Newspapers Fall Short on Religious Accuracy and Context, Study Alleges

Steve Brown | Key Life Radio Host and Bible Teacher | Monday, May 12, 2003

Newspapers Fall Short on Religious Accuracy and Context, Study Alleges

( - Daily newspapers have "significant gaps in providing readers with an understanding of religious beliefs and practices," a University of Rochester (N.Y.) study reveals.

"On the one hand, religion pervades America's newspapers," Curt Smith, former presidential speechwriter and senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester said in a release. "On the other, stories about religion rarely discuss its beliefs, values and practices."

The study, which was conducted by faculty members and students in the university's department of classics, examined 12 daily newspapers between Feb. 3 and March 2.

"Since September 11, America's stakes in understanding the visions and hopes of the world's religions are higher now than ever," William Scott Green, professor of religion, and Phillip Bernstein, University of Rochester dean, said in a release. "For most Americans, the press is a primary source of information about other people's religions.

"Knowing what Americans see every day helps explain how and what we learn about one another," Green and Bernstein stated.

Reacting to the study, political commentator and writer Michael Barone said: "The amount of church news seemed to be proportionate to the church-going habits of the elites in a particular metropolitan area.

"In Dallas and Atlanta, where a lot of elite people go to church, they printed a lot more church news than in New York or Washington, where most of the elite don't go to church," Barone said.

Barone, a senior writer for U.S. News World Report magazine and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics, took part in a roundtable discussion of the study with other prominent journalists at the university this past week.

According to the press release, students "read every story in every section of 12 newspapers from around the country to quantify and analyze the content and context of articles referencing religion."

Key findings of the study included:

-- Religion stories most often described religion in political and legal terms, using religious terms without a frame of reference.

A Feb. 8 Los Angeles Times story dealt with an orthodox Jewish group's request to erect a religious enclosure around part of a neighborhood to perform daily activities such as pushing a stroller.

"There was, however, no further detail about the nature of orthodox Jewish beliefs that would explain these practices to the reader," the Rochester study stated.

-- Coverage of Islam is primarily associated with criminal activity and other bad deeds but minimizes Islam's larger teachings and practices, particularly in America.

As evidence, the study cited another Feb. 8 story, this time on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, with the headline, "Terror Threat Level Is Raised to 'High Risk,'" with the subtitle, "Intelligence shows an increased chance of an al Qaeda attack keyed to the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Hajj."

Appearing adjacent to the story was a photo of two Middle Eastern men next to a missile.

"We observed the trend of connecting Islamic practices with terrorism in each study paper," the University of Rochester researchers stated. "Many stories offered credible evidence for such linkage. They did not, however, elaborate on the beliefs and practices associated with the Hajj.

"This omission may reinforce the perception that Islam promotes terrorism," the study pointed out.

-- Roman Catholicism was more often linked with criminal or bad behavior than with Catholic beliefs and values.

"In several newspapers, we found stories of the sexual abuse scandal that repeated information already reported on in a prior story," the study stated.

It detailed a Feb. 14 Boston Globe item, which "contained an obituary of a priest that included in-depth coverage about the sex-abuse scandal of which he was not a part."

-- Coverage of the war with Iraq presented religious, anti-war views more prominently than pro-war views, often citing politics, safety and public opinion in support of that position.

The University of Rochester report noted that anti-war spokespeople "often included the National Council of Churches and Pope John Paul II" to support their point of view.

"The March 2 Seattle Post Intelligencer said that many Catholics would like the pope to visit America, talk to President Bush and 'avert this slaughter,'" the study said. "The same day, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted seven people who opposed the war, including Quaker leaders, Presbyterian and Baptist ministers, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."

The Rochester study issued recommendations for how daily newspapers could improve their religious coverage. "Remember that context is the key to the complete reporting of a story; distinguish between the group and the action; and consider a religion section," the report urged, noting, however, that both the Dallas Morning News and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution already have such sections.

It also recommended that daily papers accentuate religion "close to home," be balanced in terms of coverage, reflect both the newspaper's region and country; and develop a means of obtaining advice and expertise about religion.

A similar 1997 study undertaken by the Media Research Center examined religion in entertainment television. It found that for every positive depiction of the devout laity, there were 10 negative ones.

"While positive portrayals of the clergy (barely) outnumbered negative ones, entertainment television continues to slam the devout laity for their beliefs," the 1997 report said.

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