The Religious Right is famous for bashing the news media as “godless” and “anti-Christian,” but a new study by a liberal media-watchdog group says coverage of religion is in fact overwhelmingly tilted to over-represent conservative views.
Tuesday’s report, titled “Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media,” found conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned and interviewed by newspapers and television nearly three times as often as progressive religious leaders.
Media Matters for America said it undertook the study in large part because of the media’s emphasis on the role of “values voters” in the 2004 elections, a vague term referring to conservative voters motivated by opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion on demand.
While exit polls showed large numbers of voters identified “moral issues” as the most important issue determining how they voted, the report said, subsequent polls showed that most people ranked the Iraq war, greed, poverty and economic justice–ahead of abortion and gay marriage–as the most urgent moral issues confronting America.
While the media’s “discovery” of religion in 2004 could have been a positive development, the study said, reporting since then has misled the public. While most Americans are moderate or progressive, it said, the news media regularly present conservative leaders as the voice of faith.
“I have long felt the media have given Americans a distorted view of what people of faith believe,” said Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches. “This research from Media Matters proves that.”
The report said the media under-report the perspective of progressive religious leaders–who tend to focus on different issues and offer a different perspective than their conservative counterparts–to present a picture where religious conservatives are one side and secular liberals on the other.
“This important report makes a compelling case that Americans may be getting an incomplete story,” said Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for Common Good. “It’s a story that too often features strident commentary from the usual suspects, divisive culture warriors with a message that fails to speak to the fullness of our rich faith traditions.”
But Robert Knight of the conservative Media Research Council found fault with methods used in the study.
Media Matters looked at news stories including mentions, quotes or interviews of 20 major religious leaders–10 conservatives and 10 progressives. The study defined “religious leaders” as clergy or officials of religious organizations who are called upon to offer a religious perspective on current events.
The study treated separately what it termed political “celebrities” who happen to be religious figures–Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton on the left and James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right. Since Jackson and Sharpton were mentioned more often that the other three, Knight said on the Christian Broadcasting Network, the findings are suspect.
Knight also said the mainstream media have a legitimate interest in seeking out religious conservatives. “Religious liberals march in lockstep with the liberal, secular media, so they have to go to conservatives to get controversy, because that’s what makes news,” he said.
The study said religion coverage as it exists today does a disservice to the public in two major ways.
“First, the distorted picture allows a vocal minority to exercise an outsized influence on the issues and politicians that shape the direction of the country,” the report said.
“The second disservice is in the opportunity cost of neglecting to offer a more accurate picture of religiosity and its effects on political views: More than eight in 10 Americans, consistently across virtually every religious tradition, agree that too many leaders use religion to talk about abortion and gay rights, but don’t talk about more important things like loving your neighbor and caring for the poor. This is particularly notable in a country with higher rates of religious observance than nearly any other industrialized nation.”
Edgar challenged the media to “now seek the balance so many of them profess to have as they continue to report issues of religion and its impact on our society, government and the American culture.”
Knight said it isn’t enough to say there are more conservatives cited in the media.
“It’s what did they let them say,” he maintained. “Often they’ll let the liberal give a heartfelt argument for that point of view, and then they’ll allow the conservative one of the weakest points a conservative made.
“Having been in journalism and seeing that side of it, and having been on the other side of the camera and the notepad, I can tell you often the most powerful points are just thrown into a wastebasket if you’re the conservative.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.