Media matters, religion doesn’t

religionpolitics2 01Earlier this week Media Matters for America issued a report that claims religious conservatives are overrepresented in the media. The liberal group is “dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.” Though they come from a different perspective, they share some similarities with the conservative Media Research Center. And they do an excellent job of exposing gaffes made by anyone who’s not progressive, including Bill O’Reilly and Pat Robertson.

I waited to write about the report because, frankly, I expected much more media coverage of it. And now I’m giving up. Even if the report comes from a heavily biased group, I think its methodology and conclusions deserved more of a hearing than received. Media Matters’ own listing of media mentions of the report shows very few mainstream media outlets and quite a few conservative and liberal outlets.

Part of the problem may be that the report is really about politics, not religion. It looks at ten conservative religious/political leaders and ten liberal religious/political leaders and determines the following:

Combining newspapers and television, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders.

On television news — the three major television networks, the three major cable news channels, and PBS — conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed almost 3.8 times as often as progressive leaders.

In major newspapers, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed 2.7 times as often as progressive leaders.

The study doesn’t indicate whether the mentions, quotes or interviews were in positive or negative stories, but the numbers are still interesting.

The religious conservatives analyzed were James Dobson, William Donohue, Gary Bauer, Charles Colson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, Ted Haggard, T.D. Jakes, Richard Land, Tom Minnery, Joel Osteen, Rod Parsley, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren and Wendy Wright. The religious liberals analyzed were Tony Campolo, Joan Chittister, Robert Edgar, Jim Forbes Jr., C. Welton Gaddy, Jesse Jackson, Michael Lerner, Brian McLaren, David Saperstein, Al Sharpton, John H. Thomas and Jim Wallis.

The study’s authors appeared to look out for problems with data collection. For instance, all mentions of Haggard’s indiscretions were removed from the data pool. Still, there might be some limitations when you’re only looking at ten folks from either side.

Before we get to the journalistic analysis, I must point out how — once again — this study exists in a media environment where politics is everything. Even in religious coverage. Of the 20 folks analyzed, not a single one represents my theological views. None even come close, as a matter of fact. From my perspective, all 20 share a somewhat similar religious viewpoint — not a political one. Their ministries don’t emphasize creeds, the liturgy, forgiveness of sins or sacraments. No, every single one of these people is focused on politics and personal or societal improvement. It supports the views of historian Darryl Hart, who argues that this left-right comparison obscures the fact that political religious types on left and right are two sides of the same coin. If these guys feel they don’t get a fair shake from the media, imagine how those of us feel whose churches are less concerned with politics! We’re invisible!

The survey also fails to highlight one of the greatest wrongs perpetrated against the religious left. There is simply no discussion at all of the theology of the religious left. There’s very little on the right, either. But the absence of coverage of the left’s theological views is just sinful.

Religion reporter Gary Stern had some thoughtful analysis of the survey on his must-read blog. He said journalists are drawn to conflict and controvery and that conservatives provide that:

If conservatives want states to pass pro-marriage (and anti-gay rights) laws, that’s a story. Cut and dry. No doubt about it.

Liberal and moderate religious voices tend to allow for shades of gray. They hedge. They generalize. They leave room for doubt. They’re okay with exceptions.

I agree that liberals shade and hedge, but I don’t think that makes their positions less decisive or newsworthy. I think that media folks may not realize how newsworthy liberal positions are because they share liberal views. There are just as many — if not more — liberal ballot initiatives as conservative ones. Consider the Missouri initiative, supported by religious liberals, that enshrined embryonic-destroying stem-cell research in the state’s Constitution. Not much room for gray there!

And again, why are we talking about politics? Religion and politics aren’t completely overlapping circles — sometimes they’re quite separate, in fact. What about other liberal positions — on, say, sex outside of marriage. When you look at how Episcopalians on left and right view the issue, both are newsworthy. And yet frequently only one side is grilled on the topic. Why is that?

[Liberals] also tend to take positions — on fighting poverty, for example — that do not provide for as much conflict. Everyone agrees, more or less, that poverty is a bad thing (even if some folks aren’t as concerned as others with doing something about it).

And another thing: Journalists probably view the “moral” issues that conservatives focus on as somehow more religious than the social issues that liberals worry about.

