You know it’s sad when both the general public (57 percent) and reporters (52 percent) agree that the media does a poor job explaining religion to the broader public. And then two-thirds of the public think religious coverage is scandal-driven, compared to 30 percent of journalists who say the same thing, according to a new study from the Knight Program in Media and Religion at USC and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
So why is there such poor coverage of religion?
Maybe it’s lack of a basic understanding of faith and belief. Half of all reporters say a major challenge to covering religion is a lack of knowledge of religion, according to the report. Just 19 percent of reporters say they are “very knowledgeable” about religion, one-third consider themselves “knowledgeable,” 40 percent say they’re “somewhat knowledgeable,” compared to about 10 percent who say they’re don’t know much at all. You can see reporters having a hard time admitting they don’t know much about religion, so I would guess the number is even lower than what they self-report. But when belief or unbelief is so crucial to understanding so much of our world, it’s an amazing state of the media.
On a pretty basic level, media outlets are fairly concerned with wide representation in the newsroom, ensuring race, gender, and other demographic qualities are covered. However, the report says that minority Christians and white evangelical Christians are under-represented among journalists who cover religion when, ironically, they are the groups that consume the most religion news.
“Religion figures into American politics, popular culture, foreign policy and even the economy more strongly than ever before. But the disconnect between news consumers and producers suggests that current news media coverage isn’t making the importance of these overlapping relationships clear,” said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, who managed the study. “This situation presents the news media with both a challenge and an opportunity at a moment when innovation in the profession is paramount.”
Earlier this week, we talked about whether it’s startling that only 19 percent of Americans say the media is “friendly” toward religion. Commenter Carl Jacobs responded:
I have never noticed any media hostility to the Women Catholic Priest organization. Or the Episcopal Church and their theologically liberal ilk. Or the ‘spiritual but not religious’ First Church of Starbucks crowd. It’s religion based upon a fixed and knowable and binding revelation that inspires their animosity.
Or as John M. put it:
Headline proposal: “19 Percent of Readers Surveyed Need to Spend More Time Reading the Howlers That Come Across GetReligion”.
I mean, seriously, between Bill Keller and the head of the BBC, even the pretense of objectivity is being shed when it comes to covering people like me.
Of course, John is referring to the former editor of the New York Times and the BBC’s Mark Thompson, both of whom have had interesting things to say about religion coverage. (Hint, Thompson apparently said it’s acceptable to subject Christians to more criticism and satire, to treat their beliefs with less sensitivity.)
There’s a group of reporters out there who strive to cover religion accurately and thoroughly (they tend to go to events like the Religion Newswriters Association conference, attend denominational gatherings, check out ReligionLink, read religious publications, etc.). But a number of media outlets either don’t prioritize the religion beat or don’t have reporters who are qualified to cover religion. Can you imagine if an editor assigned someone to cover the Romney campaign who didn’t have some background or understanding of politics?
You certainly don’t have to be religious to cover religion well, but I would think editors would want reporters who have at least studied it or have a background that would shape an understanding of how religion works and influences people. It’s why we sometimes you get more religion coverage out of the Colbert Report than you from mainstream news outlets. Just 28.1 percent of the public and of 8 percent reporters said that broadcast news provided “good” religion coverage, the survey suggests.
Most reporters think their audiences want personality-driven religion news that connects to institutions and events, the release for the study says. But about 70 percent of Americans say they’re interested in complex coverage that looks at religious experiences and spiritual practice. And in case editors aren’t convinced that the American public want more religion news, there’s a little nugget to reinforce the idea: A majority of respondents (63 percent) says religion coverage is important to them.
Image of man smacking forehead via Shutterstock.