Illegitimate Online Newspaper Representations of the Chaplaincy Program




chaplains, online newspapers, NSCSWP, illegitimacy

How to Cite

Donkin, A. (2014). Illegitimate Online Newspaper Representations of the Chaplaincy Program. M/C Journal, 17(5).
Vol. 17 No. 5 (2014): illegitimate
Published 2014-10-25


The National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program (NSCSWP) has been one of the most controversial Australian news topics in the past eight years. Newspaper representations of the NSCSWP have been prolific since the Program began in 2006/07. In my previous research into the NSCSWP, I found that initially the Program was well received. Following the High Court Challenge campaign, however, which began in late 2010, newspaper reports portrayed the NSCSWP in a predominantly negative light. 

These negative portrayals of the NSCSWP persisted in the lead up to the second High Court Challenge from 2013 until June 2014. During this time, newspaper representations portrayed the Program as an illegitimate form of counseling for state school students. However, I would argue that it was the newspaper representations of the NSCSWP that were in fact illegitimate.

In this article, I contend that illegitimate representations of the NSCSWP became hegemonic because of a lack of evidence-based research conducted into the Program’s operation within state schools. Evidence-based research would have appropriately evaluated the Program’s progress and contributed to a legitimate and fair representation of chaplains in online newspapers.

My analysis acknowledges the overwhelming prejudice against the NSCSWP. Whether chaplains were indeed a legitimate or illegitimate form of counseling is not my argument. My argument is that newspaper representations of the NSCSWP were illegitimate because news articles were presenting biased and incomplete information to the Australian community.

Defining Illegitimacy

Illegitimacy as a term has a long history dating back to early modern England, when it was commonly used to refer to children born out of wedlock (Pritchard 19). However, the definition of illegitimacy extends beyond this social phenomenon. Katie Pritchard states:

The understanding of illegitimacy encompasses a kind of theoretical illegitimacy that is nothing to do with birth, referring to a kind of falseness or unsuitability that can be applied in many circumstances. (21)

For this article, I will be using the term ‘illegitimate’ to describe how the newspaper representations of the NSCSWP were unsuitable because they were biased and lacked valuable information. Newspaper reports, which can be accessed online via the newspaper company’s website, include important authoritative voices. However, these voices expressed a certain opinion or concern, rather than delivering information that contributed to society’s understanding of the NSCSWP. Therefore, newspapers did not present legitimate facts, but instead a range of subjective opinions.

The Illegitimacy of Newspaper Reporting

The ideological bias of newspapers has been recently examined regarding News Corp, the owner of national title The Australian, and many of the major Australian state newspapers: The Daily Telegraph; The Courier Mail, Herald Sun; The Advertiser; and Sunday Times. This organisation has recently been accused of showing bias in its newspaper articles (Meade). Meade quotes Mark Scott, the ABC Managing Director, who states:

Given the aggressive editorial positioning of some of their mastheads and their willingness to adopt and pursue an editorial position, an ideological position and a market segmentation, you could argue that News Corporation newspapers have never been more assertive in exercising media power. (1)

The market domination enjoyed by large organisations such as News Corp, and even Fairfax Media, leads to consistency in journalists’ writing on political, social, religious, and economic issues, which may predominate over the articles published by smaller newspapers. There is the concern that over time a particular point of view will be favoured. According to Mark Scott “a range of influential voices [is] essential to ensure a fair and open media” (Meade 1).

Scott cites Rupert Murdoch who stated, back in 1967, that “freedom of the press mustn’t be one-sided just for a publisher to speak as he pleases, to try and bully the community” (Meade 1). Therefore, it has been acknowledged that a biased news article is illegitimate, and national news articles are to present facts, not the opinions of the newspaper.

A Methodological Framework

For this article I will utilise Norman Fairclough’s theory of Critical Discourse Analysis. Fairclough states:

By ‘critical’ discourse analysis I mean discourse analysis which aims to systematically explore often opaque relationships of causality and determination between (a) discursive practices, events and texts and (b) wider social and cultural structures, relations and processes. (132-133)

This method of analysis examines three assumptions: Existential, Propositional and Value. Existential assumptions make claims about what exists with regards to the problem, and refers to social phenomena such as globalisation or social cohesion (56). Propositional assumptions make predictions about what is or will be (55). Value assumptions simply evaluate things as good or bad, needed or not needed (57). These assumptions can be identified through analysis of the various direct quotes included within online newspaper articles.