But this is another example of how the media fail news consumers. It may not be newsworthy that liberal religious folks oppose poverty. Few people support poverty. But it’s the manner in which they choose to fight poverty that does create conflict. No one would be upset that liberal religious types share food, shelter or clothing with those in need. But when folks start calling for massive bureaucratic programs that cost taxpayers billions of dollars — and invoke Jesus’ name while doing so? That’s controversial.

Stern goes on to say that the media should take more time to find out what liberal religious folks believe and why. Amen! But he says that liberal religious types shoud do a better job of explaining what they believe:

Get to the point. Make your case. Quote from Scripture like conservatives do. Be passionate. Make the media pay attention.

What do you think should be done to improve media coverage of the religious left?

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  • Jerry

    two sides of the same coin.

    That’s an interesting, and I think true, observation.

    journalists are drawn to conflict and controvery and that conservatives provide that…
    What do you think should be done to improve media coverage of the religious left?

    I wanted to juxtapose those two quotes because I think they highlight an important point. Personally I’d rather avoid the conflict and controversy and not attract journalists. While media coverage gets our dander up, for varying reasons, when I calm down, I’m reminded of what positive media coverage looks like: the coverage of how various groups helped after Katrina; the example of Mother Teresa and reports in shows such as PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly which covers events such as the recent Rosary celebration in the Rose Bowl.

    Rather than trying to balance the coverage of the two sides of the coin, I wish there were a better way of reframing how the media covers religion. I realize people are drawn to conflict, but there should be a way of having at least a bit more positive coverage. Maybe if firebrands of the left and right got together and prayed together for guidance, it would not make the headlines, but I’d sure read that story.

  • Str1977

    I want to another istance of bias in the study:

    “[Liberals] also tend to take positions — on fighting poverty, for example — that do not provide for as much conflict. Everyone agrees, more or less, that poverty is a bad thing (even if some folks aren’t as concerned as others with doing something about it).”

    contrast this with the fictitious passage:

    “[Conservatives] also tend to take positions — on fighting abortion, for example — that do not provide for as much conflict. Everyone agrees, more or less, that abortion is a bad thing (even if some folks aren’t as concerned as others with doing something about it).”

    or

    “[Liberals] also tend to take positions — on supporting abortion, for example — that do not provide for as much conflict. Everyone agrees, more or less, that abortion is a good thing (even if some folks aren’t as concerned as others with doing something to protect it).”

    Of course, it is quite right that everyone agrees on abortion but that is not the point – but the study highlights an issue where everyone agrees but fails to mention that “Liberals” (scare quote because the lines are probably not drawn as easy) espouse something that is very controversial and simply out of line with the most basic humanity. But that’s probably not worth talking about since it contradicts the study’s bent.

  • VoxDilecti

    I honestly think that you have encapsulated it here within this post. Did you manage to catch Bill Moyers expose of Pat Robertson’s Regent University? The “documentary” aired on his PBS show, “NOW.”
    What was intersting, and utterly frustrating, was the fact that after that footage was shown, who did Bill Moyers interview? Not a someone conservatively or liberally theological, but someone politically “moderate.” After looking at a private Christian College whose graduates Moyers believes are sent on a mission by God via Pat Robertson to take over the US government, he completely ditches the religious/theological focus and interveiws Nick Gillespie, editor of “Reason Magazine”.
    This interview was the most egregious session of ego stroking and intellectual self-aggrandizing of one person to another that I have ever seen. I thought Moyers was a veteran journalist but after that I felt terribly embarrassed of him, I thought only Bill Maher was capable of that level of utter genuflection to someone who shared his political views. Either way, hate to get off on a rant but I felt it was relevant.
    Really invogaratings stories and short-changed for what’s “sexy” so to speak. You can probably find the documentary I was talking about on PBS’ site, streaming video. They are great about archiving. Keep up the good work!

  • Ron

    What I found interesting is that in the original piece you quoted from Media Matters for America, the writers did not use the terms “Conservative/Liberal” as you did in the rest of the piece. Instead they used “Conservative/Progressive”. Perhaps one should do a study on how often the term “conservative” is used in comparison to the term “liberal”. One would likely find that the term “liberal” has been effectively erased from the mainstream media in favor of more favorable terms like “moderate” and “progressive”.

  • Dennis Colby

    I don’t really buy Stern’s analysis. Does Joan Chittister really leave a lot of room for doubt and shades of gray in her arguments? Does anyone ever wonder what Jim Wallis’ position on a given issue really is?

