Everyone knows that journalism is in serious trouble, much of it self-inflicted. A new survey from the Faith & Media Initiative explores the generally unfortunate ways it intersects with religion.
(Yes, the subject’s serious, but the picture’s funny. Hey, nuns read newspapers, too.)
How Do People View the Media?
But first, a look how people in general feel about the media. A report released in June 2021 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford said:
The United States ranks last in media trust — at 29% — among 92,000 news consumers surveyed in 46 countries, a report released Wednesday found. That’s worse than Poland, worse than the Philippines, worse than Peru. (Finland leads at 65%.)
Lest you say, “Oh, the heck with it. Who cares? A pox on all their houses!,” I’d like to point out a comment by Thomas Jefferson. Writing to Edward Carrington from Paris in January 1787, he observed (emphasis mine):
… the basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. but I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.
What’s Happened to the Media?
You can blame journalism’s woes on the political polarization of the country (although there are those that believe the media is a major cause of it), or the collapse of the advertising infrastructure, or the relentless digital drive for clicks.
But the problem runs deeper than that. It follows a crack traversing many newsrooms, dividing mainstream journalists from a sizable percentage of their readers.
Too often, what seems ordinary to one is weird to the other; what seems important to one appears trivial to the other; what comforts one frightens the other. This is especially stark in the coverage of religion.
Questions need to be asked about this, and I’m with anyone willing to ask them.
So, Who Did This Survey About Faith & Media?
As I said, the study comes from the Faith & Media Initiative, in partnership with HarrisX, which describes itself as “a market research and consulting services company focused on the telecom, media, and personal technology industries.”
In the interest of full disclosure, my research revealed that the Faith & Media Initiative is part of the Radiant Foundation, which is connected to Radiant Digital (which now owns Patheos, the website that hosts this blog), which is itself owned by Bonneville Communications, which is part of Deseret Management Corporation, which is a for-profit company affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Starting in Aug. 2022, the Faith & Media Initiative began “a global survey of over 9,000 people in 18 countries about faith and media.” The survey’s results ring true to me, for the most part. Click here to look at it yourself.
The Bit That Made Me Scratch My Head
As for what didn’t make sense, the study begins with a snapshot of world religiosity, ranging from “highly faithful/religious” to “secular.” China, an officially atheist nation, ranks number four in the first category, after the U.S., Nigeria and South Africa, and just above India.
This seems unlikely, even more so when you think of how China is reported to persecute people of faith. So, why would anyone there tell a pollster he or she was one?
I’ve asked, and the answer I got was, in part, “Despite the policy of the country like China, the people within it have religion as a core element of their personal identity.”
UPDATE 9/29:A representative from HarrisX got back to me and offered some info on the study methodology, which may explain why the Chinese respondents felt free to answer the question honestly:
“The survey was conducted on a representative swath of Chinese respondents sourced randomly through over 8 recruiting platforms and agencies. The survey is administered online for maximum respondent privacy. Responses don’t collect personally identifiable information — only the demographic profile of the respondents. And all HarrisX survey links and responses are encrypted for protection.”
Aside from that, the results on the newsrooms — apparently self-reported by journalists — are telling.
What the Media Says About Itself Regarding Faith Coverage
Survey respondents representing media consumers feel that media needs to be covering religion, but 53% think media “actively ignores religion as an aspect of society and culture.” So, consumers want nuanced and knowledgeable coverage, but most feel they’re not getting it.
And when they do get coverage, they don’t like what they see, with 61% believing the media perpetuates narrow and outdated stereotypes regarding people of faith. Conversely, 8 in 10 think that religious groups must “provide more — and more relevant — spokespeople.”
So, Why Is This Happening in the Media?
Here are some excerpts from the study regarding possible explanations, from the media’s POV.
First, there’s the very real issue of budget (refer to the aforementioned collapse in advertising revenue):
Media respondents said reduced budgets have led to a lack of specialist journalists, leaving generalists to cover topics – including faith and religion.
Media would rather avoid the topic than risk getting it wrong:
Media interviewees described a general fear around covering religion. In an era when religion has become increasingly politicized, news coverage, often at speed, brings with it the tacit acceptance that it’s impossible to cover the topic with a level of nuance and sensitivity given the time and resources available.
Also, as all media and entertainment has become more secular or even anti-religious (due in part to a similar shift in education), there are fewer and fewer believers in newsrooms. The push for diversity, equity and inclusion doesn’t appear to include people of faith, whether because they aren’t hired when they apply, or they’re not applying.
And for those that are working in media:
Respondents in all regions noted that the newsroom rarely represents the plurality of religious views in society. Among journalists with a strong faith background, there was a feeling that they might be negatively judged if they covered stories relating to their beliefs out of concern it would raise questions about their impartiality and risk damaging their reputations.
(This fear doesn’t seem to prevent many journalists from covering other subjects near and dear to their own hearts and beliefs, but I digress.)
The Undeniable Power of the Three Cs
I spent two-decades-plus making my living as a full-time journalist, working as a senior staff writer covering entertainment for a division of the Tribune Syndicate (when there was such a thing). These days, I also work in social media, which is so entangled now with journalism that I’m not sure the two can ever be separated.
In both, I’ve seen a relentless march toward what I call the Three Cs of Engagement: Clickbait, Controversy and Complaining.
While positive stories (especially cute animal videos) do drive traffic, it’s hard to argue with the logic of the Three Cs — and religion coverage, what there is of it, is no exception.
From the study:
There is consensus that faith and religion are not seen as a driver for reader engagement. Editors almost never encourage stories in this area unless they correspond to a narrative of controversy, dissent or scandal. This runs counter to the findings which suggest that 63% of people globally said that high quality content on faith and religion is needed in their respective countries.
Nobody Wants to Tell the Good News About the Good News
As Catholics, we’re well aware that our good works attract zero attention, but our misdeeds are front-page fodder. Almost any other member of a major religion can probably say the same (that is, unless they publicly align themselves with currently popular social-justice movements).
Also, as with everything in life, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. From the study:
Stereotyping was identified as an issue, with a lack of diverse media sources and spokespeople, perpetuating the problem. Religion is frequently positioned as a conservative or extreme force in coverage, which creates a tendency to seek outspoken dogmatic spokespeople over more middle-ground religious observers with mainstream views.
Believers Speak on Faith & Media
The website also includes video interviews with believers, but none identified as Catholic (although there are pictures of Catholics sprinkled around the site). There are two people wearing Roman collars. One self-describes as “interfaith,” and the other, as Episcopalian.
Take a look:
The study data is available to download here. I’d be interested to hear what faith-based media professionals and working mainstream journalists think about the results.
Once again, it just goes to show that what people want to hear about, and what the media wants to talk about, are often two very different things.
Images: Shutterstock (nun); Faith & Media Initiative
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