Anger at news media: A ‘pew gap’ out there?

Surely anyone who follows American politics, at least with serious intent, knows something about the “pew gap.”

Then again, maybe not. You see, people often use this term incorrectly, claiming that religious people vote for Republicans and non-religious people vote for Democrats. That is not what the term means.

Highly secular voters are more likely to vote for Democrats, that is true. But so are religious believers who are part of traditions that are doctrinally and culturally liberal — which makes them great political coalition members with secularists, when it comes to moral and social issues. The problem, in terms of statistics, is that liberal religious groups tend to be smaller and, in recent decades, their numbers have been in sharp decline.

So what is the “pew gap”? The essential fact, in several decades with of elections, is that the more voters attend worship services — especially if they attend weekly or more than once a week — the more likely these voters are to vote for candidates who lean toward conservative positions on moral and cultural issues. Most, but not all, candidates of this ilk are Republicans, which means that commentators often say that the “pew gap” favors the GOP.

I have often wondered what would happen if pollsters applied this logic — asking specific questions about levels of religious practice and worship — to research on other topics.

Take, for example, the following numbers from the Gallup organization about Americans and the press. If you are a working journalist, or someone who cares about public discourse in American public life, you will want to sit down to read this.

Americans’ distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60% saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. Distrust is up from the past few years, when Americans were already more negative about the media than they had been in years prior to 2004.

Trend since 1997: In general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media — such as newspapers, TV, and radio — when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly — a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

The record distrust in the media, based on a survey conducted Sept. 6-9, 2012, also means that negativity toward the media is at an all-time high for a presidential election year. This reflects the continuation of a pattern in which negativity increases every election year compared with the year prior. The current gap between negative and positive views — 20 percentage points — is by far the highest Gallup has recorded since it began regularly asking the question in the 1990s. Trust in the media was much higher, and more positive than negative, in the years prior to 2004 — as high as 72% when Gallup asked this question three times in the 1970s.

As you would expect, there is a political component to this anger in an age in which (hello Bill Keller!) more and more mainstream journalists are openly saying that they are biased when it comes to coverage of certain political issues, such as those linked to morality and culture. This would mean that there are lots of non-libertarian Republicans who are furious with the mainstream press, as well as a few old-guard conservative Democrats (think blue-collar voters in the Midwest and Sunbelt).

This article from Gallup interprets this anger in a strictly political manner.

Surprise, surprise.

This year’s decline in media trust is driven by independents and Republicans. The 31% and 26%, respectively, who express a great deal or fair amount of trust are record lows and are down significantly from last year. Republicans’ level of trust this year is similar to what they expressed in the fall of 2008, implying that they are especially critical of election coverage.

Independents are sharply more negative compared with 2008, suggesting the group that is most closely divided between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney is quite dissatisfied with its ability to get fair and accurate news coverage of this election.

More broadly, Republicans continue to express the least trust in the media, while Democrats express the most.

So here is my question: What would happen if pollsters, in addition to asking the necessary questions about political affiliation, also inserted one or two questions about religious beliefs and practice in polls focusing on public attitudes toward the news and the journalists who produce it?


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  • If Gallup or any other polling service were to ask such questions, they would mostlikely find the answers fluxuate–as far as Christianity goes–between denominational lines. Often, religious bodies–both conservative and liberal–take polls to see the correllation between members’ regular church attendance and the extent to which adherence to their denominational teaching affects their daily life. Part of such affects often includes politics.

    I surmise that members of conservative Reformed or Lutheran church bodies who consider themselves theologically “confessional” also find themselves engaged in discussing various political issues–whether or not they affiliate with any one party. As adherence to one’s denominational Confessions or statements of faith reflects an amount of study, understanding the key moral and political issues involves some amount of objective analysis. On the other hand, many members whose church bodies appeal to the emotions in their worship and life may lean toward those politicians who gain adherence through emotional arousal. I think of the manner of Pres. Barrack Obama’s speaking as reflecting the rhetoric of many social gospel/liberationist preachers.

    Correct me if I’m wrong. Didn’t the Pew Forum have a discussion on the correllation of denominational teachings and political affiliation? I believe Duke Divinities School also did a similar feature for its Call And Rsponse blog some time ago.

    • Ted Seeber

      I agree- but I’ll bet that Catholics have the most distrust in media at this point. Doesn’t matter what side you’re on with the sex scandals, they’ve been done wrong no matter what in the media. Either the Bishops haven’t been giving out enough information or they’ve been giving too much, either the newspapers give too much info or not enough, it’s a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation- with all of the blame coming from the New York Times.

