The Kermit Gosnell trial and the lack of media coverage (as well as mainstream media critics’ belated acknowledgment of the lack of coverage) has brought to light how deeply the media’s overwhelming sympathy for the pro-choice position affects abortion coverage. The same can be said of gun control, gay marriage and, to be blunt, many aspects of President Obama’s presidency. At the root of the issue is a deep cultural divide in which the mainstream media resides firmly on one side, viewing inhabitants on the opposite as backward natives.
There is no doubt there is a secular, urbanized, college-educated and socially liberal portion of the United States. Unfortunately for the rest of America, the media are almost entirely made up of such people, who by virtue of their employment and income status have limited contact with those on the other side of this cultural gap.
Carl Cannon has a must-read two-parter on this phenomenon, focusing in large part on the religious divide:
Although the number fluctuates, some 40 percent of the American people describe themselves as evangelical Christians. Yet in traditional U.S. news organizations, print or broadcast, such believers are a rarity. The news coverage tends to reflect this disconnect. Evangelicals are often dismissed, particularly in political reporting, as exotic; or, worse, as a menace to civil society.
Traditionally, the people covering religion knew what they were talking about, at least. And presumably, they exerted a leavening influence inside their newsrooms. But Biblical literacy isn’t necessarily a requirement for that beat anymore; meanwhile, newsroom budget cuts have decimated the ranks of the nation’s religion writers.
Indeed the botched coverage of Easter by the New York Times which Cannon references in his piece is not unusual. It is something of a joke among observant Christians and Jews that “religion” coverage in the mainstream media would be immensely improved if it had more people who were actually religious. Alas, a great deal of what passes for religion coverage these days is complaints about the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion stance, the doings of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and the antics of the most intolerant Christians they can uncover. It’s not that all of this isn’t deserving of some coverage, but the absence of understanding, empathy and personal experience with regard to people of faith is striking.
Would a newspaper send someone to cover the symphony who never played an instrument, rarely went and viewed it is culturally irrelevant? In that case such a person would be viewed as biased, indeed unqualified; in the case of religion, the un-religious or anti-religious person is cheered as a “critical voice.”
The notion that one can simply put biases aside (on religion, politics, abortion or anything else) is a bit silly if the biases aren’t recognized as such and everyone around you has the same views (more or less). In recent decades there has been a push for more racial, ethnic and gender diversity in newsrooms, but virtually no effort to incorporate geographic, cultural, political, social and religious diversity. That makes for newsrooms that are at the very least more likely to ignore or distort the views and lives of rural, religious, pro-life, non-college educated and conservative Americans. In age, beliefs, religion, educational level, income, military service and many other indices, journalists in major outlets are unrepresentative, enormously so, of the country at large.
To some extent the growth of the conservative media has made this phenomenon worse. Mainstream media regards that segment of the press as less legitimate than their own, while conservative journalists migrate to conservative publications. The punditocracy complains that viewers and readers self-segregate according to ideology; in fact they do so because the media, knowingly or not, has intellectually segregated itself.
This is not to say that there aren’t superb reporters who transcend their own limits and provide exacting and eminently fair coverage. But they are the exception.
The more newsrooms reflect full intellectual, religious, geographic, economic and ideological diversity the less likely they will be to “miss” stories or get them wrong and the more likely they will insulate themselves from criticism of bias. Unfortunately, they never seem to get around to that.