A visiting Martian might be forgiven for thinking that Americans care more about the religion of prospective presidential candidates than they do about the economy, the environment, health care, or even space travel. And, according to a recent poll, a growing number of Americans would likely agree. Last week a Pew Research Center survey reported that almost two-fifths of the public says the candidates talk too much about their faith.
Are the candidates at fault for this surfeit of religiosity, or is the problem with the news media, which seems eager to tout Santorum’s religious “war on women,” Romney’s “un-Christian” Christianity, Gingrich’s “born-again” Catholicism, and Obama’s alleged Muslim heritage?
A new survey of news consumers and reporters reveals a significant gap between the two groups on what’s important and how it’s covered. Two-thirds of the public says the news media sensationalizes religion, a view shared by a little less than one-third of reporters. Significantly, almost 70 percent of the public prefers coverage on religious experience and spirituality, while reporters’ focus is on religion and politics.
“Good News? Media Consumers and Producers on Religion Coverage” is a joint project of the Knight Program in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. A first-of-its-kind survey of journalists and the audiences they serve, the report looks at results across media platforms and also factors in demographic differences.
Reporters and their audiences do find common ground: A majority of both groups agree that the news media “does a poor job of explaining religion in society,” with 51.8 percent and 57.1 percent assenting to that proposition, respectively. Both also ranked television news lowest in the quality and quantity of reportage. But while the public divided almost evenly on the strength of reporting in news magazines, newspapers, radio and online, reporters overwhelmingly said their own organization--whatever it was--did the best job.
One reason for shortcomings in current coverage is that many reporters lack expertise. Half of those surveyed say they don’t know a lot about religion. Only a fifth claimed to be “very knowledgeable,” and most in that small segment said their information was from their own religious practice, self-study and their family background. In the past, news organizations encouraged staff to attend seminars and workshops for continuing education. But in the recent climate of cutbacks, journalists are reluctant to spend time away from the newsroom even if enhancing their skills.
At the very moment when more people than ever have access to American news media through online sites, many outlets are cutting back on resources and on personnel. In the rush to save money, managers deem journalists with experience or topical expertise too expensive or too specialized to keep. Those who remain don’t have the time to master the basics of beats like science, medicine, economics or religion, which require more than routine familiarity.
Once upon a time, religion was viewed as a specialization. The beat attracted “PKs,” preachers’ kids, who knew how to write stories on Sunday sermons and church activities. But nowadays religion intersects with politics, popular culture, foreign policy, the economy and the environment. Even if news outlets do have a designated religion reporter, the range of religion-related stories would be too much for one person to cover. But rather than encouraging all journalists to probe these overlapping relationships, many news outlets rely on the “he said/she said” model or conflict narratives more generally. As a result, reporters who can’t differentiate Shia from Sunni Muslims write about Koran burnings, burial customs and Islamic law and politics without nuance or subtlety.
Not surprisingly, then, many Americans say the media sensationalizes religion. But they, too, see its impact in stark terms: nearly half consider religion to be a source of conflict in the world, and just a slight majority sees it as a source of good. In contrast, reporters overwhelmingly see it as a mixed bag. One might think, then, that the news media would be filled with thoughtful stories that explore the complexity and ambiguity of religion in society. But since that’s not the case, journalists, lacking strong feelings of their own, may be opting for what’s easy.
In either case, consumers should call for less speculation about the candidates’ religious faith and more reporting on how they’re going to fix the economy, save the environment and send a woman to Mars. Religion figures into all of those endeavors, but without savvy reporting to bring it to light, most of us might never know.
Diane Winston is Knight Chair in Media and Religion, University of Southern California.
John Green writes from the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.