Religion reporters: The 0.7 percent

Last year, we were nearly giddy over a report that showed religion news had doubled … to 2 percent of overall media coverage. Hey, we’ll take it. In 2011, sadly, we did not see the same level of religion coverage in the press.

A new analysis from Pew suggested that the coverage of religion went from 2 percent to .7 percent between 2010 and 2011. I enjoyed former religion beat reporter Eric Gorski’s take: Religion reporters: You are the 0.7 percent.

It’s no surprise that politics, the economy and foreign policy tops the list, but unlike last year, religion was topped by celebrity/entertainment, the environment, crime and other news coverage.

Six of the top 10 religion stories in 2011 focused at least partly on Islam. Naturally, religion and the elections was the most covered religion story. What surprised me was that the second most covered religion story was Rep. Peter King’s congressional hearing on radical Islam in the U.S., accounting for 9.4% of religion coverage. What was it about that story that reporters kept covering it?

The journalistic tendency is to cover conflict, so when religion did make news, it tended to be cover questions about extremism or intolerance. Overall, Islam was subject of 31.3 percent of the religion “newshole,” a higher amount compared to the percentage spent on Protestantism (20.1%), Catholicism (11.3%) and Mormonism (9.6%).

Religion and the 2012 election was 13.1 percent of all religion coverage, but it was down from four years earlier when campaign news made up 23.8 percent of 2007 religion coverage. In a reversal from last year, newspapers were somewhat more likely to cover religion, compared to cable TV, online outlets, radio and network news programs who were least likely to cover religion.

Specific stories trickled over from 2010 to 2011, such as Terry Jones, 9/11 commemorations, Westboro and the Catholic priest abuse scandal. Coverage of sexual abuse by Catholic priests received less coverage in 2011, receiving 3.9 percent of the religion coverage compared to 18.8 percent in 2010.

Pew has studied religion in the media for five years now, concluding that religion generally receives little attention compared to the percentage of the country that practices religion.

In a country that is highly religious, the subject is not a major focus of the news. In the 60 months studied, the percentage of stories on religion in any given month rarely fluctuated above or below 1-2% of the space online, in print, on television and on the radio. Another conclusion is that religion tends to make news when it engenders controversy. Deeper questions of faith and its meaning are not, typically, news. Rather, much of the coverage is event-driven. The two biggest religion stories over the past five years were the intense controversy over plans to build an Islamic center, including a mosque, near the World Trade Center site, and Florida pastor Terry Jones’ announcement that his church would burn a Koran. The third-biggest story during that time was a visit by the pope to the U.S.

So are priorities at media outlets changing? Perhaps there are many topics that have a strong religion element in them that wouldn’t fall in religion coverage per se. For instance, a story on Tim Tebow is not inherently religious, but several reporters covered a religion angle. Or perhaps we are seeing a real decline in religion-focused coverage. Just in the last month, the Chicago Tribune‘s religion blog, Beliefnet’s Belief Beat and the Journal News‘s (New York) religion blog took a bow for reporters to move on to other duties. Perhaps reporter priorities are shifting away from blogs, but we hope that doesn’t mean a shift away from the religion beat overall.

We will most likely continue to see religion and the campaign covered heavily this year, but it’s worth considering whether the rest of religion coverage could suffer because of the attention given to politics.

Images Source: Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Copyright 2012, Pew Research Center.

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  • Jerry

    Perhaps there are many topics that have a strong religion element in them that wouldn’t fall in religion coverage per se. For instance, a story on Tim Tebow is not inherently religious, but several reporters covered a religion angle.

    That’s a very important question. I skimmed the Pew methodology web page and did not find anything that might address that question although I could have missed something. Then there are stories which have religion ghosts as has been pointed out here again and again.

    For example, if a church group helps in a natural disaster and the story reflects the assistance without mentioning the theology, is that a “religion” story to Pew? I suspect it’s often not.

    So I’d really like to know how often religion is mentioned in a story even if it’s not the focus of the story. I suspect that is a better measure of the coverage of religion in them media.

  • Julia Duin

    You can’t have religion stories if you don’t have religion reporters. Think how many folks have been reassigned to other beats (Seattle Times’ Janet Tu is one of the recent ones) or simply told their beat no longer exists, therefore neither does their job. At the same time, plenty of publications are adding on health, politics and business reporters as fast as they can, so it’s not the economy, folks.
    Publications like Politico and National Journal – that have reporters covering a myriad of beats – won’t hire a religion specialist despite the fact that religion comes up nearly every other day in election coverage. Twenty years ago, a lot of us were mourning the fact that so many newsroom managers (who do the hiring) are hostile to religion news. That has not changed.
    One surprising factor has been the refusal of conservative media to highlight decent religion coverage in light of this topic being important to their base. But noooo, the Wall Street Journal, Newsmax and my old employer the Washington Times have no one covering religion. (And all three organizations have been hiring, btw). Fox News is said to have a religion reporter but how often do you ever see her?

