August 2000 – Conservatives are prone to characterizing the news media as being full of liberal journalists whose ideology can’t help but seep into every story they report. Is this left-leaning bias a reality, or merely right-wing paranoia?
A landmark study of the news and entertainment elite in 1980 seemed to establish at least the potential for media bias by demonstrating the deeply-ingrained liberal streak that dominated the industry.
Now a new study undertaken on behalf of The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), Media Coverage of Religion in America, 1969-1998, indicates some progress toward fairness – but also demonstrates that the media has far to go if it hopes to regain the trust of conservative Christians.
The new study was conducted by researchers and media experts S. Robert Lichter, Linda S. Lichter, and Daniel R. Amundson. The three researchers, along with Smith College professor Stanley Rothman, also collaborated on the 1980 project.
Do journalists understand?
The 1980 study demonstrated a deep, virtually across-the-board absence of religious influence in the media, while an independent 1995 survey – conducted by Rothman and reported in the recent CMPA study – showed some changes.
For example, while 50% of respondents in 1980 said they had no religious affiliation at all, that percentage had dropped by more than half by 1995 – to 22% of study respondents. Members of the media also seemed to attend religious services more often in 1995. The percentage stating they never attended services dropped from 49% in 1980 to 39% in the most recent study.
Nevertheless, the 1995 research discovered that almost 70% of journalists attend religious services only once a year. Even for the media who attend services weekly or monthly, Lichter told Scripps Howard News Service columnist Terry Mattingly that journalists often attend “socially or culturally liberal congregations.”
Religion under the microscope
Whether or not the members of the media are becoming more religious in a personal sense, journalists are paying closer attention to religion when reporting the news. The authors of the CMPA study said “there is some evidence to suggest that today’s major media journalists may be more attuned to this sphere of life than their predecessors were.
” For example, prior to the broadcast of ABC’s The Search for Jesus, newsman Peter Jennings said, “Religion does not receive the attention it deserves on the networks. We are responsible for reporting on issues that are at the heart of what people care most deeply about – which certainly includes matters of personal faith.” (See related story below.)
During the three decades examined by the CMPA study, the number of religiously oriented stories grew from 833 in the 1970s to 1044 in the 1990s. The percentage of stories with a religious angle also increased: from 35% of the total in the ’70s to 46% in the ’90s. (In both cases – number and percentage of stories – coverage dropped in the 1980s from the decade before, then bounced back up.)
While on the surface that might seem to indicate greater sympathy to the traditional organized religions of America, a deeper look may indicate just the opposite. Much of that expanded religious coverage went, not to Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox Christians – or even to Jews and Muslims – but to more exotic religions.
“Thus, the proportion of the coverage devoted to Protestants and Catholics declined significantly,” the study authors wrote, “in favor of increased attention to a variety of much smaller groups in this country, such as adherents of Eastern religions and new religious movements.”
When the media did tune in to Christianity, it was usually for the fireworks. The CMPA study noted that 68% of religious stories dealt with issues “that were newsworthy because of the controversies and conflicts they provoked.” Stories on topics like prayer in public schools, separation of church and state, and abortion were common. Far from indicating a desire to paint a sympathetic picture of faith and spirituality, the media seemed to use controversies surrounding religion as a way to attract an audience.
CMPA Media Director Matthew Felling said one of the major reasons for increased coverage of religion is that “many times the voice of the religious figure is the voice of dissent. And those are the people who make news. People agreeing does not come across the front page.”
When it comes to dissent, the conservatives among the religious ranks in America appear to fascinate the media. Felling said that’s because devout believers are seen by journalists as being the last counterculture.
“In that vein, journalists like to scrutinize aberrant behavior, and they like to scrutinize aberrant philosophies. And as we’ve seen society move left over the years, the people who stayed on the right [were considered] aberrant,” Felling said. “… I just think it’s because the definition of news is that which is different, and the religious, and especially the conservative right, has become more and more different from the rest of society.”
Understanding what we say…
Still, the evidence suggested to the researchers that more than one side of the story is being told by today’s journalists. The study said “the past decade has brought increased attention and a more diverse perspective on religious news.”
Felling said there is no doubt that part of the more diverse perspective is “due to reporters’ fair-mindedness” in trying to accurately portray both sides of a story.
Whether motivated by fair-mindedness or a fascination with what they considered “odd-ball views,” journalists were being attentive to the views of traditional religion in the 1990s. Especially on topics dealing with sexuality, the media included conservative viewpoints more often than the liberal view.
