More on that Media Matters study

god saidEvery now and then, a topic covered here at GetReligion kind of hangs around in my mind and turns into one of my weekly “On Religion” columns for the Scripps Howard News Service. That’s what happened this week.

Also, there are people who ask me to post my Scripps column here, which I resist because people can already find it online at the wire service home page — like this – if they really want to see it early. Nevertheless, this is a week when I think the column needs to be stored here, too.

Why? As anyone knows who has read GetReligion for a year or more, I am sincerely interested in seeing more coverage of what can be called the religious left. I am also interested in the growth of the segment of the American population that is either fiercely secular or, in a related trend, spiritual yet opposed to religious traditions of almost any kind. Combine that story with the rise of the religious left and you have an emerging force in American life. That’s news.

So I wrote about Media Matters’ “Left Behind” survey this week, which has been covered on this blog before. There are echoes of the earlier post in this, but lots of new material, as well. I should have added lots of hyperlinks to all of the personalities mentioned in this but, hey, it’s really late here in Istanbul and, well, that’s why God made Google.

So here goes.

When it comes to covering religion news, the mainstream American press is a vast right-wing conspiracy that consistently commits sins of omission against religious liberals.

No, wait, honest. Stop laughing.

The leaders of a liberal advocacy group called Media Matters for America recently released a study entitled “Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media” that says journalists consistently dedicate more ink to covering conservative leaders than to those on the left side of the spectrum.

“Coverage of religion not only over represents some voices and under represents others, it does so in a way that is consistently advantageous to conservatives,” according to the study. “Religion is often depicted in the news media as a politically divisive force, with two sides roughly paralleling the broader political divide: On one side are cultural conservatives who ground their political values in religious beliefs; and on the other side are secular liberals, who have opted out of debates that center on religious-based values.”

The bottom line, according to Media Matters, is that religious conservatives were “quoted, mentioned or interviewed” 2.8 times more often than liberals. The study focused on coverage between the 2004 election — the “values voters” earthquake — and the end of 2006. It focused on coverage in major secular newspapers, the three major broadcast television networks, major cable news channels and PBS.

With a few exceptions, the study contrasted the coverage of a small circle of evangelical Protestants with the coverage of a more complex list of liberal mainline Protestants, progressive evangelicals and others.

The 10 conservatives included James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship, Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the late Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority.

The 10 liberals and “progressives” included Robert Edgar of the National Council of Churches of Christ, C. Weldon Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow Coalition and Jim Wallis of Sojourners.

Were these lists fair representations of a spectrum of beliefs on either the left or the right? The conservative list does not, for example, include a representative or two drawn from the ranks of Roman Catholic clergy, Jewish rabbis or doctrinally conservative mainline Protestants. The list on the left is better, but there are glaring omissions — such as Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

It is certainly true that leaders on the religious right have drawn more than their share of news coverage during recent decades of American political life. However this raises a crucial question, which is whether religious movements should be judged by the political maneuvers of a handful of outspoken leaders. Should politics always trump doctrine?

Meanwhile, many conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers and others have to cringe whenever they see themselves represented in the national media by more quotes from Dobson or Robertson. Who are the leaders on the religious left who make other liberals cringe whenever they open their mouths?

So why have a few religious conservatives dominated the news, while religious liberals have been left in the shadows?

For starters, conservative groups have been growing in size and power, while liberal groups — especially mainline Protestant churches — have lost millions of members. Journalists pay special attention to groups that they believe are gaining power.

Journalists also focus on trends that they consider strange, bizarre and even disturbing. Certainly, one of the hottest news stories in the past quarter century of American life has been the rise of the religious right and its political union with the Republican Party. For many elite journalists, this story has resembled the vandals arriving to sack Rome.

One of the nation’s top religion writers heard an even more cynical theory to explain this evidence that journalists seem eager to quote conservatives more than liberals when covering religion news.

“Personally, I think there’s much truth to what the study claims,” said Gary Stern of the Journal News in Westchester, N.Y., in a weblog post. “But why? Some progressive religious leaders have told me one theory: that media people are anti-religion, so they trot out angry, self-righteous, conservative voices who make all religion look bad.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Huw Raphael

    I like the cynical theory myself. I’d go further: sells far more papers/page loads/commercial times than other possible options on the left or the right. The last thing (e.g.) Fox news would want is a calm, rational discussion of any topic a la those old-school Sunday news discussion shows.

    If it’s true, you have a *very* good point about those not represented (on both sides). Yet, apart from yourself, tmatt, I’d like to hear more “conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers and others” who “have to cringe” at their representation. I don’t remember hearing many say anything. Until Falwell went off on Tinky-Winky and Robertson began to entertain his dotage on the 700 Club, it was *usually* the liberals I heard say things like “Falwell doesn’t speak for me” etc. The line “I’m a Christian but not *that* sort of Christian” is not often heard at conservative gatherings.

    From the large silence, I’d say the cringers are, mostly, ok with the representation out there.

