Religious diversity in the newsroom

religious-diversityFor weeks I have been meaning to take a look at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (“Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade Low“). It didn’t deal specifically with religion reporting — or any other particular beat — but it showed that only 29 percent of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight and only 26 percent felt that news organizations tried to avoid political bias.

I thought of that poll again when I read this wonderful interview of Daniel Okrent in the Harvard Citizen, the student newspaper. Okrent, who was the New York Times‘ first (and best, in my opinion) public editor, is a visiting lecturer at Harvard. He was editor-at-large at Time, Inc., editor of new media for all Time publications and managing editor of Life magazine.

The interview covers a lot of ground about the state of the media today. The grad student who interviews him begins by asking whether news organizations should ignore conspiracy theorists. Okrent patiently explains that you can’t deny the reality that conspiracy theorists exist. You cover the groups and in so doing provide the evidence that debunks their views. Seems simple enough. There’s discussion of how the media focuses on politics and controversy rather than determining what is factual and accurate. Okrent discusses the Pew poll above; how greater access to the public square because of technological advances leads to more divergent media voices; and how an extremist editorial page can lead news consumers to think that the news product is also biased.

I think some of what Okrent advances is relevant to the discussions we have here at GetReligion.

Oh but there is a shortage of conservatives working in the news media — or, I should say, an imbalance between liberals and conservatives. The last survey I saw was on the ’04 election — I don’t know what it was in ’08 — but in ’04 something like 75 percent of working journalists at daily newspapers voted for the Democrat. I mean, you can’t deny this. It’s a reality.

After a discussion of how everyone on the New York Times editorial board was a Democrat and how he felt that more diversity would lead to richer debate on that page, Okrent says that when a news organization’s editorial page seems to be gunning for or against a particular partisan aim, it colors the way people view their news coverage. After painting a rather dismal picture about the lack of balance in mainstream media, Okrent says:

You can only contest it with the work that you do. And so that means maybe changing the lineup of op-ed writers and also being really careful in the news pages. … We see what we see because of the way we stand. If we’re facing east in the morning we see the sun rise, and if we’re not facing east the sun isn’t rising. So when you put together a news staff, you have to ask where do your people stand? Are you getting people who are, together, looking in all directions? Are we getting a really representative newsroom? When I was at the paper I criticized it pretty strongly for not having ideological diversity or religious diversity on the staff. The same reason we would want racial diversity , to provide different perspectives on the world, would suggest that we want the same thing religiously and ideologically and philosophically. And I was very roundly criticized by some people on the left about that, people who thought it was an outrage that I was suggesting that the Times hire more conservatives. Why is that an outrage? Why is it an outrage to get a more varied view of the world? We want a varied view if we’re going to be good citizens, if we’re going to have a functioning democracy. We must have a varied view.

It’s a blessing that, through the internet and other technological advances, we can now get that more varied view of the world ourselves. I’m sure I’m not alone in getting my news and analysis from a mix of the left, right and mushy middle. But I agree with Okrent that it might be nice if news outlets brought some of that vibrant debate into their insular newsrooms and editorial boards as well. That requires a healthy diversity of religious and ideological views, it would seem.

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  • Cathy Grossman

    I’m trying to imagine a job interview where the editor asks me how I voted and what my personal political views were so that, if I gave the magic we-need-more-folks-like-this answer I’d get the job while the next person who voted the currently “wrong” way missed out.
    But then, I’ve always found a wide mix of political/religious views in the two newsrooms where I’ve worked. And the editors I work for demand that I open my mind, eyes and notebook to all points of view. No matter what I personally think.

  • Davis

    It seems Cathy asks the million dollar question: how. I can’t imagine political conservatives would support diversity quotas or diversity goals, given opposition to diversity efforts in the workplace. And imagine creating a hiring goal around religion. My understanding is that minority journalists put pressure on newsrooms by looking at raw numbers and showing disparities.

    So then it comes down to recruiting and screening. I imagine they could look at college group membership, participation in “conservative” or “religious” fellowship or training programs, and the like. But are staffers of the Dartmouth Review really interested in covering planning and zoning meetings in Abiline or Scranton?

  • Mollie

    Excellent query — isn’t it illegal to even ask people about their religious views?

    Having said that, I have not had the same newsroom experience as Cathy’s. Journalism is a second career for me and I was shocked by the lack of racial and ideological diversity in the newsrooms I’ve been in. Religious diversity is something that’s a bit more difficult to ascertain (although I will never forget the story of my colleague with ashes on her forehead being told she had dirt on her forehead on Ash Wednesday).

