Top News Coverage of Religion Shifts toward Politics, Scandal

Article excerpt

News coverage of religion by top U.S. media outlets has swung to politics and scandal over the past three decades, but always has given more play to opinions favoring strict sexual morality.

This is one finding of a survey by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which analyzed all religion news reported between 1969 and 1998 by two dailies, three news magazines and the evening news on three networks.

"The greatest overall shift," the study said, was "the diminished focus on church governance and the role of women and minorities, and the attendant increase in discussion of politics, crime and scandal."

In looking at religion stories' treatment of abortion, extramarital sex, birth control, homosexuality, homosexual clergy and divorce, "the views expressed on issues of sexual morality had a decidedly traditional or conservative bent," said the study, which was released last week.

The Catholic Church was the subject of about six in 10 of all viewpoints expressed in religion stories on sexual morality.

The media center, which does content analysis of news coverage on various topics, found that over three decades, 2,365 religion news stories were run by the New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, ABC, CBS and NBC.

The Post had the highest number of religion reports, totaling 1,155 over 29 years, or an average of 40 stories a year - fewer than one a week.

"The last decade covered by this study contained nearly as many stories as the previous two periods combined," said the study, showing that religion coverage has increased in the outlets in the 1990s.

Still, that 1990s total averages only 116 stories a year from eight of the nation's largest and wealthiest news outlets - or slightly more than two stories on religion a week.

The study included a wider survey of the attendance at religious worship by journalists in the "national media," finding that 8 percent attended weekly in 1980 and 11 percent attended weekly in 1995. The general public claims 40 percent weekly attendance.

Though the number of stories on Protestants and Catholics slightly increased in the three decades, the proportion of coverage given the two largest religious groups "declined significantly."

More coverage was given to small Christian groups, world religions, Eastern religions and new religions, the study said. …