    I think the real point here is that the Media Matters study is flawed because it’s not really a look at media coverage of religious issues; as Mollie points out, it’s a look at coverage of religious people who are politically active. It’s also an odd way to approach the topic: why focus on stories about personalities instead of stories about issues? And why keep it at 10 people from each camp? And who chose those people, anyway? I mean, at this point, Al Sharpton is primarily a religious leader only in the same way that Al Franken is primarily a comedian.

    If you look at religious issues (as opposed to personalities), my guess is that the perspectives of religious liberals get plenty of coverage. Every time some Catholic women pretend to be ordained as priests, for example, there is usually respectful coverage in the press, coverage you don’t see when radical Catholic traditionalists pretend to be ordained as priests. I mean, look at the mainstream coverage of the Anglican wars – anyone think religious liberals are being shut out of that?

  • MJBubba

    Regarding the MMA finding that media covered conservative religious leaders 2.7 – 3.8 times as much as the progressive ones, well, that may seem high, but not really very high. Aren’t there about twice as many religious conservative Americans as religious progressives, after you factor out the moderate/ don’t care responders? So, you would have expected a margin of twice as much coverage as the level to gauge by?

  • Michael

    The MMA has also complained about the lack of Mainline Protestant voices in the news. When religion is discussed by the media, it is usually done by an Evangelical/Fundamentalist, a Catholic, and a Jew. There’s an infamous Meet the Press last year that included two Catholics (conservative and progressive), a liberal Jew, a conservative Evangalical, and an Imam. The only Protestant wasn’t self-identified and was there as a journalist. You’d never know that there were still Mainline Protestants out there.

    Or take a look at the WP’s On Belief section. There’s a huge cross-section of religious figures, but except for the overrpresentation of Episcopalians and Anglicans, there are hardly any other Mainline Protestants. Since the Anglican tradition is removed from the experience of Lutherans Methodists, Presbysterians, Disciples of Christ, and the UCC, arguably Episcopalians hardly represent Mainline Protestantism.

    The only time Mainline Protestants are covered in the new is during (a) a sexuality controversy or (b) a story about decline in church attendance. Both are interesting stories, but hardly representative of what’s going on in most of those denominations. I noticed in Frank Lockwood’s list of new sources, they were heavily made up of conservative or Evangelical sources. Is that typical for journalists on the God-beat? Even when he relied on blogs, they were conservative blogs. I wonder if that means Mainline denominations and religious moderates and progressives aren’t as effective at getting out news about their churches. Maybe it’s because they are focused on issues, who knows. It’s an interesting question.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Another point of entry: if conservatives are getting more coverage, can this not be interpreted as meaning that conservatives are getting more scrutiny, and that the liberals may be getting a pass?

    I strongly suspect, as well, that there’s a very strong “go-to quote” problem here. It would not surprise me to learn that on abortion, for example, the press tends to quote religious figures on the anti-abortion side and secular figures on the pro-choice side. That would produce a lot more conservative religious coverage, but it’s definitely a biased way to represent the discussion.

  • MJBubba

    Perhaps the lack of media coverage of the MMA report is because it is so embarrassing for the media. The researchers also tracked “celebrities.” The conservative celebrities were James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. Those three collected twice as many coverage hits as all ten of the other conservatives combined. On the progressive side, they tracked Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson. Those two collected seven times as many coverage hits as all ten of the other progressives. When the celebrities are added in, the coverage was evenly split (3% difference) between conservatives and progressives. The real finding is how celebrity-driven the mainstream media coverage has been.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Michael, what’s your definition of “Mainline Protestant”? Does it match Mollie’s definition? Does it match mine? To be direct, do you consider Mollie’s church, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, to be “Mainline”? It is Lutheran, after all. Or is “Mainline” the antonym for “conservative or Evangelical”, making “Mainline” churches the homes of “moderates and progressives”? Have you polled members of “Mainline” churches for their political views?

    The press can’t seem to help mixing religion and politics. As I have argued before, the press is biased toward politics and sees nearly every religious issue through a political lens.

  • Dennis Colby

    Chris,

    I would argue that mixing religion and politics is an American tradition, and that the press is simply following what many Americans believe and practice. A longtime dream of mine has been to survey churchgoing Catholics on political and religious issues, and compare the results. I’m willing to bet almost everyone can successfully identify the Church’s position on gay marriage and abortion, but when faced with a True/False question like “Jesus is both fully God and fully human,” the results would be less uniform. I think politics is the default religion of America, so the press’ coverage of religion is going to reflect that.

