Quantifying religion news

obamawrightspeechWe never run out of stories to analyze here, but election years seem produce even more media coverage of religion than normal. Considering mainstream media’s trouble with getting religion, I am confident the religion beat would be doomed if not for the media’s great love of politics and the prominent role that religion plays in political fortunes.

The army of social scientists over at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life actually quantified how much religion dominates coverage of political news. They examined 13,000 news stories from 50 mainstream news outlets from January 2007 through April 2008. They found that if you exclude coverage of campaign tactics and strategy, religion accounted for 10 percent of coverage. Race and gender coverage combined totaled 11 percent.

A Religion News Service report explains:

The spring campaigns featured extraordinary coverage of Sen. Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Sen. John McCain’s struggle to win over evangelical voters and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. . . .

Religion trailed foreign policy issues (14%) and domestic policy issues (26%) in non-horse race campaign topics, yet it outpaced race and gender in a year when the Democratic contest was led by a woman, Hillary Clinton, and Obama, a black man.

“Indeed, religion could be at least as important in the 2008 presidential campaign as it was in 2000 and 2004,” the study states.

The Pew study, which you can check out here, has some interesting tidbits. For instance, they noted that news coverage focused on discrete events — such as Mitt Romney’s Faith in America speech — rather than underlying religious motivations or connections. Some 35 percent of all religion-related campaign coverage focused on Romney and most of his coverage (66 percent) occurred in concert with his December 2007 speech.

The full Pew report digs down into Obama’s relationship to his pastor, McCain’s relationship to evangelicals and the obsession with Romney’s Mormonism. Each section is interesting.

The Obama section criticizes the media for turning the focus of Obama’s membership at Trinity United Church of Christ and his deep and abiding friendship with Wright into a discussion of race instead of a discussion of religion. After noting that the media as a group didn’t pick up on many of the Chicago stories or other horse-race type stories addressing the Wright issue for 16 months, Pew looks at the coverage of Obama’s speech about religion and race:

When the Wright controversy surfaced as a major story, the Obama campaign quickly determined that a major public speech was necessary to address concerns about Obama’s church background. In his March 18 address in Philadelphia, Obama talked about his own spirituality but focused more heavily on the black church — its traditions, conventions and ways of communicating. The press covered the speech extensively.

The media framed its analysis of the speech as essentially about race — even more than about political strategy. For about every 50 news stories that primarily focused on race, only one took a distinctively religious angle.

It’s interesting to think about how the momentum of the campaign is affected by the whims of the press corps. And it’s not surprising that the media would shy away from coverage of religion if given the opportunity. Here’s another Pew criticism:

These findings suggest a continuing discomfort among news organizations in tackling deep questions of how candidates’ personal faith may influence their public leadership. When the press does cover such stories, it tends to focus on discrete events — such as a speech, video or TV appearance — rather than the underlying connections, and often the coverage is fairly short-lived.

So even the religious coverage that did escape from the primary season was shallow. No surprises there.

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