Religion in American Newspapers
April 30, 2003
The Study: Methodology
The aim of the study was to survey and analyze the portrayal of religion in U.S. newspapers in a way that advances discussion of and with members of the press and the public.
The study is based on three premises:
- The press is the principle source of “popular knowledge” (information about the day-to-day lives that Americans lead), and therefore, people learn and form opinions about other peoples' religion, beliefs, and worship based in large part on what they read in daily newspapers.
- Newspapers have an obligation to educate as well as to inform, and readers expect what they read to be accurate and true.
- Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Freedom of religion is a basic American civil right, and religions from the full range of the world’s cultures flourish together here as they do no where else. On September 11, 2001, religion emerged clearly as a global force as well. The assaults on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in rural Pennsylvania brought distant and complex religious values directly into the center of American life. No longer can people imagine that religion is only local or national. Religiously, there is one world, and the stakes in understanding the visions and hopes of the world’s religions are higher now than ever.
The study surveyed coverage of religion in U.S. newspapers by looking at a cross section of major national and metropolitan newspapers from coast to coast and border to border. The papers studied for one month (February 3-March 2, 2003) were: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, and USA Today.
The Study: Key Findings
- Religion is mentioned far more often than it is the subject of a story.
- Religion is widely used as a criterion of identity.
- Religion stories most frequently describe religion in political and legal terms
- Coverage of the religious lives of African-Americans, Hispanics, and women is disproportionately low.
- Coverage of Islam is disproportionate to the percentage of Muslims in the U.S. its coverage is predominantly associated with criminality and bad deeds.
- Roman Catholicism is more often linked with bad deeds and criminality than with catholic beliefs and values.
- Coverage of Protestantism, Judaism, and other religions is more balanced than coverage of Catholicism.
- Coverage of religion in response to tragedy and death was more generic than particular.
- Coverage of the Iraqi war presented religious anti-war views more prominently than pro-war views.
- Print popularization of some religious terms is widespread. However, these terms are often used incorrectly.
- Religion sections appear in a minority of newspapers. These sections treat religions in depth and show how beliefs, values, and practices relate to and influence their readers’ lives.
- Some newspapers reflect better than others their community and religion’s beliefs, values, and practices.
The Study: Recommendations
- Remember that context is the key to the complete reporting of a story.
- Distinguish between the group and the action.
- Consider a religion section.
- Accentuate religion close to home.
- Be balanced in terms of coverage.
- Reflect a newspaper’s region and country.
- Develop a means of obtaining advice and expertise about religion.
The Study: Participants
- Fred Barnes, Executive Editor, The Weekly Standard, and Fox News Commentator, Washington, DC
- Michael Barone, Senior Writer, U.S. News & World Report, and Fox News Commentator, Washington, DC
- Susan Lee, Editorial Board, The Wall Street Journal, New York, NY
- Karen Magnuson, Editor & Vice President/News, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Rochester, NY
- Walter Shapiro, Columnist, USA Today, Reston, VA
- Juan Williams, Senior National Correspondent, National Public, Washington, DC
- John Zogby, President and CEO, Zogby International, Ithaca, NY
- William S. Green, Dean of The College, Professor of Religion, Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Judaic Studies
- Curt Smith, Professor, National Public Radio commentator, Messenger-Post Newspaper columnist, speechwriter for former President George H.W. Bush
- Todd Hildebrandt, Research Assistant and Teaching Fellow, Grand Junction, CO
Aaron Anderson, Syracuse, NY
Meghan Barritt, Burlington, VT
Stacey Rae Benner, Rochester, NY
Corinne Carpenter, Johnson City, NY
Gregg Chesney, Dresher, PA
Maxwell Cooper, Bethesda, MD
Melissa Dupere, Strafford, NH
Jonathan Ferland, Cumberland, RI
Melissa Gonzalez, New York, NY
Bryan Gross, Santa Monica, CA
Talia Guttin, Philadelphia, PA
Rebecca Kanengieter, Owatonna, MN
Shahrzad Kardooni, Syracuse, NY
Amy Kuenzi, Burnett, WI
Meghna Kumar, Ryebrook, NY
Jessica Maglietto, Buffalo, NY
Ryan Montgomery, Idaho Falls, ID
Hannah Newborn, Washington, DC
Joseph Ortunno, Queensbury, NY
Valerie Palermo, Greece, NY
Jonathan Rettinger, Santa Ana, CA
Andrew Rosenthal, Brooklyn, NY
Brian Scharfenberg, Rochester, NY
Adam Sherman, Water Mill, NY
Theresa Spaulding, Cortland, NY
Nicole Strait, Rochester, NY
Jessica Torrence, Miami, FL
Teresa Tygert, Schenectady, NY
Matthew Willyard, Manlius, NY