52 percent of reporters: Media poor on religion news

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.

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  • Jerry

    The word, facepalm, has come to describe situations like this. Because the media refuses to recognize how many people actually want high-quality religious news. They’re like the sales person who stands there drooling as you wave money in his face. This drooling sales person phenomenon was one I had personal experience of when I was looking to buy business computer software and could not get a commissioned salesperson to return my call to take my order.

    There’s the double facepalm, Picard and Riker, that many like. But when that does not cut it, there’s the Three Stooges Facepalm or even the epic facepalm. But maybe we should just skip to the ultimate, a Homer Simpson facepalm. Because surely in this situation a D’oh is the appropriate way of responding to this story.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    One of the best objective reporters of religion I know of is Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune. She is not a Mormon but has learned enough about it so she understands what Mormons believe and how they see themselves and others. The many Mormons in her readership are also interested in news about other churches, and she has done an outstanding job reporting on those as well. She does not have an agenda to prove or disprove the self-understanding of any church, and does an outstanding job explaining the views of one religious group to all others.

    Back when Ken Woodward was covering Mormonism for Newsweek, he was constantly insisting that he had a better understanding of what Mormons believe than Mormons themselves did. For example, he insisted that Mormons did not believe in the necessity for grace throuogh Jesus Christ in order to be saved. His mistake was repeatedly pointed out to him, but he was obstinate, and mistaken. Interestingly, he was very sensitive to the misunderstandings applied by reporters to his own Catholic faith, and during his discussions of this expressed the same feelings I had when Woodward talked about Mormon beliefs.

    Richard Ostling was a religion reporter for Time Magazine who coauthored the book Mormon America with his wife Joan. They are Protestants. As I noted in my review of their book, published in the FARMS Review of Books, they purposely insulated themselves from the Mormons’ own understanding of their beliefs, reporting from the viewpoint of people disaffected from Mormonism or who never were part of its community. Their long book gives the reader no inkling why anyone would want to join such a demanding church, with such boring sermons. Their thesis is that Mormons are anti-intellectual, so they avoid reporting the academic credentials of the senior Mormon leadership, including PhDs, MDs, JDs, and degrees in engineering and business management.

    In other words, being among the most prominent reporters of religion news does not in any way guarantee that what you report will be accurate or that you actually understand what the members of a particular church believe.

    Unfortunately, both Woodward and the Ostlings did not care what Mormons found attractive in their church, and they did not put enough energy into learning it, even though learning this is very much the key to understanding other characteristics of the Church, including its ability to rely on total unpaid amateurs to run its congregations; and its ability to field over 50,000 missionaries all over the world on a constant basis, serving two year terms.

    Hopefully the ascendance of Mitt Romney should induce more religion reporters to actually learn what Mormons believe and why, and how they express their faith. There are constant attacks on Romney’s religion, and failure to accumulate a real understanding beforehand can put the reporter at a disadvantage in understanding such attacks and placing them in context for readers. Sadly, all too many religion reporters are looking for ways to justify dismissing difficult religions like Mormonism with the minimum investment of effort on their part.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Let me list just a few myths about Mormons that most religion beat reporters seem to accept uncritically because of their ignorance of actual Mormon teachings:

    “Mormons are racist because they refused to ordain blacks until 1978.” While the policy did discriminate, individual Mormons were not racist; they had no choice about the policy. When the change was announced, there was universal rejoicing among Mormons, like the celebration a city experiences from their team winning the Superbowl or the World Series. There were always a small number of black Mormons who were faithful to the Church despite the policy, because they believed it brought them closer to Christ than any other church could. Additionally, there was never a restriction on ordaining American Indians, Polynesians, Mexicans, Japanese, or anyone else, and large populations of many nations joined the Mormons before 1978. When the change occurred in 1978, Mormons began recruiting members in Africa, where there are now some 400,000 Mormons. Mormons are diverse and tolerant, and participate in interracial marriage.

    Myth: “Mormons want to take over the government.” Mormon doctrine is that the US Constitution was created under divine inspiration, including the separation of powers to prevent tyranny and the First Amendment to protect religious freedom. Mormons believe firmly in religious freedom for all, and that such freedom is part of God’s plan. It would be anathema to Mormons to contemplate use of government power to coerce anyone over religion.

    Myth: “Mormons are not Christian.” Every once in a while a Christian minister actually READS the Book of Mormon and is struck by that book’s focus on Jesus Christ and his role as God and Savior. The name of the church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This has been the church’s name for over 150 years, and is not a recent PR effort. Mormons regard founder Joseph Smith as a prophet comparable in importance to Isaiah, Elijah, or John the Revelator, but he is NOT worshipped as a god. Mormons are baptized by immersion “in the name of the Father, the son, and the Holy Ghost”, and every Sunday take Communion in order to renew their baptismal covenants.

    Myth: “Mormons do not believe in the Bible, but in the Book of Mormon.” The Articles of Faith state “We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly.” Can someone honestly say that a poor translation still constitutes the words of God? In fact, Mormons study the Bible regularly, and the Book of Mormon affirms the truth of the Bible. Indeed, one of the reasons stated in the Book of Mormon for it being revealed to Smith is that people were losing their faith in the Bible, and needed a new affirmation of the Bible’s truth, especially the reality of the resurrection of Christ.

