development of resources:
(i) A guide for journalists for the reporting on religion, to include religious
community contact people, sensitive religious issues and religious concerns,
background sources on religions (beyond Wikipedia).
(ii) A guide to media for religious communities, to include the law on media,
journalists‟ codes of conduct, realistic expectations, complaints procedures and
processes, and likely outcomes.
2 The establishment of a Working Group (journalists, media people, HRC) and
Reference Group (religious communities) to continue a conversation in the New
Zealand context leading to Recommendations/Guidelines.
Professor Paul Morris
Religious Studies Programme, Vitoria University of Wellington
UNESCO Chair in Interreligious Understanding and Relations in New Zealand and the
See, Daniel Stout, “Religious Media Literacy”, Journal of Religion and Media 1:1 (2002) 49-60; Mary Hess,
“Media literacy”, in Daniel Stout (ed), Encyclopaedia of Religion, Communication and Media (New York:
Routledge, 2006) 245-250.
It is interesting that cartoons are opinion.
Where it is considered to be both in the public interest and there are no alternatives.
The concern is about the manipulation of images.
http://www.presscouncil.org.nz/principles_2.php. This website also outlines complaints procedures and
processes and decisions by the Council. It is a useful resource for exploring recent complaints that have
religious and religio-ethnic dimensions.
The BSA was established by the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For example, http://www.fairfaxmedia.co.nz/dotAsset/36730.pdf
See, the pioneering text, Stewart Hoover, Religion in the News (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1998) set an agenda
and framework for the academic study of media and religion.
See, for example, Heidi Campbell, When religion meets new media (London: Routledge, 2010) where the
author explores the religious use of digital and other media formats.
Journal of Media and Religion; Journal of Communication and Religion; and Religion in the News.
See, Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (New York: Harper &
Refer to Christopher Vecsey, Following 9/11:Religion coverage in the New York Times (Syracuse: Syracuse
University Press, 2012);
For a programmatic account of the field after 2001, see Stewart Hoover, Media and Religion: A White Paper
(Boulder: Center for Media, Religion and Culture, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2008); also, Daniel Stout
& Judith Buddenbaum, “Media, Religion and „Framing‟”, Journal of Media and Religion 2/1 (2003) 1-3; Daniel
Stout, Media and Religion: Foundations of An Emerging Field (New York: Routledge, 2011); Robert Wicks,
“Emotional Responses to Collective Action Frames about Islam and Terrorism”, Journal of Religion and Media
5/4 (2006) 245-263.
Verica Rupar, Getting the Facts Right: Reporting Ethnicity and Religion (Brussels, International Federation of
NZ Herald, Saturday May 4, 2013.
In November 2012, The Waikato Times published a column by former MP Michael Cox seriously maligning
the Muslim community. Supported by the HRC and local faith and interfaith groups, local Muslim and Waikato
Interfaith member, Anjum Rahman, sought a meeting with the editor to express her concern. She drew attention
to a recent NZPC decision concerning a column about Māori by media personality, Sir Paul Holmes in The
Weekend Herald. In this decision, the Council found that, “the accuracies upon which some of the opinions are
based make the opinions so extreme that in the Council‟s view they go beyond what is acceptable and become
gratuitous offence to Māori as a race”. The editor apologised for the offence caused, invited Rahman to
contribute a column from a Muslim women‟s perspective and agreed to remove the offending column from the
The HRC media statement (15 July 2013) stated that, “The caricature of the Goddess Kali illustrating a
recent New Zealand Herald column was inappropriate and offensive to many in the Indian community”.
Paul Spoonley & Walter Hirsch (eds), Between the Lines: Racism in New Zealand Media(Auckland:
Heinemann Reed, 1990).