The biggest religion news stories in 2011 involved tensions with Islam, followed by faith in presidential politics, a new Pew report reveals. Some of the key findings in the study, “Religion in the News,” include:
- Religion coverage made up just 0.7 percent of all mainstream media coverage in 2011, down from two percent in 2010
- Religion received as much attention as race, gender and LGBT issues
- Islam made up nearly one-third of all religion news stories last year
- The top religion stories of the year included: religion in the election, Peter King’s “Radical Islam” congressional hearings, anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, the Westboro Church protests, religion in September 11th commemorations, the Catholic priest abuse scandal and Terry Jones’s Quran burning
For more on religion coverage in the mainstream media, Moment speaks with Jesse Holcomb, a research associate with Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and one of the authors of the study.
MM: Your report says that religion accounted for only 0.7 percent of all mainstream media coverage in 2011. Why do you think religion gets so little attention?
JH: First of all, we’re talking about a fairly big news hole, and by that I mean a large space for a whole variety of topics. There are a lot of topics that get just a small share of that total pie, and religion is one of them. Part of it may be because other topics tend to get a lot of attention—politics, government, in this past year, foreign affairs, economics—and can crowd out the other subjects.
Another potential reason is methodological. In our daily analysis of the mainstream news media, we don’t study every story that appears in every newspaper, and we don’t study the entire hour of a news broadcast, or all 24 hours of a cable channel. We use a sample, so we look at the first half hour of news shows, and with newspapers, it’s the front page as well as the homepage of news websites. So what we’re really looking at is the stories and subjects that get the most attention, that get the most priority by news organizations. These would also presumably be the stories that people see most often. So it is possible that religion might appear inside the newspaper, but what we’re talking about is the top of the newscast. For those reasons—and a combination of other reasons—religion is just not one of those top subjects. However, it does appear as a thread in many other stories, especially politics.
MM: Why does Islam dominate religion news coverage, and what kinds of stories do we see about it?
JH: Muslims represent a numerical minority in the United States, so it is quite striking to see how many of the major religion stories of the year were focused on Islam. Lots of these stories revolve around some sort of conflict or tension. Those are traditionally the kinds of themes that can generate lots of attention. You won’t see as many stories in the top of the news cast that say, “everyone’s getting along.” These conflicts and tensions tend to drive the news agenda, so there may also be something in the zeitgeist of news room culture or perceived public opinion that is concerned about the issue of Islam.
MM: According to the report, the other big religion stories involved faith in politics. Has religion in the presidential race always been such a big story, or has it received more attention this year because of Mitt Romney and Mormonism?
JH: No, religion and politics tends to be a perennial theme in religion coverage in the mainstream news media. It was certainly a big aspect of religion coverage in 2007 and 2008. In fact, even though we have at least two major candidates for whom faith is an important part of their biography, the attention to religion and the campaign this year as a percentage of the whole, is less than it was in 2007, the last time we had a primary. So in fact it has gone down, if you look at those two years side by side.
MM: Do you think this news coverage of Mormonism is helping Americans understand the religion better? One Pew poll found that 62 percent of Mormons in the United States think that Americans know nothing or not too much about their religion, and another said 49 percent of white evangelicals don’t consider Mormonism to be Christianity.
JH: That’s a really good question, but it’s not a question I can answer definitively with our research. I do know that there have been complaints from the Mormon community about the way their faith has been portrayed in the news media, a common one being that Mormons have not been given the opportunity to define themselves in the press, that Mormons are often defined by people of other faiths, or characterized in a certain way by reporters. We can expect that Americans are getting a lot of their information about the Mormon faith through the media, but whether there’s a cause and effect between the kind of coverage there is and their attitudes, I can’t say.
A large portion of the attention to the Mormon faith in political coverage in the past year was focused on one incident, which was when an evangelical pastor who had endorsed Texas Governor Rick Perry came out on the record and suggested that the Mormon faith is a cult. It got a lot of attention, and created some waves. No one in the mainstream media were condoning that kind of speech on the part of that pastor, yet it was a story that got a lot of play. And you could argue, for better or for worse, that it defined that faith in the context of the campaign throughout the year.
MM: Judaism was not mentioned at all in the report. What kind of religion news coverage have Jews seen in 2011?
JH: That’s right. One way that we broke down the media coverage was by looking at which religious faiths got the most attention, and which ones didn’t. So along that spectrum, Judaism was not one of the major faiths that was featured. Although we don’t break it out in the published report, I can tell you that the Jewish faith accounted for about four percent of all religion coverage over the past year. So it’s a small percent—it’s certainly more than Buddhism or Scientology, but it’s significantly less than the attention paid to Islam, Christianity. In the big stories over the year that involved Judaism, there wasn’t necessarily one theme. There were stories about a congressional race in New York involving a Jewish candidate, and stories about archaeologists in Israel digging up the ancient city, and so on—a of collection of stories that didn’t necessarily fall along one special theme.