  • ursus

    Seems like this is a very important point. The media’s relationship to religion is complex. Bias, lack of understanding, economics and politics combine in ways that it would take an expert in chaos theory to explain. Then throw in the short attention span of their audience…

    I get really worried when the subset of lack of understanding – lack of personal religious involvement – combines with willful bias – to give us “agenda.”

    A hypotheses to consider here is how the media is treating the current resurgence of voices from the non-religious crowd (like Hitchens and Dawkins; Barry Lynn might fit better in this camp). I would expect plenty of positive coverage. Is that the case?

  • David Adrian

    There are other significant reasons the mainstream media don’t cover the Religious Left as extensively and in the same manner as they do the Religious Right:

    Many members of the Religious Left, perhaps a majority, have largely abandoned the orthodox doctrines of Judaism and Christianity. Many are in fact outright atheists, as are many if not a majority of mainstream journalists.

    Not surprisingly, therefore, the Religious Left is primarily concerned with political and social issues rather than traditional spiritual concerns, and its views on these issues are pretty much the same as the media’s.

    Because there is little if any conflict between the world views of the Religious Left and the media, and because in the eyes and ears of the media conflict is the essence of news, as it is of drama, there is little for them to report. Or as someone once observed, a fish doesn’t realize it’s wet.

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  • Martha

    David has made the point that I was going to; on certain matters, the conservatives/right/orthodox have a strong position which is seen as the ‘religious’ one, whereas the position of the liberals/left/heterodox is seen as the reasonable, moderate, ‘every right thinking person would agree’ position and so they don’t get quoted, any more than a newspaper would cover a murder trial by getting quotes from people to say “Murder is wrong!”

    Can anyone tell me if this is correct or is someone just repeating a FOAF (“a friend of a friend told me that…”)?


    From a reader here are the New York Daily New’s stylebook, which is quite typical.
    Abortion guidelines
    Guidelines regarding stories and headlines on abortion:
    1. Call those who oppose abortions abortion foes or abortion opponents or (in tight-count heads) abort foes. Avoid the phrases pro-life or pro-lifers, except in direct quotations.
    2. Those who favor a woman’s right to an abortion are abortion rights activists or pro- abortion rights or pro-choice. Avoid pro-abortion.
    3. Also avoid the phrase “when the life of the mother is at stake.” Make it “… life of the woman …” Don’t call the fetus an unborn child, and don’t refer to the unborn in headlines.
    4. You can use abortion clinic or abort clinic in tight-count headlines.
    5. Columnists have free rein in choosing their own terms to describe the issue.”

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  • Maureen

    Re: the T-shirt picture

    God said Times? Which one: London, New York, or LA?

  • Martha

    Over on Amy Welborn’s blog ( there’s a post about “where is the coverage of the anti-Christian violence in Iraq?”

    So the question I’d like to ask, and get people’s opinions on, is this – is this a religion story? is this one of those religion ghosts in main news stories? is this a valid point, or has this topic indeed been covered? if it hasn’t been, should it be? and under what heading – religion, news, comment, culture, history, politics?

    It’s of interest because one of the examples quoted – that of a priest and three deacons assassinated in Mosul on June 3rd – has an Irish connection, so there was a bit of coverage due to that, but if there hadn’t been, would we have heard anything about it (apart from the usual daily news of the latest killings in Iraq)? Somehow, I don’t think so.

    So tell me, people: is this a religion news story and what of the mainstream media’s coverage?


    05 June 2007

    Tributes to slain Iraqi priest

    By Paul Kelly

    POPE Benedict XVI and President Mary McAleese yesterday led tributes to an Irish-trained priest who was shot dead in Iraq.

    Fr Ragheed Ganni, 35, was killed by unidentified gunmen as he returned from celebrating Mass in his native city of Mosul on Sunday.

    Fr Ganni trained at the Irish College in Rome, and also worked at Donegal’s Lough Derg shrine while studying for the priesthood.

    He and three deacons, one of whom was his cousin, were shot dead when the gunmen stopped their car on Sunday morning.

    Fr Ganni, who was a frequent visitor to Ireland, was also an engineer and a member of the Chaldean Rite, Christianity’s most ancient branch.

    Pope Benedict XVI yesterday sent a blessing of consolation to the families of the dead men. He hoped their “costly sacrifice” would bring about peace and reconciliation in Iraq.

    President McAleese, who met Fr Ganni at Lough Derg, recalled a long conversation with the priest, in which he told her of the growing religious freedom for Christians in Iraq.

    The Rector of the Irish College, Mgr Liam Bergin, said Fr Ganni always knew he was working in a dangerous place, but had insisted he belonged in Iraq where he often recalled that God had called Abraham.

    Archbishop Sean Brady, who yesterday celebrated Mass to inaugurate a chapel at the Irish Embassy to the Holy See, said the Irish College community was deeply shocked by the news of the deaths.

    He said Fr Ganni had told him his duties as a priest were to the Iraqi people in their hour of need.”


