YOU WOULDN'T THINK STUDENTS in a single college class could advance the debate on a major media issue. But they have. The issue is how the press covers religion. A class in religion at the University of Rochester did a detailed study of top newspapers and concluded, based on empirical evidence, that the media's performance on religion is woeful. The press plays up the negative (radical Islam, for example), largely ignores many faith groups, and fails to tap into the advice of experts. Pollster John Zogby says the findings validate what he already knew or suspected about religious coverage. The findings ring true to me as well.
"When it comes to religion, the press seems at odds with itself," the study found. "On one hand, religion pervades America's newspapers as part of the background on topics from politics and economics to sports and the arts. On the other hand, stories about religion itself infrequently address religion's beliefs and values."
The study, dubbed "Religion in American Newspapers: A Critique and Challenge," was conducted by a senior seminar for religion majors at the Rochester school. The 29 students were led by professor William Scott Green and Curt Smith, a former speechwriter for the first President Bush, radio commentator, and author of numerous books on baseball. The papers scrutinized for the month of February were the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Denver Post, Wall Street Journal, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, USA Today, and Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. Thousands of stories were examined.
Though the students didn't say so, I suspect the findings apply to coverage of religion, period, not just to newspaper coverage. It's not a pretty picture. So what were the specific findings? For one, more often than not religion is fleetingly mentioned rather than being the subject of a story. Two, religion stories are mostly about how some faith deals with political or legal issues. Most of the attention paid to Catholics dealt with the sex scandal involving priests. Coverage of Protestants, Jews, and other religions is more balanced.
The study also found that while religion is often used to identify people, it is done haphazardly. Senator Joe Lieberman is frequently identified as an orthodox Jew, while other politicians with strong religious beliefs are not identified by their faith. No politician is ever identified as an atheist, I would add. Coverage of the religious lives of Latinos, blacks, and women gets little media attention. And as you might expect after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the coverage of Islam is disproportionate and heavily slanted toward "criminality and bad deeds."
Another finding: The religious left's opposition to the war with Iraq got a lot more attention than the religious case for the war. Finally, here is what I think is the most important conclusion: The bad-news bias so prevalent in the media today also permeates the coverage of religion. "All the papers studied devote more coverage to religion in the context of bad deeds than they do to the good deeds religions do in their communities."
Why is this? The study doesn't say, but I believe it's the case because most reporters at large papers--or TV networks or magazines, for that matter--are secular in the extreme and regard religion with disdain.
The recommendations in the study are fairly tame. The press should "make a clear distinction between religion and criminals or criminal groups associated with that religion," the students say. It's hard to argue with that. Coverage should be balanced, the study also declares. One way is for the media "to help readers achieve an accurate perspective on the communities . . . [by reporting on] the ways religions actually improve society." And so on.
For those who claim the American press is being taken over by the political right, there's nothing in the report to buttress their claim. The right in America is often seen as more hospitable to religion, particularly Christianity. If that's true, then the media is more hospitable to critics of religion and, by extension, opponents of the political right.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.