    I’d worked in the non-profit and academic realms prior and those spheres seemed to just have employees with much more varied experiences.

    One of the silliest requirements one of my newsrooms had was a journalism degree. I mean, if you want a bunch of people who all look and think alike, I think that’s the way to do it. I wouldn’t even require a high school diploma — just an insatiable curiousity and an ability to write.

  • Dan Crawford

    I long for the day when newspaper reporters will skewer liberals and conservatives, ask hard questions of both ideological camps, and shoot the BS as it flies. Too many reporters think retyping press releases from their favorite sources constitutes reporting.

  • Jerry

    I think Cathy makes an excellent point. Having more diversity is a great idea, but that could lead to quotas. Not racial quotas but political or religious quotas. If I were applying for a job as a reporter and was asked about my political or religious affiliation, I would file a discrimination suit (assuming there is a legal issue involved). Or at least I would not work there unless I was starving.

    Okrent’s point about people judging the news coverage based on editorial content is also true. After seeing several “have you stopped beating your wife yet” straw polls designed to have people oppose President Obama along with the Lou Dobbs show that is unfortunately on the air when I’m exercising, I decided that CNN was biased rightward, for example, irrespective of any actual news content.

    But I think there’s a very valid point about how one can lead to the other. If I’m an editor who firmly believes in Martians and someone comes in with a story that 1000 psychiatrists think that those who believe in Martians are crazy, I would tend to look with disfavor on the reporter and might put that person on the line to be fired first in the next round of layoffs.

  • CoffeZombie

    I agree that the biggest question here is “how?” It would seem difficult to ensure a newsroom is staffed equally by left, right, middle, politically speaking. Much less diversity in religion! Christianity alone would be demanding enough in that case!

    I would suspect, though, that part of the solution would be to look at the “why?” Why is the makeup of staff so slanted? Are there social forces at play? Are conservatives hired, but quickly run off? I think if you can place your finger on why the problem is occurring, you’re a lot closer to fixing it than if you simply say, “let’s hire more conservatives!”

  • Jerry

    Mollie, after my last post, I saw that this is a fast-moving topic with a number of posts already made. I think religious literacy can be asked about during a job interview. Reporters who might cover religious stories or stories with religious elements should know the basics about faith and know where to look to get more information as needed.

  • E.E. Evans

    Cathy, thanks for your excellent point.

    I admit, I’ve never questioned why such an imbalance might be the case (in contrast to talking about it as a present controversy), but I wonder how much of the slant may have historical roots. I write for what is now one paper, but was until recently two in Lancaster, PA — one was moderate (not liberal), one was conservative. Now the former competitors have to work together — maybe the WSJ editorial staff and the NYT staff should change places for a week! ;-)

    It would be fascinating to look at the newspapers where bias is real or perceived and see what they were like 50 years ago. We sometimes view a phenomenon “de novo” instead of seeing it in context. Then you can also gauge if there is indeed real resistance to change, or if diversity is even really valued.

  • michael


    Nice strawman. Ever considered a run for public office?

    Maybe you can’t imagine such a silly scene, but can you imagine a job interview, say at the New York Times, in which the editor hired you without bothering to read your prior work? I happen to think the problem is overblown, not because I doubt that liberals are overrepresented in the media, but because the differences between liberals and conservatives are dwarfed by their similarities. But presumably the problem is not that 75% of reporters happen to be democrats or that people fail to provide the right answer to the magic question. Rather the problem is that that the political bias in much of the press is so evident that the question is unnecessary and because such surveys only confirm what many people already knew or suspected. Surely you will concede that reporters’ political sympathies are frequently evident–often in an unconscious way–simply in how they frame and write their stories. If you don’t believe that, just check in here every day or two. You can collect a quiver full of examples.

    So the absurd scence you describe, which appears calculated to make this concern appear ridiculous or unreal, need never in fact occur. The editor need only read your prior work, which I assume you have if you’re made it as far as the editor’s office at the Times or some other major newspaper. If your written record shows no evidence of your political preferences, if it provides some ideological balance to an unbalanced newsroom, and (presumably) if it’s good journalism, you’re hired. What’s so absurd about that? Don’t you think the same process happens in reverse? And how does this differ from what what takes place in filling editorial pages?

