Are Journalists Really Irreligious? A Multidimensional Analysis

By Underwood, Doug; Stamm, Keith | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Are Journalists Really Irreligious? A Multidimensional Analysis


Underwood, Doug, Stamm, Keith, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


The notion of religion defined as moral activism is embraced by journalists of all stripes, regardless of whether they identify themselves as people of faith or not. The finding is based upon a nationwide survey of American and Canadian journalists who were asked about their religious beliefs and how they put those beliefs into action in their professional lives. The study found that journalists surveyed indicated a strong general religious orientation. But even nonreligious journalists responded strongly to fundamental calls for moral action as long as they were framed as part of a journalistic, rather than a religious, mission.

Introduction

Journalists in recent years have been castigated by their critics-- and certainly their conservative critics-as unchurched social liberals who are indifferent, if not antagonistic, toward religion, and Christianity in particular. Most researchers, however, have come to a different conclusion. A number of recent studies indicate that most American journalists do feel religion is important in their lives. This difference is important because critics connect what they perceive as journalists' irreligious attitudes to the negative way they say religion is portrayed in the press. Defenders of the press say this isn't the case. They note that the media-largely in response to what is seen as a growing interest in religion among their audience-have put a higher priority on religion coverage in recent years.1 They also maintain that a journalist's religious views aren't that important anyway-that one can trust the professionalism of journalists and the methodologies of journalism to insure that religion receives fair and balanced treatment.

Critics found support for their views from a 1986 study of 238 journalists in top news media positions. The study by Lichter, Lichter, and Rothman reported that 86 percent said they seldom or never attended religious services, and half said they had no religious affiliation.2 Conservatives, such as press critic Marvin Olasky, have used evidence such as this to conclude that press coverage of American evangelicals is hostile to the Christian worldview. "There is little evidence of editors explicitly banning God from the front page," Olasky writes. "Instead, they redefined 'reality' to exclude the spiritual realm. For earlier editors, material and spiritual aspects of the world were both important. They knew that comprehensive news stories and news analysis requires reporting of the workings of Providence, as best we can understand them. But many editors of the past century have tried to publish God's obituary."3

The Lichters' and Rothman study, which focused upon journalists in the New York City and Washington, D.C., areas, has been criticized for drawing too broad conclusions from too narrow a sample of journalists.4 And more recent surveys of journalists have found them to be religiously oriented. A 1993 Freedom Forum study, for example, found that, of 266 editors surveyed, 72 percent said religion was very important or somewhat important in their life.5 A 1992 study of 1,400 journalists by Weaver and Wilhoit found the same 72 percent indicating that religion or religious belief was very important or somewhat important to them.6 Rothman, too, has changed his view of journalists' religious orientation in a recent study. In it, he says the proportion of major journalists who attend religious services has jumped from 14 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 1990, and journalists who report no religious affiliation dropped from 50 to 22 percent in that same period.7

No matter what their conclusions, most of the studies of journalists have failed to examine the nature of journalists' religious values in great depth.8 In particular, the studies have tended to draw conclusions about journalists' religious orientation by narrow measures, and all have relied on what journalists say about their religious values without probing further into how those values may show up, consciously or unconsciously, in their work. …

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