  • Michael

    I wouldn’t consider Missouri Synod Lutherans or PCA Presbyterians to be Mainline. I realize it is an inexact term, but it has a basic, common understanding that encompasses moderate and progressive Protestant denominations.

    And I don’t use the terms “moderate” and “progressive” in political terms, necessarily, but also in religious and theological terms. The Mainline Protestant denominations have a moderate theological outlook that would exclude more theologically conservative denominations like the Missouri Synod.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I’ve blogged about this today in some detail on the dallasnews Religion blog. Here’s the link. I have some quibbles, some the same as Mollie and some others.
    As for more MSM coverage, I betcha that one or more of the weekend media navel-gazing TV shows will pick this up on the weekend.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com bob smietana

    Two things come to mind for better coverage of the religious left. First–Get pithier. Religious conservatives and Republicans learned that years ago. They frame things better. They are short and sweet. The nuances of progressive Christians lack bite.

    Second: be proactive. The religious conservatives, especially the heavyweights, are great at PR. They tend to be more entreprenurial and get their message out. Religious progressive have to compete better.

    News coverage is a competitive sport. It’s not a sharing circle, where everybody gets a turn.

  • Charlie

    “Of course, it is quite right that everyone agrees on abortion but that is not the point – but the study highlights an issue where everyone agrees but fails to mention that “Liberals” (scare quote because the lines are probably not drawn as easy) espouse something that is very controversial and simply out of line with the most basic humanity. ”

    Perhaps because your claim is not entirely true. While I’ve never met anyone, liberal or conbservative, who thinks abortion is a good thing, a solid majority of americans support choice- which makes the anti-choice position controversial, not vice-versa.

  • Gary Aknos

    Mollie:

    Why are you surprised by the lack of coverage of the study? Media Matters, as you rightly state, is a partisan group that released a study that is intellectually dishonest and lacks resemblance to any scientific standard for analysis. Why wouldn’t mainstream media see the significance of that?

    Also… Media Matters took a black eye a last week when they released excerpts of the new Clinton books in an apparent attempt to undermine the newsworthiness of the books release (see http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0507/4198.html). It’s quite possible that Media Matters doesn’t matter to the mainstream media because of their clearly partisan activities.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Dennis, I have to assume that, like Michael, you don’t live out here in Flyover Country with me. Politics is the default religion of the D.C. area. I know. I lived there for 12 years. But not all of America acts like D.C., NYC, and those other IMPORTANT places where the media focus most of their attention.

    Michael, inexact is an understatement for your definition of “Mainline”, and I dispute your statement that it is based on a “basic, common understanding”. A local PCUSA church, which you would happily define as “Mainline”, has decided to leave the PCUSA over some of the “moderate theological” stances of the PCUSA. Only about 10% of the congregation left as a result of the split. And the church is considering joining the PCA. Guess some of those mainliners aren’t so mainline after all.

    The press continues to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

  • James Davis

    This may have been said in other ways in other posts, but the survey starts with a flaw. It assumes a parity in power and prominence between the religious left and the religious right. If that’s so, then the survey may be accurate. But of course, it ain’t so.

    Look at the list of liberals said to be slighted in media coverage. How many Americans would put C. Welton Gaddy, Brian McLaren, David Saperstein and John H. Thomas on a list of household names? (And as Ron’s post hints, the survey itself betrays a bias in calling the liberals “progressive.” A visit to the http://www.mediamatters.org site reveals the same bias.)

    The fact is that the religious left has a lot of catching up to do in the influence department, as leaders like Jim Wallis have acknowledged. And the way to do that is by persuasion, not producing surveys to whine about the lack of it.

  • Dennis Colby

    Chris,

    See, this is why journalists are taught never to make assumptions. I live in Kanawaha County, West By God Virginia. This summer, a lot of churches here are making a huge effort to organize their congregations not in the service of a theological issue, but to block the expansion of gambling at the state’s four race tracks. I bet most people paying attention to the issue know the Rev. Dennis Sparks’ position on gambling, but probably don’t even know what denomination he’s from.

    I’ve never lived in D.C. or NYC, so I can’t say what goes on in those places. But here in the Mountain State, even religious people tend to see the world in largely political terms; I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m just saying that it’s natural to do that in the United States. That’s why we use language like “liberal” and “conservative” when discussing religion; because we have a hard time thinking any other way. It’s natural for the press coverage of religious leaders and issues to reflect that tendency.

