The Media Doesn’t Understand Religion. And That’s Bad for All of Us

The Media Doesn’t Understand Religion. And That’s Bad for All of Us September 25, 2022

Media doesn't get religion
The nave of St Peter’s Church in Drogheda, Ireland. Photo by David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s a Sunday in September, and for lots of Americans, that means football.

NBC’s Sunday Night Football has been the No. 1 show in primetime for the last 11 years, and tonight around 15 million of us will tune in tonight for a fairly ho-hum game between the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers. Tens of millions more will watch at least one NFL game this week. Football is unquestioned king in the U.S., and the media knows it. About 5,000 journalists cover the Super Bowl in person every year, according to the Bleacher Report, and far, far more cover the sport itself. Every aspect of a team is blanketed. Every story for the game is explored.

And yet by some measures, football still lags behind faith.

While rates of religious affiliation have dropped in the U.S. over the last several decades, nearly half of us still belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, according to the Pew Research Center. That’d be more than 150 million people. Nearly half of us pray every day, and 41% of us say that religion is “very” important in our lives. We collectively give about $50 billion of our money to churches and religious non-profits every year (according to nonprofitssource.com). And if we look at the world as a whole, 82% of us identify with a religious group. There are more than 2.4 billion Christians in the world, compared to around 400 million fans of American football.

And while the outcome of a football game can impact how you feel Monday morning, people who adhere to religion will tell you it can change your life: it makes a difference in what you think, how you feel, how you vote, what you buy. Yes, religious affiliation is shrinking. But it’s hard to think of a force in society that shapes us more than faith.

So why is coverage of religion so bad?

According to a new poll by the Faith & Media Initiative and HarrisX, about 63% of respondents worldwide say that high-quality reporting on faith and religion is needed in the country where they live. And yet more than half of those polled (53%) say that the media “actively ignores religion as an aspect of society and culture today”. Even more interesting: more than six in 10 respondents believe that religion coverage perpetuates religious stereotypes.

That’s an issue. Because in an era in which we’re all so fractured and polarized anyway, stereotypes don’t do any of us any favors.

Before I started reviewing movies for a living, I was the religion writer for The Gazette, the daily paper in Colorado Springs—covering the city when it was known as the “evangelical Vatican” by some. The city came with some stereotypes of its own: It was thought by most to be deeply conservative, deeply religious and almost uniform in its spirituality.

But in my four years of coverage, I covered a very different city.

Despite its reputation, Colorado Springs was actually less churched than many East Coast cities with a more liberal outlook (Boston and Philadelphia, for example). It was home to vibrant Muslim, Buddhist and Wiccan communities. Even when you drilled down into our evangelical community, the diversity therein was breathtaking.

Back then, I was one of about 570 people who belonged to the Religious Newswriters Association—a small-but-important group of journalistic specialists who really worked at trying to understand the faith communities we covered. But alas, religious journalists—like most media specialists—are dwindling. Fewer media outlets are hiring religious journalists, and it shows in their coverage.

According to the study, called the Faith & Media Index, a number of factors feed into this dearth of quality religious journalism.

Obviously, newsrooms around the world are under a great deal of financial pressure. They’re cutting back (if not shuttering altogether), and reporters with specialized focuses are often the first to go. Best to hire people who can cover a variety of topics than just one, right? And when it comes to religion, which was not seen (according to the study) as a driver for reader engagement, all the more reason to cut back.

But when you push a general-assignment reporter to cover something as complicated and nuanced as religion, that reporter is going to worry about getting it wrong. (And trust me, if you get something wrong about someone’s faith, you’ll be hearing about it.) So religious stories are often ignored. When they can’t be ignored, generalist journalists—not knowing who to turn to as a source—will often gravitate to the issue’s loudest, most dogmatic and most extreme spokespeople. And when you primarily read or hear extremist religious voices in your religion coverage, stereotypes will be fostered and strengthened.

The result: One of the world’s most powerful forces is under-covered and misunderstood. And that impacts not just those of us who are religious, but those who aren’t. It leads to marginalization and polarization in an already shrill, fractured culture.

I write about movies and TV shows these days: I don’t cover religion. And yet, even in my field of work, you can see the dispiriting impact of our lack of religious understanding. Most screen-based stories ignore faith altogether. And when you do see a religious character, that character is often stereotyped and sometimes demonized. Ms. Marvel seems like a rare show that seeks to present a three-dimensional view of how faith impacts someone’s life and relationships. But for an equally nuanced take on evangelical Christianity? A stream of faith that, on the low end, encompasses 90 million people? Still waiting.

Society deserves better, more nuanced religion coverage. Honestly, it needs it. I love me some football, too. But when media outlets devote several full-time employees to cover the local NFL team and asks one unseasoned journalist to tackle something as ticklish as faith, it does us all a disservice.

You can check out the full Faith & Media Index study here.


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