Direct quotations in newspaper articles available online often represent polarised views demonstrating whether people agree or disagree with the topic being discussed. The selection, or framing, of dominant voices within an article can be used to construct or re-present certain ideologies (Entman, 165). Entman explains that “we can define framing as the process of culling a few elements of perceived reality and assembling a narrative that highlights connections among them to promote a particular interpretation” (164). The framing of direct quotes within an article, therefore, assists the reader in identifying the article’s bias.

The National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program

The National School Chaplaincy Program was first established in 2006 by the Howard Government, and in 2011 Julia Gillard included secular youth workers, expanding it from 2012 to become the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. According to the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Guidelines, the Program aimed to “assist school communities to provide pastoral care and general spiritual, social and emotional comfort to all students, irrespective of their faith or beliefs” (6).

Chaplaincy in Australia has been a predominantly Christian counseling service with Christianity being the most commonly practiced religion in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics). However, there have been chaplains representing other faiths such as Islam, Judaism and Buddhism (Australian Government 8). Chaplains were chosen by their respective schools and were partly funded by the Government to provide support to students and staff.

State Newspaper Articles Online: Representations 2013-2014

My sample of articles came from nine state newspapers with an online presence: The Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Courier Mail, Adelaide Advertiser, Melbourne Age, Northern Times, The Australian, The West Australian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Mercury. A total of 36 articles were collected, from the newspaper’s Website, for 2013 and 2014, and were divided into two categories.

The two categories are Supportive (of the Program) and Unsupportive (of the Program). In 2013, two articles were supportive of the Program, whereas in 2014 there were four. In 2013 three articles were unsupportive of the Program, whereas in 2014 there were 27 unsupportive articles, representing the growing interest in the scheme in the final lead up to the High Court Challenge in 2014.

An online newspaper article from 2013, which portrays the NSCSWP and in particular chaplains as illegitimate, is Call for Naked School Chaplain to Be Defrocked (Domjen). This article explains how an off-duty school chaplain was preaching naked in the main street of a country town in NSW.

The NSW Teachers Federation President Maurie Mulheron, and Parents and Citizens Association publicity officer Rachael Sowden were quoted in this article. It is through their direct quotes that the illegitimacy of chaplaincy is framed. President Mulheron states:

We believe the chaplaincy program is wrong and that money should be used for an increase in school-based counsellors. Obviously the right checks and balances are not in place. (1)

When President Mulheron states “We” it is unclear to the reader as to whether he is referring to all NSW Teachers or the organisation’s administrators. The reader is left to make their own assumptions about whom he is referring to. The President also makes a value assumption that the money would be better spent on school-based counselors, thus expressing his own opinion that they are a better option. A propositional assumption is made when he claims that the “right checks and balances are not in place”, but is he basing his claim on this one incident or is there other research to support this assumption?

Perhaps this naked chaplain appeared fine when the school hired him, perhaps he does not have a previous record of inappropriate behaviour, perhaps it was an isolated incident. The reader is not given any background information on this chaplain and is therefore meant to take the President’s assumptions as legitimate fact. Ms Sowden, representing the Parents’ and Citizens’ Association, also expresses the same assumptions and concerns. Ms Sowden states:

We have great concerns about the chaplain scheme - many parents do. We are concerned about whether they go through the same processes as teachers in terms of working with children checks and their suitability to the position, and this case highlights that.

Ms Sowden makes a propositional assumption that many parents and citizens are concerned about the Program. It would be interesting to know what the Parents and Citizens Association was doing about this, considering the choice to have a chaplain is a decision made by the school community?

Ms Sowden also asks whether chaplains “go through the same processes as teachers in terms of working with children checks and their suitability to the position”. Chaplains do not go through the same process as teachers in their training as they have a different role in the school. However, chaplains do require a Certificate IV in Pastoral Care as well as a Working with Children Check because they are in close proximity to children, and are being paid for their school counseling service (Working with Children Check).

Ms Sowden’s value assumption that chaplains are unsuitable for the position is based on her own limited understanding of their qualifications, which she admits to not knowing. In fact, to be appointed to represent parents and citizens and to even voice their concerns, but not know the qualifications of chaplains in her community, is an interesting area of ignorance.

This article has been framed to evaluate the actions of all chaplains through the example of a publicly-naked chaplain, discussed without context in this article. The Program is portrayed as hiring unsuitable and thus illegitimate chaplains. However, the quotes are based on concerns and assumptions that are unfounded, and are fears presented as facts. Therefore the representation is illegitimate because it does not report any information that the public can use to better understand the NSCSWP, or even to understand the circumstances surrounding the chaplain who preached naked in the street.

