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Faith in the media: a career dedicated to reporting on religion

NEWS  |  Kaley Payne
Tuesday 26 May 2015

Barney Zwartz has won the Ridley Marketplace Institute and ETHOS Faith and Work award over the weekend.

Zwartz worked at The Age as religion writer and editor for 11 years from 2002-2013 and was the last full-time religion reporter in Australia before he retired to work for the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne and Primate of Australia Phillip Freier.

In his acceptance speech, Zwartz lamented the state of religion reporting in Australia, calling it “one of the casualties of the media decline.”

Flickr: CC license, Darren McRostie

Flickr: CC license, Darren McRostie

“I fear for the future,” he told his Melbourne audience. “The ABC, the final bastion for specialised coverage of religion in the secular media, is busy dismantling its religion section. Religion will mostly be ignored in the news columns because mostly it can be, and that will accelerate wider society’s dissociation and ignorance. When the stories cannot be avoided, the stories will mostly be written by people with no background and little understanding.”

Before his time as religion reporter and then editor for The Age, Zwartz said the paper covered only three types of stories: priests molesting children, the church in decline and the troglodyte church holding back women and gay people. And while those stories were important to be told, in his role Zwartz took on the challenge to fill the gaps of religion coverage.

“I was able to cover a huge variety of stories, from social and theological trends to the fast-developing field of interfaith, from positive stories to the persecuted church. It just meant the paper taking religion seriously.”

And yet, as the last religion writer standing after The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald moved away from assigning writers to the religion round, Zwartz saw religion coverage moving back to those three staple topics in his final years with The Age. 

“The one area of religious reporting that is thriving involves radical Islam, but that would be better described as terror reporting.”

Zwartz was open about the challenges of being a Christian covering the religion round for a secular newspaper, balancing his responsibility as a journalist to present news, rather than advocate for his own faith.

“…the best way I could serve the Lord was by being as good and fair a reporter as possible.

“Many Christians assumed that I would be trying to present the church favourably or even presenting the gospel, but the best way to serve the Lord was by being as good and fair a reporter as possible. I do confess, I did delight to get quotations from the Bible into the paper, or present Christian thinking, and it happened more often than you think – but only in context. Anything else would be an abuse of privilege.”

Zwartz got more of an opportunity to present his personal faith on his blog, the Religious Write. And now, in a part-time role with the Centre for Public Christianity he plans to continue arguing the case to keep Christianity in the public square. He quoted Victorian-era Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, on hearing an evangelical preacher complained, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of the private life.”

“Today of course we face the opposite complaint,” said Zwartz. “And many secularists want to confine religion purely to believers’ private lives. That is unwise and unsafe.”

Zwartz is the fourth recipient of the annual Faith and Work awards. Previous recipients have included Graeme Clark, inventor of the bionic ear, John Anderson, former deputy prime minister and Wendy Simpson, entrepreneur and women’s leadership mentor.

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