Media putting more emphasis on religion

Sunday, May 14, 2000

Our nation enters the 21st century as the most religiously diverse place on earth and, among developed nations, the most religious. In America, religion matters.

If that's true, shouldn't we be seeing more stories about religion in the news media?

According to two recent studies, we are. Both studies indicate that coverage of religion is more comprehensive than it was 10 years ago. But both also tell us that more doesn't necessarily mean better.

One of the studies, conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, examined religion coverage by major news organizations over the past 30 years and found a significant increase in religion stories over the past decade.

This isn't necessarily good news for advocates of more and better religion coverage, however, since the average was still only two stories a week on the network news and in the leading newspapers and newsmagazines. And many of the stories concerned criminal or moral offenses involving religious groups or people.

The other study — this one conducted by the Garrett-Medill Center for Religion and the News Media — analyzed religion coverage in key print and broadcast media outlets during a six-month period beginning in October 1998. The primary finding: stories about “religion, spirituality or values” make up between 11 and 20 percent of all stories.

Again, this doesn't mean that religion is covered well. Religion wasn't the primary focus of most of the stories analyzed. And when religion was discussed, it was often in the context of international conflict.

It's not surprising that conflict and controversy dominate religion stories. After all, that's what makes news. But when religion pops up mostly as a “problem,” the media have failed to convey the full range of religious experience and the convictions relevant to many news stories.

Where are the stories that include religious perspectives on economics, the environment, technology, ethical questions or other issues of importance in our society?

Even when religion does get mentioned, these studies find that the news media frequently fail to provide historical or theological context for the story. “Mentioning” religion isn't sufficient. To understand what's going on, the public needs to know what religious people believe or practice and why.

Despite these problems and limitations, however, religion coverage is heading in the right direction. Many newspapers are creating new sections focused on faith and values. Newsmagazines are doing more cover stories on religion. And one network (ABC) now has a full-time religion reporter.

The next challenge is to ensure that religion is reported with depth and context.

For this to happen, news directors and editors will need to re-think how religion is covered. It shouldn't be hard to make a case for this, since almost every major story in our society has a religious subplot.

Journalism educators also must recognize that reporters need to know something about religion in order to do their job. Until reporters are better informed on the subject, the media will continue to miss or distort the religious dimension of news stories.

These studies are right. If news is going to be reported accurately and fairly, religion must be taken seriously by the news media.