Study Debunks Myths About Newspaper Religion Beat
This article originally appeared in Issue# 50
Newspaper coverage of religion has long been one of the backwaters of American journalism. The religion beat has generally held lower status (where it exists at all) than other positions at newspapers, and stories on religion (if they appear) either get short shrift or are relegated to the Saturday "church page."
Several perceptions seem to underlie this approach to religion news. First, many journalists are convinced that we are in a period of secularization, with fewer and fewer people either actively religious or interested in religion. This perception is reinforced by declines in church membership over the past 25 years, and a seeming decline in the moral authority of the once-dominant "establishment" churches of America.
Journalists also tend to believe that newspaper readers are primarily interested in religion as a local or parochial story. They are convinced that readers are interested in news about their own local church and its bake sales, but in little else.
A third, related misperception is that religious news consciousness is a regional phenomenon, with the most concentrated interest in rural areas and the traditional "Bible Belt" of the South and Southwest. If this were true, it would follow that newspapers in those areas, and particularly newspapers in smaller communities, would be the ones doing the best job of covering religion.
I recently served as principal investigator of a major study of religion reporting and readership. Researchers from Temple University working in cooperation with the Religious News Service with funding by Lilly Endowment conducted national surveys, in-depth studies in congregations and interviews with religion journalists and their supervisors at newspapers around the country. As research progressed, we found that many of the preconceptions were myths.
We also discovered that the impact of news about religion was of even more profound importance to readers than we had thought. Newspaper readers are far more likely to be interested in religion and in religion news than is often suspected. The vast majority of readers consider religion to be important in their lives, and two-thirds of them feel that it is important for newspapers they read to cover religion.
Readers did not consider news about religion the most important subject newspapers covered. But they did rank it in the middle of a comparison of importance – even above sports! Survey data also showed that readers look to newspapers to cover religion in general, not just news of their own church or faith group. They want newspapers to inform them about such things as world religions, the role of religion in politics and foreign affairs, and the positions of major faith groups on social and ethical issues. Readers and journalists agreed that the religion beat is changing, however.
While most readers expressed dissatisfaction with religion coverage, there is a general perception that religion finds its way onto the front page more and more frequently. Many of these stories demand coverage on their own merits, but there may be a new mood of openness and interest in religion news growing as newspapers come to understand it as a diverse, multifaceted and rich beat.