On abortion, for example, the media cited pro-life opinions 76% of the time, with 24% of sources upholding a woman’s “right to choose.” On other issues the results were much the same: 61% opposed divorce (39% tolerated), and 65% opposed extramarital sex (35% tolerated).
…but not why we say it.
One of the areas of keen interest for CMPA researchers involved whether or not journalists paid any attention to the underlying religious beliefs of Christians.
“Every religion has a body of beliefs and practices that influences the attitudes and behavior of its members in the public and private spheres,” they wrote. “To determine whether this crucial dimension of religion was reflected in the [news] coverage, we noted whether any aspect of theology or spirituality was included in each discussion of religion.”
For example, researchers wrote, “to explain fundamentalist Christian opposition to abortion, a reporter might reference believers’ literal interpretations of the Ten Commandments.”
Unfortunately, the study found, there was “almost no consideration of theology in the media’s coverage of religion” – in fact, 93% of stories had none. Even when journalists did refer to theological considerations, the study said “America’s predominant Christian faiths – the Protestant and Catholic churches – were far less likely to have their beliefs noted.”
AFA President Donald E. Wildmon said he believes that is why the media is often biased toward religious conservatives. “To some extent, I think the majority of journalists in this country still don’t get it. That is, they really don’t understand conservative Christians,” he said. “They hear what we’re saying, but they really don’t understand why we’re saying it.”
Felling said he thought some of that might be changing. “I think we have moved as far as we will, and the pendulum has begun to swing back, and coverage will become more even-handed,” he said. “Church attendance has risen, understanding of different faiths is going to rise with it, and the information given to the audience will increase in quality, and most likely in quantity as well.”
Do Christians get it?
Mattingly, however, said when it came to the media, the problem for Christians is that they don’t get it. If a spiritual vacuum exists in newsrooms, he said there was no doubt whose fault it was.
“The main people I blame for that is the church and Christian colleges, for having gone two or three generations having made zero attempts to prepare anyone to work in secular media,” he said.
Would newsrooms hire Christian journalists? “If they’re great journalists with tons of story ideas and telephone numbers,” Mattingly insisted. “If they are committed, real journalists. Not little Christian journalists who write little Christian stories.”
But that’s the rub, he said. So many Christian writers would “rather stay home and be heroes in their own tiny little [religious] circle, than go out and have any impact in the public square.”
He added, “If cultural conservatives are upset about journalism, it’s because they are getting the journalism they deserve."
Media and religion: a test care
Disney/ABC special trashes Jesus and the Bible
If ever there was an opportunity for the media to prove that they intend to be fair-minded in their reporting on religious subjects, it was the June 26 Disney/ABC special, Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus.
After all, the title was apparently meant to portray Search as a journalistic endeavor, and ABC newsman Peter Jennings opened the program saying that he and the ABC crew “have been searching for Jesus – as reporters, that is.”
Unfortunately, the opportunity was not only squandered, but for those Christians who actually believe the Bible and saw the program, it was one more reason not to trust the secular media.
While no Christian would expect ABC to air a devotional documentary on Jesus Christ, the few comments made ahead of time by those involved with Search seemed to promise a lively debate on important topics. Executive producer Tom Yellin, for example, told TV Guide, “Our goal was to look at the scholarly landscape and try to determine who had the most thoughtful and serious things to say.”
That translated into an exclusive dinner party where the only guests invited were those who believed the Gospels are essentially myth. The disappointing and sad fact is not a single conservative scholar was shown – in two hours of prime-time television – explaining a different perspective about the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
While Jennings promised at the beginning of Search that he intended to be “respectful” of deeply held beliefs, the program very quickly took a rather formulaic approach to the Gospels: virtually every doctrine of consequence was gutted of all significance by liberal scholars.
One of the most disrespectful points made repeatedly by Search’s scholars was that the authors of the Gospels intentionally fabricated virtually everything in their writings.
About the miracles of Jesus, for example, Jennings said dismissively that “most scholars we talked to think these stories were invented by the Gospel writers as advertisements for Christianity in its early years. Christianity, after all, was competing for followers with Judaism and with Greek and Roman pagan religions.” Similar assertions were made about the virgin birth, the resurrection and all points in between.
Is this what Jennings meant about being “respectful” of the beliefs of Christians – by saying the authors of the Gospel, far from being inspired by God, were scoundrels who tried to con the ancient world?
It’s no wonder that conservative Christians perceive in the media a deeply rooted hostility toward their faith.
At numerous points during The Search for Jesus, Jennings said, “Many historians don’t believe” the Gospel narrative. But many historians and scholars do believe it – it was just a shame they weren’t allowed to say so on ABC.