    Myth: “Mormons are a cult.” Mormons live in normal families, as much as possible with mothers, fathers and children. They have normal careers in the world, earn their living in normal jobs, and live in their own houses and apartments, not communes. They get normal educations and often earn BAs and advanced degrees. Mormons are not unthinking robots, but are often well-educated achievers like Mitt Romney who are able to articulate why they believe their church is true in a totally objective sense. Mormons tend to have lower rates of divorce, and higher rates of children who grow up to embrace voluntarily the faith of their parents. The Mormons support an excellent university, BYU, whose graduate schools of law and business regularly rank among the top two to three dozen in the US. BYU has programs in science that send more of their Bachelors Degree earners to get PhDs in the sciences than all but seven universities, ahead of Yale! BYU has the highest level of foreign language education and skills of any university in the US. It also has the largest ROTC program in the US.

  • carl jacobs

    I just can’t resist this.

    However, the report says that minority Christians and white evangelical Christians are under-represented among journalists who cover religion

    Gee, ya THINK? Did they spend a lot of money to reach that conclusion, or did they just look around the newsroom and note the obvious under-representation of Christians covering
    every other subject as well. Journalism has diversified along external criteria even as it has become monochromatic in terms of worldview. As in “No fundamentalists need apply.”

    carl

  • carl jacobs

    When a journalist says he doesn’t know religion very well, he is referring to doctrine. (I would love to know how many journalists could define the difference between a monergist and a synergist.) To a large extent, I think this is driven by the secular understanding that religious doctrine just isn’t very important – that it is a cover used by religious people to justify more pedestrian and temporal concerns. Journalists want to cover tangible things. They consider doctrine intangible.

    Take women’s ordination. Your typical journalist couldn’t name a pastoral Epistle let alone find one in the Bible. He isn’t going to be concerned about doctrinal disputes regarding the differences between men and women as represented in Scripture. To a secular journalist, it’s not about what is written on the page. It is about privilege and power. They think the doctrine is used simply as a means to justify the maintenance of privilege and power. Now privilege and power are tangible. If that’s the real story, then why would they feel the need to write about these esoteric doctrinal disputes that don’t really mean anything.

    It is the secular attitude towards religion that makes the coverage so bad. A secular journalist isn’t going to respect his subject. He thinks it a fairy tale, and its adherents mentally primitive. It is that lack of respect that people like me see so frequently in the work of journalists. It is that lack of respect that keeps journalists from actually learning anything about the topic.

    carl

  • John M.

    Ok, proposed headline time again: “47 Percent of Reporters Don’t Grasp Their Own Levels of Ignorance When Reporting Religious News”

    And I thought of that as soon as I saw the headline on this post. :)

    And Carl, for as much meaning as the monergism/synergism debate has for us in the Reformed community, it’s pretty far inside baseball. I’d settle for reporters just knowing the basics of the Bible (what the pastoral epistles are, for instance, in your example) and what differentiates conservative Jews from orthodox Jews, or Sunnis from Shia. Just be able to tell us who’s on first, in other words.

    -John

  • http://www.zwem-broek.nl Casey Zwembroek

    Hi There,
    Found your earlier blog on Google. Enjoyed reading :)
    In the Netherlandds, relegious news shows have their own networks. The Netherlands are realy liberal. Actually, the only news about relegions, on the big networks, is if there is bad news…
    Greets Casey

  • Pamela Zohar

    Ok, proposed headline time again: “47 Percent of Reporters Don’t Grasp Their Own Levels of Ignorance When Reporting Religious News”

    And I thought of that as soon as I saw the headline on this post. :)

    And Carl, for as much meaning as the monergism/synergism debate has for us in the Reformed community, it’s pretty far inside baseball. I’d settle for reporters just knowing the basics of the Bible (what the pastoral epistles are, for instance, in your example) and what differentiates conservative Jews from orthodox Jews, or Sunnis from Shia. Just be able to tell us who’s on first, in other words.

    -John

    Because I can’t thank John TWICE.

  • MJBubba

    I skimmed the survey and noticed that though half of the “non-focused” news providers claimed that their own practice of religion and their own self-study as important sources of their knowledge about religion, fewer than 18 percent of this group said that religion was somewhat or very important in their personal lives. That seems to be a disconnect to me, and probably connected to the fact that 3/4 of the focused providers of religion news said that accurate reporting of religious matters is difficult, but only half of the other reporters said so, and only 18 percent of those other reporters think coverage of religion is important.

  • MJBubba

    I noticed that the survey had 9 percent of their providers of news have religious news as their primary field. I bet this is an overrepresentation compared to the population of news providers.

  • Jeff

    “However, the report says that minority Christians and white evangelical Christians are under-represented among journalists who cover religion.”

    No Blacks (Who Are Christians)

    No “Fundies”

    No Dogs

  • Chris

    Raymond Takashi Swenson:

    While you’re busy debunking Mormon myths, debunk this one:

    “One of the best objective reporters of religion I know of is Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune. She is not a Mormon but has learned enough about it so she understands what Mormons believe and how they see themselves and others.”

    Peggy has been Mormon her entire life.


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