Another article from 2014, which represents chaplains as illegitimate, is Push to Divert Chaplain Cash to School Councillors (Paine). This article focuses on the comments of the Tasmanian Association of State School Organisations President Jenny Eddington, and the Australian Education Union President Angelo Gavrielatos. These dominant voices within the Tasmanian and Australian communities are chosen to express their opinion that the money once used for chaplains should now be used to fund psychologists in schools. AEU President Angelo Gavrielatos states:

Apart from undermining our secular traditions, this additional funding should have been allocated to schools to better meet the educational needs of students with trained, specialist staff.

Mr Gavrielatos makes a propositional assumption that chaplains are untrained staff and are thus illegitimate staff. However, chaplains are trained and specialise in providing counseling services. Thus, through his call for “trained, specialist staff” he aims to delegitimize the training of chaplains.

Mr Gavrielatos also makes a value assumption when he claims that the funding put towards the NSCSWP undermines “our secular traditions”. “Secular traditions” is an existential assumption in positioning that Australians have secular traditions, and that these do not involve chaplaincy because the Australian Government is not supposed to support religion. The Australian Bureau of Statistics states:

Enlightenment principles promoted a secular government, detached from the church, that encouraged tolerance and supported religious pluralism, including the right to practice no religion. By Federation, this diversity was enshrined in the Australian Constitution, which says that the Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion. (1)

The funding of the Program was a contentious issue from the time of its inception; although it could be argued that it was the prerogative of the Government to support the practice of diverse cultural and religious beliefs by allowing schools to hire religious counselors of their choice. Given that not every student is Christian some would perhaps benefit from chaplains or counselors representing other faiths.

These news articles have selected dominant voices to construct and promote an ideology of chaplains as an illegitimate resource for school communities. In these newspaper reports existential, propositional and value assumptions were expressed by dominant voices who expressed concern about the role and behaviour of chaplains in schools. However, research into the Program and its operation within each state may have avoided the representation of unfounded and illegitimate assumptions.

Evidence-Based Research: Avoiding Illegitimacy

Over the course of the Chaplaincy Program various resources, such as reports and journal articles attempted to provide evidence of how the NSCSWP was funded and operated within state schools.

The Department of Education received frequent progress reports by state schools who hired chaplains, although this information was not made available to the public. However, in 2011 then Education Minister Peter Garrett released a discussion paper informing Australians about the current set up of the Program and how the community could have their say on the Program’s fulfillment from 2012-2014.

The discussion paper was reported on by The Australian, which portrayed the Program as not catering to the needs of Australian youth because chaplains are predominantly Christian (Ferrari).  The newspaper report focuses on the concerns of Australian communities regarding the funding, and qualifications of chaplains, and the cost of the Program. Thus, the Program appeared illegitimate and as though it could not cater to the Australian community’s expectations.

Reports conducted by organisations external to the Education Department tried to examine schools communities’ expectations and experiences of the Program. One such report was written in 2009 by Dr Philip Hughes and Professor Margaret Sims from Edith Cowan University who aimed to examine how Australian schools evaluated the Program, and the role of chaplains, but their report excluded the state of NSW.

Hughes and Sims state that chaplains’ “contribution was widely appreciated” by schools (6).  This report attempted to provide a legitimate and independent account of the Program, however, the report was deemed biased by NSW Greens MLC, Dr John Kaye who remarked that the study was “deeply flawed” and lacked independence (Thielking & MacKenzie 1).

According to critics, the study focussed on the positive benefits of chaplains, but the only benefit that was unique to them was that they were religious (The Greens). The study also neglected to report that Hughes was an employee of the Christian Research Association and that his background could impede his objectivity.

In the same year, 2009, ACCESS ministries published a report titled: The value of chaplains in Victorian schools. The independent research conducted by Social Compass covers: “the value of chaplains; their social, spiritual and academic impacts; the difference made to the health, well being and quality of life of students; and the contributions made to strengthen communities” (2).

This study promoted a positive view of chaplaincy within schools and tried to report on a portion of the community’s experiences with chaplains. However, it was limited in that it pertains only to Victorian schools and received very little media attention online. Even if this information were available online it would have only related to Victoria.

