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What is the media's duty of skepticism?

By Zachariah Matthews - posted Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Do the media sometimes exacerbate people's fears that could strain community relations?

On Wednesday 11 January 2012 Melbourne's The Age newspaper unwittingly provided an opportunity for the stereotype to be reinforced that Muslim Australians are violent extremists. The Fairfax newspaper published on its front page the story of a missing Ashwood woman in 'Fears held for Christian convert.' The report included the woman's husband stating that he feared his wife was "abducted by Muslim hardliners because of her attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity."

This shocking claim was subsequently found to be false and merely a ploy aimed at deflecting attention. Three days after the report the woman's husband was charged with murder when police uncovered her body under a backyard slab on their property. Sadly another tragic addition to the growing domestic violence statistics.


But by then the allegation's damage had already been done. The stereotype was perpetuated with the news report covered both locally and overseas. The husband repeated his claim on Network Ten and Sky News reportedthat "The disappearance of a 46-year-old mother has stirred up claims of Islamic extremists targeting Christians in Melbourne." Most of the media were quite happy to relay the story without questioning the credibility of the claim.

The issue therefore that needs to be reviewed is how journalists and editors deal with claims for publication, especially outrageous ones. Should it not be standard practice for reporters to independently verify allegations that could be damaging? Don't editors in turn have the responsibility of screening reports to ensure that they are not defamatory? They balance this task against the public's interest and right to know. Some do this well while others don't.

Surprisingly, there seems to be no specific code of conduct dealing with the responsible publication and vetting of claims, neither in The Age's own code nor in that of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance's Australian Journalists Association Code of Ethics. This shortcoming needs to be addressed.

How are journalists to know if someone they are interviewing is being deceitful? Is the claim taken on face value or is it always corroborated with other sources? In the case above, the substantiation for allowing the claim to be published was tenuous: similar cases were cited overseas; friends as well as a Pastor backed the husband's fear; and police were investigating all possibilities - as they normally would early in an investigation. What was missing from the report was any direct evidence to support the allegation – no threatening incidents or phone calls, no reports of suspicious characters lurking about, etc.

Did the journalist ever contemplate the possibility that the claim could be a lie? Important questions should have been asked but were not.

The role that Pastor Daniel Nalliah from Catch the Fire Ministries played in the whole saga also needs to be scrutinised. A day before The Age's report on the case he sent an email to followers alerting them of the women's disappearance and that she may have been abducted by hardliners who executed converts. Was he therefore the original architect of the theory?


Less than twenty-four hours after the claim was first publicised in the media, the police rejected it as unfounded. The Age's rival newspaper The Australian reportedthat the head of homicide John Potter said "there was no evidence to back claims by evangelical pastor Daniel Nalliah." Despite this, the Pastor repeated the accusation in The Examiner a day later saying: "I'm hoping that I'm completely wrong and that she's found alive. But in case it is a religiously motived abduction, then I'm very, very concerned for her life."

Pastor Nalliah is no stranger to controversy. In 2002 he was accused of religious vilification by the Islamic Council of Victoria. In August 2007 he made the bold "prophetic declaration" that John Howard would be re-elected in the November poll and "pass the leadership onto Peter Costello sometime after." He came to national prominence in 2009 suffering a severe backlash for saying the Black Saturday fires were God's punishment for Victoria's abortion laws. Then in January 2011 he blamed the Queensland floods on Kevin Rudd for "speaking against Israel." The Foreign Minister's apparent sin was urging "Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and open all its nuclear facilities to UN inspectors."

Perhaps when it comes to vulnerable and targeted communities standards of professionalism in the media occasionally slip. But this is unacceptable since The Age's code clearly states that: "Sustaining the highest editorial standards is essential to us retaining the trust of the community, and the freedoms and responsibilities afforded to us by the community."

Breach of trust is hard to repair. However, through my engagement with The Age's reporter I am optimistic that there will be more circumspection in future when it comes to sensationalist claims that could jeopardise community harmony.

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About the Author

Dr Zachariah Matthews is the Executive Director of Just Media Advocacy. You can follow him on Twitter @JMAdvocate.

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