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We couldn’t find religious bias in news coverage of the Supreme Court

We analyzed news coverage of Amy Coney Barrett’s religion during her confirmation hearings

Then-Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett speaks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 14, 2020. (Susan Walsh/Pool/AP)
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Since the draft Supreme Court opinion that could overturn Roe v. Wade leaked, various observers have been commenting on the justices’ religious affiliations. Six justices have Catholic backgrounds, including all three of those appointed by former president Donald Trump.

These comments echoed discussions during the fall 2020 confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Catholic with strong religious ties. At that time, some abortion rights advocates and Democrats warned about the potential use of religious dogma in judicial decision-making — and specifically on abortion doctrine. Republican leaders and conservative news outlets argued that raising such concerns was religious persecution. Some argued that liberal news outlets were using religion against Barrett.

Is that last claim true? Do liberal outlets negatively represent the justices’ religions?

To find out, we analyzed media items from liberal and conservative outlets during the Barrett hearings. Barrett had said Roe v. Wade was precedent, but in the leaked draft opinion, she was on track to join the majority overturning the landmark decision. We discovered that liberal news outlets were actually less likely to mention Barrett’s religion than conservative news outlets. Conservative outlets were also more likely to link her religion to her position on Roe.

How we did our research

We analyzed media items from four popular news sources, two liberal and two conservative, as evaluated by the AllSides media bias chart: MSNBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News. To ensure this material related to Barrett’s nomination, we limited our search to items or segments produced or published from Sept. 26, 2020, when Trump nominated Barrett, through Oct. 26, 2020, when Barrett was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice. We included any item (newspaper articles and television show transcripts) that mentioned her name in the original search, which yielded 1,049 segments or articles. We then randomly picked 500 of these for the final analysis, selecting items in proportion to the total number of relevant items we found from each source. We ended up with 228 New York Times articles, 73 MSNBC transcripts, 72 Wall Street Journal articles and 127 Fox News transcripts. The majority of newspaper articles were bylined articles, but we also included editorials. Transcripts came from a variety of television shows.

Evangelicals opposed abortion long before their leaders caught up

Conservative media mentioned Barrett’s religion far more than liberal media

If news coverage of Barrett has been biased against her religion, then we should see outlets talking about her religion a lot. We hand-coded the percentage of articles and transcripts from each of our sample of media items that mentioned Barrett’s religion in any way.

We found that the liberal outlets were nearly a third less likely to mention Barrett’s religion than the conservative outlets. MSNBC, our most liberal media source, mentioned Barrett’s religion in less than 10 percent of its coverage, while Fox News, its conservative counterpart, mentioned it in more than 30 percent of its Barrett segments. Liberal outlets were also far less likely to mention Barrett’s membership in People of Praise, a conservative Catholic group.

We found no openly negative mentions of Barrett’s religion

We also documented the tone of news coverage, meaning whether a news outlet talked about Barrett’s religion in a negative or positive way. To do that, we checked the articles and transcripts that mentioned her religion to see whether the source supported her nomination and whether her religion was mentioned as a liability or in support of her nomination. Of course, our findings should be viewed with caution, since it’s not always simple to determine whether a statement is positive or negative overall.

However, we did not find a single source in our sample — either from the liberal or conservative outlets — that took a negative view of Barrett’s nomination or of her religion. On the liberal side, the coverage took a neutral tone, while a handful of items were positive. On the conservative side, a strong majority were positive.

To be sure, Barrett’s religion, her position on Roe and the connection between the two have been covered extensively in other outlets that we did not analyze, like the New Yorker and the Atlantic. But the narrative pushed by conservative media is completely disproportionate to the extent of the actual coverage — our systematic analysis reveals this discrepancy in stark detail.

We checked to see whether the context suggested Barrett’s religion was an asset or liability

Bias may also show up in which topics media outlets choose to cover. For instance, did the context of the article suggest implicitly that Barrett’s religion would influence her decision on Roe v. Wade, in a way that suggested either bias for her or against her religious beliefs? To check for this, we looked to see whether media items were trying to link Barrett’s religion and her position on Roe by mentioning both things in the article or news segment, assuming that if liberal outlets did this, they were biased against her religion, and if conservative outlets did this, they were biased in favor of it.

Only about 7 percent of articles or transcripts from the liberal outlets mentioned Roe and religion in the same item. We found that liberal media outlets were much more likely to mention Roe without mentioning Barrett’s religion. In contrast, conservative media items were much more likely to mention her religion while mentioning Roe — suggesting conservative media outlets were attempting to signal to their readers or viewers that Barrett’s position on Roe would accord with her conservative religious beliefs.

Our research finds nearly no evidence to support the claim of religious bias against Barrett in media coverage. Instead, conservative media uses religious threat as a preemptive narrative in its own coverage on religion and the Supreme Court. The danger is that even those that don’t consume conservative media will buy into the narrative that the liberal media is attacking her religion. This creates an imagined attack on religious liberty but a very real backlash that further entrenches religious divisions.

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Hailey Womer is pursuing her master’s degree in government at Georgetown University.

Mark Brockway is a faculty fellow in political science and religion at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

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