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Catholic Media Watch

CHRISTIAN BROTHERS: BECAUSE ONLY BAD NEWS SELLS

by Michael Mullins

During the past week, the Christian Brothers have finally been receiving some good press.

A couple of overwhelmingly positive articles followed a directive from Rome-based Congregational Leader Br Philip Pinto. Pinto said that the order is to leave the schools ministry in favour of a deployment into "new and greater areas of need", specifically missionary work in the Philippines.

Last Saturday, The Age reported praise for the Brothers from Victorian Premier and St Pat's Ballarat old boy Steve Bracks. Referring to the "passion, commitment and discipline" that were the "hallmarks" of their education, Bracks said "the Brothers had a historical commitment to education to success, particularly for families who had made their way to Australia from other parts of the world."

The Sydney Morning Herald followed up on Monday with columnist Chris McGillion genuinely regretting the close of "an important chapter in the story of the Australian Catholic Church". On Tuesday, a letter writer to the Herald shared some of his own "happy memories" of the Brothers.

The articles glossed over the fact of the Brothers' association in the public imagination, and in fact, with the issue of sex abuse. This is in stark contrast with most media coverage of the Brothers in recent years, which has all but ignored their achievements. McGillion pointed out that they helped generations of working-class Catholics into the middle class and the professions.

It's hard to overstate the overwhelming seriousness of sex abuse. But journalists' perception of the weight of the issue has led them to create a general impression that has unfairly and untruthfully tarnished the public face of the Brothers as a whole. Though innocent, some hitherto highly respected brothers have been falsely accused. Others had their reputations damaged forever by association.

For journalists, there's no doubt that a story's a story. The facts that don't fit the general picture are best glossed over or ignored if a story's going to be memorable. A journalist is not a social scientist, and impression is everything. A lack of pattern in the facts presented, or qualified conclusions, kills a story's power and sex appeal.

But the issue of selective reporting goes further than this. Practices can extend to calculated self-censorship, and questionable media taboos.

Those who saw Fine Line, Ellen Fanning's recent series on media ethics on SBS TV, might remember ABC journalist Maxine McKew's mea culpa.

Referring to the early days of her career in the 1970s, she confessed that she had followed a widespread media practice of ignoring violence in Indigenous communities for the sake of what was commonly believed to be the greater good. It was feared that revealing the extent of black violence while reporting on Aboriginal communities might reinforce the prejudice and disadvantage of Aboriginal people.

Many Australians did not learn about such violence until The Age famously broke the taboo with its subsequently proved rape allegations against former ATSIC head Geoff Clark in the late 1990s.

Like the violent crimes of individuals in Aboriginal communities, stories of the heroism of the Brothers would never have made it in the mainstream media due to journalistic self-censorship. Certainly it's true that the quiet achievements of the majority were less newsworthy than the heinous crimes of the minority. But that's only part of the reality.

Just as reporters felt compelled to turn a blind eye when they learned about black violence in Aboriginal communities, journalists have faced pressure to do everything possible to uphold the power of their media in helping to bring to Christian Brother sex abusers to justice. This includes avoiding positive press for the Brothers.

For whatever reason, Br Pinto's recent announcement appears to have triggered the breaking of the taboo. So now we can all resume our love and respect for the quiet achiever majority among the Christian Brothers.



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