  • Chip

    (And as Ron’s post hints, the survey itself betrays a bias in calling the liberals “progressive.” A visit to the http://www.mediamatters.org site reveals the same bias.)

    Just what is that bias supposed to be? I find it interesting that Ron implies that “progressive” is a more favorable term. To me, “progressive” sounds more left-wing than “liberal” does. Some might find that to be more favorable, other not so much. When a group chooses to identify itself along the political spectrum, what sense does it make to criticize its choice as bias?

    Ron also mentioned the term “moderate” as being equivalent to “liberal.” When I see something being described as “moderate,” I assume that the term was picked because neither “liberal” nor “conservative” would be an accurate description.

  • Chip

    I want to another istance of bias in the study:

    “[Liberals] also tend to take positions — on fighting poverty, for example — that do not provide for as much conflict. Everyone agrees, more or less, that poverty is a bad thing (even if some folks aren’t as concerned as others with doing something about it).”

    This sentence is not in the study, but rather in Gary Stern’s attempt to explain why it found what it did. So if you think the implication that liberals want to do something about poverty while conservative don’t is an example of bias, it is bias on Stern’s part, not the study.

  • Michael

    Guess some of those mainliners aren’t so mainline after all.

    Which is why they are leaving to join a more conservative denomination. Obviously, there are confessing or renewal movements–most of them quite small–in the Mainlline churches rebelling against the moderate or progressive approach. By the same token, there are small moderate factions in the LCMS rebelling against the move to the right.

    There are always going to be differences within denominations and beliefs. Just as there are progressive Catholics, moderate ethnic Orthodox and moderate Baptists, there are going to be conservative Methodists and Congregtaionalists. But the body, as a whole, maintains a specific approach.

  • Michael

    But not all of America acts like D.C., NYC, and those other IMPORTANT places where the media focus most of their attention.

    I’d argue that religion is pretty political everywhere. In Ohio, it was religious groups who fought for anti-gay marriage initiaitves. In Missouri, Catholics and Evangelicals battled moderate and progressive Christians and Jews over stem cells (and raised tons of money). In South Dakota, conservative and progressive churches spent countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars over abortion.

    I can point to all sorts of “flyover states” where religious groups have been actively involved in politics in just the last two years. There’s a reason why GOP candidates kiss the feet of Iowa Evangalical voters, and it isn’t because they are apolitical.

    You may think that religion isn’t political in flyover country, but the compaign spending would say something quite different. Flyover eountry isn’t so different than life in DC when it comes to the relationship betwen church and politics.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Michael, the bottom line is that you and most of the press really don’t know how things are here in Flyover Country because you don’t live here, don’t spend time here, and really don’t listen to those of us who do. We’re tired of the arrogance of the press. Stop lecturing and start listening. We are your prospective customers; you need to earn our business.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Dennis, my bad. Take it from me, D.C. is 100 times more political than WV.

    It is nothing new for Christians to lead efforts against gambling or other vices. After all, Christians led the effort to abolish slavery. Today, however, we feel compelled to label Christians by which causes they champion. Because I am encouraging my church to get involved with hands-on service projects with the Salvation Army and other local missions, does that make me a progressive? Michael would be aghast! I’m all about social justice, baby. :-)

    I agree that some religious people see the world in largely political terms, but many do not. The press gravitates toward political issues and politicizes other issues because writing about politics is easy and familiar. With nearly every media outlet politicizing nearly every issue, it’s difficult for the average person to avoid the trap of mixing religion and politics.

    But the press has no excuse. The press is supposed to excel at communication. Good communication is hard work. While you characterize as natural the press’s tendency to portray religious issues in political terms, I chalk it up to laziness. I expect better from the press.

  • mdetlh

    liberal theology analyzed? Lack of study of liberal theology is a sin when they don’t call homosexual acts sin themselves. AKA the Lord has not spoken and not intervened with His creation

    The conservatives are quoted, and outsell the progressives cause they acknowledge that God has spoken to His creation.
    The Lord has blessed the Conservatives in return for their fear of the Lord.

  • Str1977

    Charlie,

    “While I’ve never met anyone, liberal or conbservative, who thinks abortion is a good thing, a solid majority of americans support choice- which makes the anti-choice position controversial, not vice-versa.”

    If you support (this particular) “choice” you support abortion – there is no way around it. Of course it is cloaked under euphemisms like “health care choices”.

    Regardless of that, it is just silly to claim that the abortion issue (notice: the issue) is not controversial.


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