  • dalea

    tmatt says:

    The problem, in terms of statistics, is that liberal religious groups tend to be smaller and, in recent decades, their numbers have been in sharp decline.

    True, if you define ‘religious group’ as being ‘Christian only’. When the universe of religious groups is expanded to non-Christian groups, this proposition becomes more problematical. Both the various New Age and Neo-Pagan movements show large gains in numbers, which to some extent off sets the decline of Christian liberals.

  • Jerry

    David Rosenkoetter’s post interested me and I found what I think he was referring to

    Specifically starting on page 206 with the following extract, I hope readably, from page 207. This does not map exactly to what Terry wrote, but it’s an interesting adjunct and I think informative.

    Co Mo Li
    Evangelical churches 52 30 11
    Mainline churches 36 41 18
    Historically black churches 35 36 21
    Catholic 36 38 18
    Mormon 60 27 10
    Orthodox 30 45 20
    Jehovah~Rs Witness 21 12 17
    Other Christian 20 35 40
    Jewish 21 39 38
    Muslim* 19 38 24
    Buddhist 12 32 50
    Hindu 12 44 35
    Other Faiths 12 33 47
    Unaffiliated 20 39 34

  • sari

    Thanks for the link, Jerry. There’s other interesting information there as well, such as a breakdown of income and education for each group. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the same Republicans who distrust science and higher education might also be those who most distrust the media. Certainly, the topic would make for a good study.

    We need to be careful not to implicate religious belief or affiliation before determining whether or not other factors are in play. For instance, those groups with the largest percentage of members who’ve received post-graduate degrees (presumably post-baccalaureate) also self-label more in the moderate to liberal range. So do those who’ve historically been marginalized and/or demonized by the majority. Does this reflect their religious beliefs or the belief that conservative, in its truest form, means to maintain the status quo?

  • Darren Blair

    Considering the fact that agency after agency has been putting out obviously biased news pieces, I can understand how so many people distrust the media.

    Just this election cycle alone, for example, we had ABC News accuse Romney of embezzling money for the LDS faith, BBC accusing the LDS faith of hiring ex-CIA operatives and ex-FBI agents to spy on dissidents (Current TV keeps airing the show in question), and a whole host of other “Romney = Mormon = evil!” programs & reports.

    This alone makes it pretty obvious who a lot of reporters plan to vote for.

    • Rachel K

      To say nothing of the way Catholicism’s been reported. As silly as the reporting on the HHS mandate and the LCWR has been, I think the most egregious example is the reporting on the bishops investigating the Girl Scouts. Organization A believes that a Organization B, which A has supported in the past, may be doing things that contradict A’s mission and thus wants to investigate B to see if they should continue supporting it or not? If Organization A is any group but the Catholic Church, then this is pure business sense. If Organization A is the Catholic Church, then ZOMG INQUISITION!

  • Kristen inDallas

    Since I know you guys are big on not trying to introduce bias into journalism, I feel I should point out that the study reported, and the original report quoted deal with trusting the media, not anger towards the media. Reframing the growing distrust as anger is not necesarily accurate or fair. I’m sure some people are angry, but I know a great deal of people that are just downright apathetic about it. (And I don’t mean apathetic in the stigmatized, synonym for lazy kind of way that it is often used, I mean practically thoughtfully apathetic. Not angy, but not willing to engage or waste time on a thing that has no value.) I see no value in ABC, CBS, Fox, MSNBC, CNN and (to an increasing extent) NPR. I also see no value in 3inch plus high heels. I’m not angry at them, or the people who wear them, I just ignore them. They could only anger me if I tried to wear them, so I don’t, and I feel just fine about it.

    “The news” is not some god-like creature that I must either submit to or angrily labor against. It’s a show, and like any other show it is primarily concerned about ratings. They do what they do to appeal to a certain demographic and create drama, just like desperate house wives or the bachelor. I , and I suspect most of the people that indicated low levels of trust, are simply not in the media-believing demographic. And I suspect we’d be no more likely to be angry in our answer than we would be if the question were how likely do we think it is that project runway may be rigged/exagerated?

  • FW Ken

    I wish I could find a comment I read the other day to the effect that in the bad old days of journalism, you read around the biases of multiple sources to get enough facts to figure out what was going on. I’m sure that’s a bad way to do the news, but when CNN and the network news are actively campaigning for Pres. Obama and Fox is actively campaigning for Gov. Romney, it’s sort of what we have.