  • Davis

    “And how does this differ from what what takes place in filling editorial pages?”

    My understanding is that there is often an actual quota to be filled when finding editorial pages. In the past, hasn’t there actually been affirmative action efforts to find conservative voices on some newspapers (only conservatives needs apply) to correct the imbalance?

  • dalea

    What liberal bias? Until the advent of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz actual Progressives were rarely ever heard in our MSM. Looking at the Sunday talk shows, the slant to the right is pronounced. Check out media matters on this:

    As for religion, from my perspective the Godbeat is slanted heavily toward the most conventional forms of bourgeois faith. I rarely ever see intelligient coverage, except from Margot Adler, on NeoPagan religion. Reporters bend over backwards to distinguish between various forms of dispensationalism while lumping NeoPagans and NewAge together, if they even bother to cover us at all.

  • dalea

    Media Matters did a quantatative study of opeds to see the actual distribution between conservative, liberal and centrist.

    Among the findings:

    The results show that in paper after paper, state after state, and region after region, conservative syndicated columnists get more space than their progressive counterparts. As Editor & Publisher paraphrased one syndicate executive noting, “U.S. dailies run more conservative than liberal columns, but some are willing to consider liberal voices.”1

    Though papers may be “willing to consider” progressive syndicated columnists, this unprecedented study reveals the true extent of the dominance of conservatives:

    Sixty percent of the nation’s daily newspapers print more conservative syndicated columnists every week than progressive syndicated columnists. Only 20 percent run more progressives than conservatives, while the remaining 20 percent are evenly balanced.
    In a given week, nationally syndicated progressive columnists are published in newspapers with a combined total circulation of 125 million. Conservative columnists, on the other hand, are published in newspapers with a combined total circulation of more than 152 million.2
    The top 10 columnists as ranked by the number of papers in which they are carried include five conservatives, two centrists, and only three progressives.
    The top 10 columnists as ranked by the total circulation of the papers in which they are published also include five conservatives, two centrists, and only three progressives.
    In 38 states, the conservative voice is greater than the progressive voice — in other words, conservative columns reach more readers in total than progressive columns. In only 12 states is the progressive voice greater than the conservative voice.
    In three out of the four broad regions of the country — the West, the South, and the Midwest — conservative syndicated columnists reach more readers than progressive syndicated columnists. Only in the Northeast do progressives reach more readers, and only by a margin of 2 percent.
    In eight of the nine divisions into which the U.S. Census Bureau divides the country, conservative syndicated columnists reach more readers than progressive syndicated columnists in any given week. Only in the Middle Atlantic division do progressive columnists reach more readers each week.

  • carl

    Instead of chasing after the wind in the vain hope of creating ideological balance, why not embrace the polarization of the media and develop competing sources that are open about their biases? There is no such thing as objectivity in any case. We all have presuppositions, and we all conform our thinking to them. The myth of objectivity is really just a disguise for blatant bias. And the myth has been debunked. The disguise is no longer working. So why can’t the NY Times (and by extension everyone else) just admit the truth – that they each have biases that are reflected on every page. It would be refreshing. It would be honest. It would be truthful.

    You will never get ideological balance. So don’t try. Instead, build outlets that coalesce around different world views and let them fight each other. In this way, faction can be used to build a more credible composite outcome.


  • dalea

    Media Matters also reports on a study of press coverage of religion.

    Among the findings:

    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 religion-based values. The truth, however is far different: close to 90 percent of Americans today self-identify as religious, while only 22 percent belong to traditionalist sects.[i] Yet in the cultural war depicted by news media as existing across religious lines, centrist and progressive voices are marginalized or absent altogether.

    In order to begin to assess how the news media paint the picture of religion in America today, this study measured the extent to which religious leaders, both conservative and progressive, are quoted, mentioned, and interviewed in the news media.

    Among the study’s key findings:

    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.
    Despite the fact most religious Americans are moderate or progressive, in the news media it is overwhelmingly conservative leaders who are presented as the voice of religion. This represents a particularly meaningful distortion since progressive religious leaders tend to focus on different issues and offer an entirely different perspective than their conservative counterparts.

  • Karen

    Yes, Carl! On the nosey! We should all know where reporters are coming from, then look to different sources for different viewpoints. The internet makes that easy.

  • Dave

    while lumping NeoPagans and NewAge together, if they even bother to cover us at all.

    Or passing along unquestioned the opinion of some “occult expert” who conflates us with Satanists.