    In many ways Lough Derg is a place apart. In today’s modern world-where everything is fast and instant-Lough Derg still manages to maintain a pace where people have to move more slowly, where the mind can be stilled.

    Given that it has survived for over a thousand years, that it continues to attract pilgrims and give them hope, there is nothing to suggest that it will not be here in another thousand years.

    Fr. Ragheed Ganni was born in Mosul in 1972. After graduating in Civil Engineering from the local university, he worked in Iraq for a number of years before answering the call to priesthood. With sponsorship from Clogher Diocese he studied theology from 1996 to 2003 at the Irish College and the Pontifical University of Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelicum”, where he received a licence in Ecumenical Theology.

    In 2003 on finishing his studies in Rome, he decided to return to his country: “that is where I belong, that is my place” Ragheed said.

    “Without Sunday, without the Eucharist, the Christians in Iraq cannot survive”.
    “Christ challenged evil with his infinite love, he keeps us united and through the Eucharist he gifts us life, which the terrorists are trying to take away”. (Fr. Ragheed)

    After celebrating Sunday Mass in the church of the Holy Spirit, Mosul, on Sunday 3rd June, Fr. Ragheed (pictured above)and his three aides were leaving by car, accompanied by the wife of one of the sub-deacons. The three had insisted on accompanying Fr. Ragheed to protect him. (“They were young men alive with faith, who accompanied their parish priest’s every move, risking their lives for their belief in Christ”, their friends said.) Suddenly, at the corner of the road, their car was blocked by unknown armed men who ordered the woman to distance herself from the others and then, in cold blood, shot the remaining passengers, repeatedly. The terrorists then booby-trapped the car with explosives with the aim of further carnage, should anyone go near the car to recover the bodies. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the bodies remained, abandoned on the city street, because no one dared to approach. It was only towards 10.00pm (local time) that security forces finally defused the explosives, allowing the corpses to be recovered.

    “The Holy Father was deeply saddened to learn of the senseless killing of Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni and sub-deacons Basman Yousef Daoud, Ghasan Bidawid and Wadid Hanna, and asked that his heartfelt condolences be conveyed to their families. He wished to be joined to the Christian community in Mosul in commending their souls to the infinite mercy of God our loving Father and in giving thanks for their selfless witness to the Gospel. He said he prayed that their costly sacrifice would inspire in the hearts of all men and women of good will a renewed resolve to reject the ways of hatred and violence, to conquer evil with good and to cooperate in hastening the dawn of reconciliation, justice and peace in Iraq. To the families and to all who mourn their dead in faith and in the hope which draws its certainty from the resurrection His Holiness cordially imparted his apostolic blessing as a pledge of consolation and strength in the Lord.” A telegram sent in the Pope’s name by Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone S.D.B. to Archbishop Faraj Rahho of Mosul.

    “A horrible crime against God and humanity, may these martyrs find eternal rest” (Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly and the Chaldean Bishops)
    “He had great courage, united with a loving calm. He was a spiritual man, loved by his people, Catholic and Muslim” (Mgr. Rabban al Qas, bishop of Amadiyah and Erbil)

    Fr. Ragheed’s funeral took place at 3.00pm (local time) on Monday 4th June in Karamles, his home town. Requiem Mass was celebrated by Mgr. Faraj Rahho, bishop of Mosul.

    Ragheed will be sadly missed by all his friends at Lough Derg, and by the many pilgrims who had the joy of meeting and getting to know him.

    Requiescat in pace

    Mgr. Richard Mohan, Prior”

  • Karen

    Tmatt, I second your suggestion that we should hear from a wider spectrum, perhaps the other 2/3 of the religious spectrum, in the media. I would also cringe to be the person elected to determine who is the liberal half. I once told a friend over lunch that I thought American Roman Catholics made up a big swath of the liberal movement (exaclty what we were talking about, I forget), and he was shocked that I would consider them to be liberal. I replied that I heard them go on all the time about social justice, they were often quite active with their faith, and they were fiercely integrated. So he countered with the no female clergy, the top-down hierarchy of obedience, the birth control and abortion stances. (Now, neither of us were R.C. and we had to rely strictly on perception and bits of history. Those of you who know better, forgive me for using sweeping generalizations to describe another group of people.) But we were unable to agree on where this group’s history would fit in the political spectrum. What a challenge it will be for reporters as well.

  • Dan Berger

    Karen, du hast recht.

    More people than you and CS Lewis have observed that serious Christians don’t fit very well into standard political categories. I’d be interested to know whether your friend would consider, say, Dorothy Day or Eberhart Arnold or William Jennings Bryan a conservative because s/he took positions that are now on the right end of the political spectrum.

  • Dan Berger

    Incidentally, none of the so-called social-justice positions taken by Day or Arnold or Bryan are anywhere near the right end of the current political spectrum.

  • Maureen

    Um, actually, most of them are nowhere near the left end. A lot of them have _become_ the right end….

  • Dan Berger

    Maureen, which positions? To use Bryan as an example, land reform, trust-busting and using inflation to help farmers pay their debts don’t seem terribly much like today’s right-wing.