Pod people: Have many Americans tuned out the press?

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, I wrote two relatively quiet pieces that attempted to focus on specific journalistic issues linked to this significant victory for the cultural, moral and religious left.

One post asked if the mainstream press would ponder and investigate the degree to which the Defense of Marriage Act decision reflected a split among Catholics inside the court. I referred to the four Supreme Court justices who are known to be rather traditional, Mass attending Catholics — the four-vote minority in this better 5-4 split decision — and the two members of the court, including the author of the majority decision, who in previous media accounts have been shown to be both doctrinally progressive and “cultural” Catholics who are not highly active at the parish and sacramental levels.

Is there a religion hook there? A ghost?

The other post asked why The Baltimore Sun, in it’s package covering the decisions, did not address two major Maryland-specific elements of the story. No. 1: The voices of African-American churchgoers, a key constituency in all of the state’s debates about same-sex marriage. No. 2: The fact that Baltimore Archbishop William Lori is the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on religious liberty and, thus, one of the most important Catholic voices on issues linked to the potential impact of the same-sex marriage rulings on the lives of traditional religious believers and institutions.

Alas, each of these questions — so far — must be answered with the a simple “no.”

Truth be told, I have been surprised, so far, with how few readers on the left or the right have left any comments on why it is either good or bad for many mainstream news organizations to use a one-sided, advocacy approach (Yes, hello Bill Keller of The New York Times) when covering such an important story. I didn’t expect balanced coverage. I did assume some basic questions and issues would be addressed on both sides of the story.

The bottom line: Is this the new professional “normal” when covering hot-button issues linked to religion?

All of this entered into my discussions this week with Todd Wilken as we taped this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen to that.

The lack of comments on these posts left me rather depressed. The implication is that that many GetReligion readers have simply given up and no longer believe that many, perhaps most, elite journalists are committed to focusing accurate, balanced coverage of the views and beliefs of “stakeholders” (there’s that Poynter.org term again) on both sides of these debates.

Bummer. And the more I pondered this, the more I thought about another recent story linked to public views of the press.

Did you happen to see the recent reporting on this national poll?

Only 23 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup.

Continuing a decades-long downward trend, fewer than one-fourth of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The percentage of Americans saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers dropped to 23 percent this year from 25 percent last year, according to a report on the poll, which was released Monday.

American confidence in newspapers reached its peak at 51 percent in 1979, and a low of 22 percent in 2008.

Now, that 23 percent figure is quite close — too close for comfort — to the growing army of Americans (.pdf here) who are either religiously unaffiliated or openly atheist/agnostic. Am I saying that this fact explains this anti-media trend? No way. But it could be a sign that the large mass of Americans who no longer trust the press, who no longer believe the mainstream press can fairly and accurately cover divisive issues, includes an unusually high number of religious believers, especially those who are active in local congregations.

Yes, there is a “political” angle to this:

Much of the confidence can also be measured by political orientation. Conservatives remain the most critical of newspapers and television news, while liberals are the most supportive. Confidence in newspapers by party also mirrors their ideologies. Democrats are most confident, at 33 percent, while Republicans, at 16 percent, are least confident.

Of course, some of these negative numbers could be explained in terms of moral and social issues that do not completely sort out according to party affiliations (and, as always, I say that as a pro-life Democrat). Doctrinal religious beliefs do not equal political beliefs.

One more thing. Decades ago, when I was doing my mass communications graduate work at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I came across some research that ended up playing a key role in my thesis (and in The Quill cover story that was drawn from that research in 1983). Here is a key chunk of that:

… (A)nother survey shows the sector of the public that is the most religiously involved is also highly involved in the local news events that dominate daily newspapers. The survey, entitled “The Impact of Belief: On American Values in the ’80s,” was conducted by Research and Forecasts, Inc., and was commissioned by the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company. About 20 percent of all Americans, a group the survey calls the “most religious,” are the people most likely to be involved in, and interested in local news. The survey shows:

* The most religious are far more likely to believe the vote is the main thing that determines how the country is run.

* The most religious are highly inclined to believe that solutions to major national problems can be found through politics.

* The most religious are far more likely to do volunteer work for a local organization or political figure.

* The most religious are much more likely to attend neighborhood or community meetings.

* Finally, those who are most committed to religion are more likely to feel they “belong to a community.”

Oh, and the people who are most involved in their local communities — a high percentage of them drawn from the “most religious” sector — were also the people who are most likely to purchase and read their local newspapers.

That was 1980. Is that still true today? If not, what has changed in the years since then?

Please ponder these questions. I think they are important questions, especially to those of us who are concerned about the future of mainstream journalism and public discourse in American life.

Sobering stuff. Nevertheless, try to enjoy the podcast.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • John Pack Lambert

    After Kennedy dismissed those of us who feel marriage should be a man/woman institution focused on the good of children, I had no hope for the press giving any reasonable coverage to our views.
    The willingness of the press to invoke calls of “hate”, “equality” and the like in a debate that is really about the basic meaning of marriage, and of people to compare those of us who favor man/woman marriage to slave holders, makes it hard to have the stomach to even try to read their attack filled assaults on my views on public policy.

  • Brett

    Well, Terry, why shouldn’t readers give up on believing that any significant percentage of elite, top-level reporters and writers are given to focusing accurate and balanced coverage on the stakeholders on both sides of these debates? Time after time, they don’t. I know that you and your fellow Get Religionistas maintain that there are indeed such journalists, but right now they seem to be a snow leopard levels and headed straight for passenger pigeon. Surely, not every failure in this area is a willful one; some come from people who in all honesty just don’t think in ways that allow for a different perspective than their own to exist. But that’s its own problem.

