- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

“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. Green said, “as there was little coverage of Mormons, who are huge there, as are evangelical Christians.”

He lauded the Dallas Morning News for its “substantive” multipage religion section serving its Bible Belt readers. “But other papers — the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post — have only a page or one column. That tells you something about who they think their readership is.”

Coverage of Islam was mostly associated with crimes and violence, the study said, and one-third of all Catholic stories referred to crimes. Some papers went overboard, the study said, citing a Feb. 14 obituary of a priest in the Boston Globe that included many details about sex abuse in the Catholic Church, though that particular priest had nothing to do with them.

“Coverage of Catholics and Islam was unbalanced everywhere,” said Curt Smith, an English-department lecturer who co-directed the study. “If you were from another planet, you’d think all Muslims were terrorists and all Catholics were pedophile priests.”

On April 30, the University of Rochester brought in a panel of journalists to critique the survey. One editor pointed out that newspapers are geared for action and events, not for ideas, theology and doctrines, religion’s bread and butter.

Andrew Walsh, associate director for the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life in Hartford, Conn., took issue with the findings. “You need some content analysis,” he said. “This study doesn’t observe it was in the middle of a sex-abuse crisis, so its comments are virtually worthless. And there’s been an avalanche of coverage on Islam that’s nonterrorism-oriented.”

The real battle line, he said, was how well-informed journalists are in general about religion. Large newspapers commonly fill religion openings with writers with no prior experience on the beat, while others, such as the New York Times, leave religion slots open for months or years at a time.

“Newspapers haven’t accepted the idea they need to hire someone with academic qualifications,” Mr. Walsh said, “so you get steep learning curves for many religion reporters. It’s not considered at most places to be one of the most important and prestigious beats.”

Though America’s 240 full- and part-time religion writers have their own professional organization, the Religion Newswriters Association, only a handful of university programs prepare journalists for the religion beat. Mark Schneider, who teaches an eight-week summer program on religion writing at Northwestern University, said many journalists feel an “aversion” toward matters of faith.

“It functions at a deep level,” he said. “A lot of journalists were devout as children but they aren’t any more. So there’s a feeling of guilt, or anger, for having been forced into something when they were little. So journalists asked to do religion stories must travel into territories with which they are very uncomfortable. Some of them feel they are amongst the enemy, having to deal with ultimate truths, salvation and hell. So we become moral relativists as a self defense.”

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