The Age of Poor Journalism: 'Backlash as God forced into schools'

You may have read recently how "the Victorian Education Department is forcing public primary schools to run Christian education classes taught by volunteers, angering parents and schools that do not want to host them. " (source: The Age) At first glance, this seems both an unjust and a brainwashing use of power by the Victorian government, arguably the top two pet hates of a typical Aussie, if such a list exists. In this post, I'll analyse the article in more detail and then in (hopefully) near future follow it up with another post regarding a trend that I think we're seeing in our Western world. That is, the demise of good journalism. 

Recently I've been developing how I think about journalism and critical reading, and so after a bit of reflection and Googling a few things about this article came to light. First of all, it seems to me that this article was not written in a neutral tone but actually using misleading rhetoric, for example the author, Michel Bacheland, writes: 

"Under Education Department guidelines children who opt out are not allowed to do other school work and are often forced [italics mine] to sit at the back of the class, or in quiet rooms or corridors while religious education is under way." 

Note the word 'forced'. This is hardly accurate, balanced or objective use of language. If students wanted to, I'm sure they could go to the library to go do homework/ read a book for example. No teacher worth their salt would stop a student from doing homework, right? Er, or have schools changed recently and students are being prevented from being efficient and studious?

The article 'Backlash as God forced into schools' by Bacheland continues: 

"But the department and Christian religious education provider Access Ministries says they have no choice." 

That's hardly a balanced, contextualised use of quote from the Access Ministries--why not quote the original statement? I understand that newspapers such as The Age often use summarising sentences like this to synthesize a long conversation, but if you note in the article, there are actually no unbroken quotes from the Access Ministries chairman, Stephen Hale. The second last paragraph does however include a quote from Mr. Hale more fully with:

'He likened Christian education to environment lessons, saying it was ''not just about teaching things in a neutral way,'' but encouraging children to have an opinion and ''be committed to doing something''. '

I can imagine some readers of this article would be really rankled by this because it comes across as brainwashing. But I've recently read Education and Training Reform Act 2006 - SECT 2.2.11. and there is no indication that RE (religious education) teachers are obliged to teach their content 'in a neutral way'.

Of course, there may be individual public schools in Victoria, Australia, which give RE teachers a strict syllabus which requires a 'neutral' voice--I'm not sure--but Access Ministries doesn't seem to contravene any state level regulations. It seems then that Access Ministries is being ostracised unfairly by The Age when in fact it is obliged to operate in the same way as other world-view teachers would. That is, according to the 2006 Reform Act in Sect 2.2.10 regarding secular education,

"Except as provided in section 2.2.11, education in Government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect."

Key word: "except". Yet this article presents the situation as if there is somehow an injustice toward students of secular-minded parents, or rather, a bias toward to Christian worldview , at work. If this is true, how is it that The Age has waited 4 years before reporting on this? The Reform Act of 2006 was a public document that had been accessible for all to view, and it's only now when, presumably, a secular parent gets irritated that a paper reports on a topic. Is this good journalism practise? It's also worth noting here that, historically, there has been a lot of vitriol regarding the Victorian Education Department and this article is definitely just the tip of the iceburg.

As a side-note, 'promote' is an interesting word. I'm so glad that Section2.2.10 doesn't forbid religious teachers from 'promoting' an idealogy. Any teacher, not matter what religion, would want be passionate for what they believe and would actively encourage students to engage with what they are saying! If they weren't passionate I would be wondering why are they continuing to spend their time with students who are often disruptive and less than enthusiastic learners. But it's worth asking the question, is it a good idea to ask a teacher to be 'neutral' when talking about religious beliefs? And what does that actually mean?

Well, later in The Age article the journalist writes:

'Access Ministries has 4000 volunteers who teach in two-thirds of Victorian primary schools. Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Baha'i, Greek Orthodox, Hare Krishna and Roman Catholic courses are also accredited, but Access provides 96 per cent of ''special religious instruction''.'

So, statistically Christian educators are the majority. But that would make sense, right, as there are more Christian teachers available than teachers from other religions! Also there is an intrinsic urgency or motivation to teach kids about Jesus in Christianity which is not necessarily inate in teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, the latest teacher of the Bahai faith, for example. Finally, this quote actually contradicts the very first sentence of the first article which states:

"The Victorian Education Department is forcing public primary schools to run Christian education classes taught by volunteers, angering parents and schools that do not want to host them."

Evidently, the classes do not have to be Christian education--other religious teachers are welcome too, provided they are "persons who are accredited representatives of churches or other religious groups and who are approved by the Minister for the purpose" (Education and Training Reform Act 2006 - SECT 2.2.11.)

So sadly, this is an example of poor journalism by The Age which is unnecessarily inflammatory. Could it be that the journalist is expressing his anti-Christian sentiments through poor journalism practise? Although, arguably, many of the above quotes look reasonable enough, they actually don't evidence balanced reporting. If you're interested, here is a highly informative link on what is good journalism. 

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