How do Irish media cover religion?
Ireland and the country’s top three media outlets are one and the same – predominantly Catholic but not without diversity. Can these media groups keep up with this small but evolving nation?
Ireland has three major media outlets, two official languages – English and Irish – and one dominant religion: Roman Catholicism. Granted, the nation does have its fair share of religious minorities including Muslims, Protestants, Jews, and a growing share of the population that identifies as having no religion. The island’s main media groups are Ráidio Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), The Irish Times, and The Irish Independent. RTÉ is decidedly centrist but is the main news outlet that contributes to keeping the nation’s Catholic collective identity alive. The radio and television station airs the Angelus, a traditional Catholic prayer, twice a day and offers weekly devotional articles.   Conversely, while The Irish Times often takes a more liberal interpretation and The Irish Independent a conservative lean on political issues, both take a purely secular, centrist approach to their discussion of religious affairs. However, apart from theological content, all three outlets are consistent in their approach to religion – the primary focus is the Catholic Church, notable attention is given to Muslims, and the island’s other religious minorities receive little to no attention apart from major developments or crises.
With 78.3% of Irish identifying as Catholic, it is no surprise the Catholic Church receives so much media attention. Significant attention is given to notable developments in Church policy or appointments   and statements from Pope Francis.   Local Catholic leaders, namely Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, also receive ample attention for their responses to local crises  and ongoing societal debates.  While the attention is primarily neutral or positive, none of the outlets shy away from sharing critical reviews of the Church’s shortcomings, such as its lack of women in leadership  and long history of sex abuse scandals.      As mentioned, RTÉ offers a host of theological content, but it could be argued they lead the pack with their share of criticism. For example, they had by far the most coverage of the Cardinal George Pell sex-abuse scandal in Australia.   Locally, criticism is often focused on clashes between the Church’s dominance of schools and the increasingly secular citizenry.   
It would be fair to suspect that given the fact that the island is overwhelmingly Catholic, religious minorities would receive little to no media coverage. For most this is true, but Islam is the exception. 1.3% of the nation identify as Muslim, which means Islam is not even the dominant minority tradition. Nevertheless, Muslims receive the second most media attention of all religious groups and, unlike many countries around the world, a good majority of it is positive. The majority of the coverage is for days that are of great significance for Muslims such as Ramadan  and Eid.  This coverage generally includes explanations about the history and significance of the days and stories on how Ireland’s Muslim community is honoring the time.  Though no definitive reason has been offered, perhaps this focus on education and inclusion is a product of Ireland’s long history of religious strife.
While this is all positive coverage, the Irish media really show their commitment to this religious minority in how they talk about Muslims around the world. Many news groups are keen to focus on the violence that surround Islamist terrorist groups, but all three of Ireland’s main media groups are quick to shed light on the widespread persecution Muslims experience around the world. This includes covering China’s abuse of the Uigher Muslim minority,    the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar,    and India’s Bharatiya Janata Party’s treatment of Muslims.   
This coverage is almost certainly helping the nation refrain from developing an Islamophobic mindset. In fact, that is arguably already evidenced by the Lisa Smith affair. Lisa Smith was an Irish citizen who was radicalised and moved to Syria to join the Islamic State. Her return and prosecution have received significant attention,    but there was no widespread blame or retaliation directed at Ireland’s Muslim community. Rather, representatives of Ireland’s Muslim community were invited to join in the conversation, and they took the opportunity to voice their shared frustration and fears surrounding Smith’s case.
The forgotten few
In contrast, Ireland’s other religious minorities receive little to no media attention. Ireland’s Jewish, Sikh and Orthodox Christian communities almost never receive media attention that does not pertain to a major conflict  or positive development.  For example, one will see both articles of Ireland’s Sikh community fighting for their rights to religious expression,  followed by articles of their charity to their local communities. Unlike the coverage of the Catholic Church, Ireland’s religious minorities do not receive coverage apart from these two extremes. Further, this coverage is sparingly of domestic groups and rather limited to communities outside of Ireland.   
Ireland’s second largest religious minority, Protestants, arguably receive the least amount of news coverage when one considers their share of the population. Though Protestants comprise 3.3% of the island’s population, their media coverage is almost exclusively limited to articles that discuss multiple religions.    In other words, they rarely receive coverage in which they are the main focus. Further, like their fellow religious minorities, the coverage that is exclusively about Protestants is usually discussing groups in other countries.  
Changing media for a changing Ireland
At 9.8%, Ireland’s largest “religious” minority is actually those who claim no religion at all. And as this group has risen in prominence, so too has their media coverage. While the coverage of Humanists, Atheists  and others who challenge the control and influence of the Catholic Church by no means dominates Irish media, it is notable. Namely because it is illustrative of Ireland’s three main media groups’ approach to religion as a whole – coverage that represents an evolving citizenry. Though RTÉ still offers some theological discussions for this historically Catholic nation, it is far from what it was in the late 1900s.   Rather, RTÉ, The Irish Times and The Irish Independent all take a secular approach and offer a variety of articles that are somewhat, though not entirely, proportional to the population they serve.
Would you like to stay updated on the latest news on religion & society? Create an account on earsdashboard.com and receive free weekly updates.