  • cas

    Funny you should mention the Fox reporter, Julia. She’ll be interviewed next week for the Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative: I’m looking forward to hearing from her about reporting on religion for Fox News.

    Sarah, I have a question for you. In a previous post, you said “conservative” isn’t a helpful adjective, but in this post you use “radical” to describe the focus of Rep. King’s hearings on Islam. What’s the difference?

  • Julia


    For example, if a church group helps in a natural disaster and the story reflects the assistance without mentioning the theology, is that a “religion” story to Pew?

    If that’s the case, why is a story about pedophiles who happen to be Catholic priests a “religion” story? Is theology ever mentioned in the articles? I’ve never seen it.

    In both cases, the affiliated churches have meetings about the subject and have some supervision of what these folks are doing. In the case of the priests, the activity is not recommended by their church whereas the Habitat for Humanity activity is recommended by their churches.

    But the recommended activity is not considered “religious” and the castigated behavior is considered “religious”. That makes no sense.

  • Bain Wellington

    That 2010 spike for “Europe Priest Abuse” in the second chart was, as I recall, mostly the failed attempt in and around Holy Week to pin some direct and personal responsibility for cover-up on Pope Benedict before his election as pope.

    Too bad there wasn’t much MSM coverage of the feeble circumstances in which one of the superficially more electrifying cases (John Doe 16 -v- The Holy See) was tamely abandoned this month. See John L. Allen Jr.

    It largely concerned events in Wisconsin in the 1990′s and drew on correspondence with officials at the Vatican (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). The reportage was hot and heavy in the last week of March 2010 :- see pieces on 24 March; 25 March; 26 March; 31 March. And that was just the NYT which broke the story – having got its tip-off from Jeff Anderson, the lawyer who filed the case and two years later filed a motion to dismiss it.

    That very instructive instance of a journalist falling for a contingency lawyer’s litigation spin was puffed by Howard Kurtz of CNN as old fashioned reporting.

    How about Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism running a study of the percentage of religion stories which prove to be non-stories, comparing it with the percentage of other stories which turn out to be non-stories?

  • Chris

    It’s sad that the the Koran burning stunt had more coverage than the role of religion in the Arab spring. The possibility of understanding the Arab world (and the ongoing political distress and chaos within it) without understanding the importance of Islam and tribalism there is remote. It’s like trying to understand the last 500 years of politics in Ireland, while saying that the only pertinent religious fact about the participants was that they were “all Christians”. :-)

  • Chris

    You know, I’d settle for a single weekly paragraph made up solely of definitions such “Evangelical”, “Fundamentalist”, “Shite” etc.

    Until we can drain the reader/reporter bias out of such terms, much of religion reporting will be meaningless.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    My guess is that news reporters (emphasis on “news”) who cover religion will become extinct, just as the mainstream media seek to continue to diminish the effect or actions of religion on the present culture.

    Consider that, if they were serious about hiring such a (good) reporter, the rest of the staff might have to pay attention to the “expert”s” advice, and thus we might not see as many of the faux-paux’s that are headlined in Get Religion….simply because the ignorant could be counselled by the “knowledgeable”.

    On the other hand, employment by the msm is maybe not the plum it once was. Today, if you REALLY want to know what is going on in the Catholic Church, for positive articles you turn to Rocco Palmo, George Weigel, Mark Judge, or even Carl Anderson, none of whom write exclusively for “major” outlets, or, for less inspiring news, there’s always John Allen of NCR.

    IMHO, most of what you read in the regular press is someone’s opinion…..gussied up with a few quotes to follow the “gotcha” headline (like done SO WELL by the NYT)…..this is not “news”; it might even qualify as slander, but it is usually simply, another agnostic opinion.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    cas, good point about the term “radical Islam.” I actually described it that way because the Pew Forum did. If he had held a hearing on “conservative Islam,” I probably would have described it the same way since that’s what it was about. But since the post wasn’t about the hearing (which I could write all day about), I wasn’t really looking out for the term, if that makes sense.

  • cas

    Yes thanks, that clarifies your point Sarah. I’m at the Princeton interview with Fox News Religion correspondent Lauren Green. I asked the question about how often she is on air. She said about once a week, and that–surprise, surprise—she doesn’t think media executives get religion.