Further research conducted into chaplaincy has been published in the Journal of Christian Education. This journal contains many articles on chaplaincy, but these are not easily available online as they require a subscription. The findings from these articles have not been published in newspaper articles online and have therefore not been made available to the general public. The Christian bias of the journal may have also contributed to its contents being neglected by news articles made available online, although they might have assisted in providing a more balanced representation of the NSCSWP.

The extent of the research conducted into The National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program has not been entirely delineated here, but these are some of the prominent resources. Nonetheless, the rigorous evaluation of the contribution of the NSCSWP was minimal, and the quality of its evaluation predominantly biased.

Robert Slavin states that school program evaluations must “produce reliable, unbiased, and meaningful information on the strength of evidence behind each program” (1). Unfortunately, the research conducted into the Chaplaincy Program was not free from bias, consistent or properly designed in a way that legitimately evaluated the NSCSWP. According to Monica Thielking and David MacKenzie:

The fact is that the provision of support services for students in Australian schools has never been subjected to serious research and evaluation, and any analysis is made more difficult by the fact that the various states and territories deploy somewhat different models. (1)

Thus, the information on the Chaplaincy Program’s progress and the responsibilities of chaplains in schools was not comprehensive or accurate enough to be appropriately reported in newspapers available online. Therefore, newspaper articles used quotes and information based on a limited understanding of the Program, which in turn produced illegitimate representations of the NSCSWP.


Newspaper reports available online drew conclusions about the Program’s effectiveness, which had not been appropriately tested. If research had been made available to the public, or published within state-based media online, Australians would have had a more legitimate understanding of the Program’s operation within state education, even if that understanding could not have changed the High Court ruling.

The Chaplaincy Program demonstrates how a lack of evidence-based research allows the media to construct illegitimate representations based on promoting the assumptions of dominant, and I would argue the loudest, voices, in society. The bias represented in a consistent approach adopted by newspapers owned by dominant media companies, is a factor in the re-presentation and promotion of certain ideologies. This was made evident by the fact that, in 2014, across nine state newspapers available online, 27 articles were unsupportive of the Program as opposed to only four articles that were supportive. Audiences need to be presented with facts rather than opinions, which are based on very little research. Hopefully newspaper reporting will change in the future to offer audiences a more legitimate representation of news events.


ACCESS Ministries. The Value of Chaplains in Victorian Schools. NSW, 2009. 

Australian Bureau of Statistics. "Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011 Census, 2012–2013."  2012. 

Australian Government. National School Chaplaincy Program: A Discussion Paper. Australia: Commonwealth of Australian, 2011. 

Chaplaincy Australia. "Training." n.d. 

Commonwealth of Australia. National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program Guidelines. Australia: Australian Government, 2012. 

Domjen, Briana. “Call for Naked School Chaplain to Be Defrocked.” The Australian 3 Feb. 2013: 1.

Entman, Robert. "Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power." Journal of Communications 1 (2007): 163-73.

Fairclough, Norman. Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. London: Longman, 2003.

Ferrari, Justine. "School Chaplains Not Representative." The Australian 12 Feb. 2011: 1.

Hughes, Philip, and Margaret Sims. The Effectivess of Chaplaincy: As Provided by the National School Chaplaincy Association to Government Schools in Australia. Perth: Edith Cowan University, 2009.

Meade, Amanda. "Mark Scott: News Corp Papers Never More Aggressive than Now." The Guardian 3 Oct. 2014: 1.

Paine, Michelle. “Push to Divert Chaplain Cash to School Councillors.” The Mercury 21 Jun. 2014: 1.

Pritchard, Katie. "Legitimacy, Illegitimacy and Sovereignty in Shakespeare’s British Plays." U of Manchester, 2011.

Slavin, Robert. "Perspectives on Evidence-Based Research in Education: What Works? Issues in Synthesizing Educational Program Evaluations." Educational Researcher 37.1 (2008): 5-14.

The Greens. "Chaplaincy Program Study 'Flawed and Biased': Conclusions Not Justified." n.d. 

Thielking, Monica, and David MacKenzie. “School Chaplains: Time to Look at the Evidence.” 2011. 

Working with Children Check. "Categories of Work." 2008. 

Author Biography

Ashley Donkin

My name is Ashley Donkin and I am currently a PhD student at Edith Cowan University, and I am also a recently trained high school teacher. I am currently researching Australian primary school children’s use of online social networks for my PhD. My previous research includes my Honours thesis titled: Australian National School Chaplaincy Program: A critical discourse analysis of online state newspaper portrayals. My research interests include: child development, children’s media use, and religion in the media.