Thirty years ago Louis Cassels, religion editor of United Press International, identified several broad categories of religion(1) news that he said needed more and better attention in the press. These included coverage of institutional activities such as pastoral changes and revivals; coverage of controversies such as doctrinal disputes and church involvement in social and political issues; and most significantly perhaps, coverage of humans' never-ending quest for a confident faith to live by. Cassels said people want to know if God exists, if the Resurrection actually took place, and if there is life after death. He said newspapers should cover religion issues as fairly, dispassionately and fearlessly as they do other controversies.(2)
Improvements in religion coverage didn't come overnight, but by the late 1980s serious religion coverage was being provided in many of the nation's larger newspapers and some of the others. News magazines expanded their coverage of religion in the 1990s, and some television news people began to take a more in-depth look at the subject. Increasing numbers of editors began to realize that religion, or faith in a supreme being, is important to most readers and that most want more and better coverage than has been provided. The public interest in religion, or faith, has been continually affirmed by the Gallup Poll, which has been measuring public opinion regarding religion in the United States since the 1930s. Gallup's polls have documented the remarkable vitality of faith in the United States, but they also have revealed declining support for organized religion. It was reported in 1996, for example, that while more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, only about 40 percent attend weekly religion services.(3)
The Freedom Forum, "a non-partisan, international organization dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people," has sponsored two studies in the 1990s of religion and the news media. One in 1993 was part of a series conducted by the Forum's First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University to look at alienation between the news media and institutions covered by the media. This study conducted by John Dart, a veteran journalist whose specialty is religion, and Jimmy Allen, a noted Baptist minister and communicator, found "a chasm of misunderstanding and ignorance separates those who pursue careers in the secular news-media field and those whose careers are in the field of religion." It made a number of recommendations including media recognition of the importance of religion to readers.(4) The Forum's Media Studies Center issued a report in 1994 on a national conference it sponsored in New York in the fall of 1993 for nearly 150 theologians, journalists and leaders from religion and the media in the United States. Its purpose was to call attention to the public's interest in religion and explore ways in which the media could improve their coverage. This study also recognized the need for better understanding between members of the news media and those in organized religion.(5)
A few studies have been done to look specifically at what newspapers have been doing, if anything, to improve their coverage of religion. In a survey of the nation's metropolitan dailies, Hynds explored demographic questions about religion editors and reporters as well as their qualifications, experience, and job satisfaction, and looked at changes in the newspapers' coverage of religion stories and issues.(6) The current study is in large part a replication of that study. Some new questions have been added in response to perceived changes in newspapers and religion coverage, but the broad replication makes it possible to report not only on what's taking place in religion coverage today but also explore how that coverage has changed in the past decade.
A four-page questionnaire, composed mostly of multiple-choice and short-answer questions, was mailed together with a short cover letter and stamped return envelope to religion editors of all newspapers with 100,000 or more circulation listed in the 1997 Editor & Publisher Yearbook. Approximately three weeks after the first mailing, a questionnaire and short cover letter were sent to those who had not responded. Approximately three weeks after that all who had not responded were contacted by telephone. Most responded, but some declined to participate in the study. Usable responses were received from 61 of the 104 (59 percent) newspapers in the category. All sections of the country and various circulation categories from 100,000 to more than a million were represented in the responses.
The answers can be organized into six groups of variables. These include …