Faith in Journalism; Media Use Novices, Focus on Politics and Link Religion to Secular Events

Article excerpt


"I say the real and permanent grandeur of these States must be their religion."

Walt Whitman

Americans are among the most religious people on earth, but several studies over the past two decades have shown a remarkable lack of thoughtful media coverage of religion.

One reason may be the oft-cited fact that many journalists rarely if ever attend religious services or are familiar with what goes on there, even though 42 percent of Americans attend worship on any given weekend.

The most recent study on newspaper religion coverage, compiled by the University of Rochester in upstate New York, shows reporters still have a long way to go in understanding the topic.

Compiled by 29 senior religion majors in February, the Rochester study found many mentions of faith by journalists but little explanation of its significance. Instead, the students said, religion was often used as a corollary to something else, an ornament to American life rather than a cornerstone of society.

For instance, nearly half of all 314 religion stories studied from 12 newspapers were actually about political, legal or criminal activities. Only 28 percent of the stories treated religion exclusively in terms of beliefs and values, meaning that newspaper readers are more than twice as likely to encounter religion as politics or law than purely as a matter of faith.

"Religion is used as an identifier," says William Green, a religion professor and college dean who oversaw the project. "Such as, so-and-so is a Baptist, or a Methodist. Joe Lieberman is always described as an Orthodox Jew in the assumption that his religion informs his politics. Same thing with [Attorney General] John Ashcroft.

"Sometimes the identification was gratuitous, like Dick Gephardt being identified as a Methodist. It was a way of inserting religion into an article without covering it."

The University of Rochester had conducted a similar 1995 study of American newspapers, concluding that "religion is everywhere, but nowhere," in the media. The 2003 study said coverage is broader but not more complete.

For instance, the study said, women, blacks, Hispanics and Protestants are covered far less than their percentages of the population warrant. Protestants were featured in 20 percent of religion stories, far below their 46 percent share of the populace.

But Mormons, who are 2 percent of the U.S. population, got 6 percent of the stories. Hindus and Buddhists, each comprising less than 1 percent of Americans, each got 3 percent. Muslims were in 15 percent of the coverage, far above their fraction of the nation.

The study found religious protesters of the war in Iraq were interviewed far more than their pro-war counterparts.

"Even though vast amounts of religious Americans were in favor of the war, you'd never know it from the papers," Mr. Green said.

The Denver Post, which had no religion specialist during the survey period, was criticized for neglecting chunks of its core readership.

"We were surprised at Denver," Mr. …