Religion coverage doubles … to 2 percent

Exciting news from the Pew Research Center today: religion coverage doubled from 2009 to 2010 in the mainstream media. Unfortunately, religion still remains just 2 percent of the overall coverage, with elections, foreign policy and the economy dominating the news cycle. Still, it did barely top science, education, immigration and race/gender issues.

Among the key findings from the study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, you’ll see that the tea party has taken the spotlight for much of the 2010 election coverage.

*The Tea Party replaced the religious right as the most-talked-about element of the Republican Party’s grassroots support in coverage of the 2010 midterm elections. Religious individuals, groups or institutions were mentioned in only about 1% of all mainstream media coverage of the elections. By contrast, the Tea Party movement was mentioned in nearly one-in-six midterm election stories (14.1%).

*In 2010, religion appeared as a major topic more often in the blogosphere than it did in traditional media. Religion was among the most-discussed topics on blogs in 12 of the 48 weeks studied by PEJ and the Pew Forum. In three of those weeks, the plan to build a mosque and Islamic center near ground zero was among the top subjects.

The study also breaks down the types of stories the media focused on.

The divine Ms. MZ Hemingway noted last year that President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI were the news generators, but this year’s list seems slightly less personality driven.

The Obama administration, the Pope’s visit to the Middle East and holiday religious observances topped 2009′s list, while similar stories were dwarfed by others in 2010. Four of the five most covered religion stories of the year involved Islam, with coverage of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal listed as the second biggest religion story of the year.

Much of the coverage focused on the plan to build a mosque and Islamic center near ground zero in New York City, a Florida pastor’s threat to organize a public burning of the Koran and commemorations of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Stories related to these three events collectively accounted for more than 40% of all religion-related coverage studied in mainstream U.S. media (broadcast and cable television, newspapers, radio and major news websites).

The study also revealed a contrast in coverage from cable TV, which devoted more time to religion (2.5%) than any other media type, including Network TV (2.0%); online news websites (1.9%); and radio, including talk programming (1.9%), and newspapers devoting the least amount of space with 1.6% of their front pages. The study also looks at blogs and social media, suggesting that religion was one of the top five subjects covered among blogs for 12 of 48 weeks.

Most of the coverage (70.3%) focused on domestic stories, 18.9 percent focused on international events, and 10.8 percent dealt with both. In 2009, 30 percent of religion coverage included international coverage. With all the unrest in the Middle East, it’ll be interesting to see if 2011 sees a more even contrast.

Images Source: Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Copyright 2011, Pew Research Center.

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  • Jerry

    I skimmed the report but think there’s a problem: ghosts. They appear to have focused on stories where religion was the issue and did not mention “religion as a part of life” stories. These religion in life stories are a staple of reviews here so I was trying to spot any mention in my fast scan of the report.

    And it appears that the coverage was sensational story driven. Unless I’m missing something, it appears that the “doubling” was not a trend but a response to a couple of stories that excited people.

    I was a bit surprised at the even-handed results illustrated in the graphic “Social Media Conversation about the Park51 Mosque and Islamic Center”. It was much more balanced than I would have expected.

  • CarlH

    A lot of interesting bits of information in that survey–but not much to suggest that despite the doubling of the amount of coverage the media (and particularly the traditional media outlets) are “getting religion” better–sensationalism (as noted by Jerry) and connections to politics still seem to drive the coverage. It was also disheartening to see that newspapers lagged all outlets in religion coverage.

    The section on the “social media” coverage of religion was a bright spot. The results certainly seem to suggest that there is more interest in religious stories among the public at large than in the big news rooms–but, sadly, that doesn’t come as a surprise.

  • J

    Why should we be excited that religion got more coverage than science, or depressed because it got 2%?

    Ultimately, journalism is a business. 2% is what the market would bear.

  • MJBubba

    J (#3), is it what the market would bear, or what mass media editors think the market bears? Don’t most religion stories generate more chatter than average? I doubt that the neglect of religion coverage is more business related than it is related to the bias of the editors.

  • Jerry

    J raises a critical question. Should journalism be strictly a bottom-line driven business or should its purpose be to inform people? I think most of us would agree that the former is the way it’s operating and the later is the way it should operate.

  • Brandon

    I am biased in favor Christianity, but I am still more likely to talk about the person murdered next door or the priest sex scandal than the youth group who dug a well in Africa. Exceptional events get coverage. That’s one reason to celebrate all the bad press on religion. If the tide turns and the world is fascinated that religion does good, then we are in real trouble.

  • Passing By

    While I agree with Jerry (#5), the fact remains that 40% of Americans worship with some regularity in churches and synagogues. I suspect the percentages of attendance at mosques is even higher, given the immigrant nature of Muslim communities. The popularity of religion as a topic of blogs also suggests that something more than 2% of the population has a significant interest in religion.

    Of course, blogs and the other internet-based social media may be supplanting religion coverage in the older media forms, making the 2% figure more appropriate, but that’s a loss: the news media and social media do different jobs in providing information. In any case, traditional media might function better as a business if they return to more, and better, coverage of religion, because the interest is almost certainly there.

  • J

    I was being a little facetious…there is still a grain of seriousness in my comment.

    I do think bottom line has more of an impact than bias as to what stories are pursued. Good journalism does not automatically equate to higher profits, and very few journalism operations are non-profit intentionally. The amount of press given to an area doesn’t equate to it’s importance-witness the size of the sports section of a newspaper. Journalists are a lot like lawyers and other professionals-lofty ideals with a family to feed.

    Many religion stories are not of general interest-they affect a particular group and would be meaningless to others. I’m interested in the internal politics of religions only because I’m a religion junkie-the average person would have a narrower realm of interest in religion stories. That’s a good thing about the internet, and perhaps why social media is where religious coverage is headed. The interests of smaller groups can be served economically. Breadth of impact is small for narrow interest journalism, but the expense to publish is less and sometimes it will go viral.

  • R9

    So what percentage would be ideal here? More than 2%, ok sure. 5%? 18.3%?

    Education and sciencetechnology are very relevant to us all and they’re around 2% also.

    But then, top of that list is only ~12%. Everything there adds up to 37.5%. Clearly there’s a lot of topics with only a small share each.