    And when the reporters who cover such issues get caught with their biases on display — such as Linda Greenhouse covering abortion — they’re not disciplined or reined in in any way by their management. That’s another brick in a wall of distrust. I can’t be surprised that people don’t trust reporters; too many of them have proven untrustworthy. And I say that as someone who worked in the field and who holds a bachelor’s of journalism from Northwestern U.

  • MollieZHemingway

    tmatt, excellent question and one I’ve been thinking about a lot, again, as I publicly point out this week the horrible bias in abortion coverage.

    Many, many people say they no longer expect journalists to try to get the story right or to be fair.

    And then while I’m trying to sound the alarm about journalistic credibility suffering, most reporters just get defensive — while the industry continues to suffer from said lost credibility.

    I wish more people cared about quality journalism and asking tough questions and reporting fairly — on the consumer end and the production end.

  • Kodos

    Speaking for myself, I’m particularly discouraged by the behavior of the press this week. Reading their adulatory coverage of the Texas abortion filibuster and the SCOTUS gay marriage decisions, I find myself losing hope that journalists today (and in the future) will restrain their advocacy and return to the “American model” of journalism.

    Your comments about the recent Gallup poll showing low confidence in the press reminded me of NPR’s coverage of a similar Gallup poll last year: http://www.npr.org/2012/07/28/157538238/u-s-still-religious-but-trust-in-institutions-wanes#comment-653926095

    NPR’s focus on that Gallup poll? Here it is: people are losing faith in religious institutions.

    But what about the press, whose confidence numbers are even lower? No comment and no coverage.

    This NPR report stuck in my mind because it is perfect evidence of why people like me have lost confidence in our information media.

  • MarkP1971

    I’ve had the same conversation with many Bible Classes where I basically say that to really get “the news” you have to have two sources. The “classic” outlets are just too blind against any story with an religious mentality to even get close. It is more that those classic outlets are so divorced and ignorant of a religious worldview that even if they were trying they couldn’t get it right. That isn’t exactly lack of trust, but I’m not sure there is a word for what I would say is lacking some basic knowledge, curiosity and openness that is necessary to be a real journalist.

  • Dave Patchin

    As a pastor, and thus presumably, one of the “most religious” group, I have no confidence that media can fairly cover divisive moral, political, or religious issues. Scratch the thin veneer of impartiality and the mainstream press, particularly tv and newspapers, bleed their progressive agenda. I expect it, and account for it in my reading.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Okay, I’m writing from a formative experience where the daily newspaper my family took was intimately involved with their political allegiances (of the two major national daily papers in Ireland, one was slanted towards Party X and the other towards Party Y).
    But did American newspapers always have this shining impartiality, or is it just that recently the veneer has been stripped away and we see the advocacy nakedly? Was there ever a time when “The New York Times” would have been equally attuned to the concerns and views of a farmer in Minnesota as to a lawyer in Manhattan?

    • FW Ken

      When I grew up in Dallas, the Morning News listed to the right, and the Times-Herald to the left. Most places we lived have two papers with that same political dichotomy. Did TV news change this dynamic, since you had to choose networks?

      • John Pack Lambert

        In the early 19th-century many newspapers were owned and controlled by political parties.

  • Ron Chandonia

    Fascinating to read that in the 80s, the most religious people are the ones who most looked to politics to solve major national problems. I cannot believe that is true today. Speaking as a religious person, I’d say that my opinion of both newspapers and the American political process is about the same: I’ve given up on expecting anything from either except constant abuse mixed with occasional amusement.

    • FW Ken

      The religious left sought government intervention in the 60s and 70s and arguably spawned the religious right of the 80s. Poverty, desegregation, the draft, and (especially) the Vietnam War were among their concerns.

  • EMS

    I get 2 newspapers daily, though I sometimes wonder why – the LA Times and The Desert Sun (Palm Springs area). Both papers are pro-abortion (though the Sun seems less so) and pro-gay marriage (hardly a surprise in Palm Springs). Oddly, the Sun is the better paper – it does a lot of local coverage and investigative reporting for the area in much more detail than TV could ever cover, and reporting that can’t get onto a half an hour TV news (or even an hour) show. Which is exactly what newspapers should do and often don’t. And occasionally, it does offer stories or opinions that go against their bias. The Times does do a lot of multi-issue stories, but they tend to be on things that have little to do with LA or even California. The Times is fixated on Catholic priests’ abuse of children. Yesterday’s front page had an article that went on for pages on a priest who abused over 30 years ago. And this was not an isolated story, but abuse today in public schools seems to wind up buried inside the paper. And they rarely do stories or opinion pieces that oppose their editiors’ opinions. If I drop one of them, and I’m getting close to it, it will probably be the Times as I am getting sick of all the (ancient) anti-priest stories.
    I suspect that one problem with many papers is that they are owned by national (or international) “news” syndicates which covertly or overtly dictate the slant of the stories. And those syndicates don’t like religions like Catholicism or conservative moral opinions.

  • FW Ken

    In some ways, I am less negative about the press than ever before. First, sites like this expose me to good journalism and challenge my own biases, and the internet allows me to range freely all over the world for information and viewpoints. I do get frustrated sometimes with half-baked ideology (left and right), but, look, here is a thoughtful rebuttal to thoughtless cant. I sometimes read my local paper online (they have an app), but am not limited by what the Star-Telegram editor thinks is news.
    Ok, I am still pretty contrary and cynical, but I’m a Texan. It’s my birthright. :-)

  • Averain

    I know that I’ve tuned out the press almost completely and most people I know have done similarly. I don’t trust anything that they say to me. I believe that they have something that they want to sell but they are not even usually honest about that. Now, I don’t know if the rank bias in most reporting is a contributing cause to the wider epistemological crisis in our culture, or if it is an effect (or a little of both), but it frightens me.


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