Who Reads Religion News?

By Hoover, Stewart M. | Nieman Reports, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Who Reads Religion News?


Hoover, Stewart M., Nieman Reports


It has been widely noted that religion coverage has been a problem for journalism. Whether in the daily press, magazines, or broadcasting, religion has not found as wide an acceptance as have other specialty beats. Even though the American public is now, and always has been, remarkably religious (at least in contrast with the other major Western democracies) the press has generally not given religion much space or attention.

Instead, religion coverage has been marginalized. The typical coverage pattern at one time was for religion to appear in a once-a-week (usually Saturday) church page, which carried both church ads and church announcements. Such an approach did not even necessitate a religion reporter per se. Where there was a religion reporter (sometimes called a church editor) that person rarely saw his or her output placed anywhere beyond the "ghetto" of this church page.

Recently religion coverage has become less marginal. While its extent is hard to document, a number of trends and events seem to have combined to bring about this change. The stand-off with the Branch Davidians near Waco was only the latest of such events. In the mid-1970's, conservative religious movements began to gain ground and a born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter, was elected President. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 signaled a resurgence of politically significant religious movements abroad. The televangelism scandals showed that religion stories can also be about sex and graft. The Jonestown incident shocked the world. Simply put, religion "happened" and increasingly found its way into the front section of newspapers.

The increasing presence of religion in the news placed newspapers in the position of having to re-think and re-evaluate some preconceptions about religion coverage. It also revealed that there has been little or no research on reader habits and expectations of the religion beat, while some major questions need to be answered.

These questions fall into two major categories. First, religion is seen as a local beat at many papers. Is this a realistic view in an era when so much of national and international import is taking place in the world of religion? Second, and linked with the notion of localism, is the fact that religion is often covered as a primarily parochial issue, with the stress placed on the beliefs and behaviors of specific local groups. is this what the readership expects? Does this reflect the totality of their interest in things they would call "religion" in an era when religion is changing and the media's views of what makes religion news is also changing?

Judith Buddenbaum in 1990 suggested that while recent apparent improvements in religion coverage have come about because there are many stories that simply must be covered, there are still problems with the approach. She sets out four criticisms of religion coverage: 1) that there still isn't enough of it; 2) that there isn't enough variety in what is covered; 3) that the coverage tends to be too shallow; and 4) that coverage sometimes appears biased, either against religion in general, or against certain particular religious expressions.

There are a number of studies which have confirmed that coverage has traditionally been meager. Other voices, such as those who are advocates for particular religious perspectives seem to feel that the major defect in religion news is that it fails to promote or defend particular religious groups and expressions, and is thus biased. Such charges of bias are hard to confirm empirically, but reinforce the general sense of dissatisfaction with coverage.

In 1983 David Shaw documented changing interests in religion at newspapers by interviewing religion writers and outside observers. He found a growing consciousness and commitment to religion on the part of newspapers, but continuing problems with uneven levels of coverage, a tendency for coverage to underplay the wider implications of religion for broader cultural and social issues and a continuing overall sentiment on the part of the newspaper industry that failed to grasp exactly how significant religion is to much of their readership.

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