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Is the national news media biased in its coverage of faith issues?

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (BP)–Despite increasing coverage of religion on network television, does the news media maintain a bias against traditional forms of Christianity?

Media Research Center (MRC), a conservative media watchdog group, thinks so. It cites findings in a recently completed survey to back up its claims.

However, the executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association responds that MRC has it “all wrong.” Debra Mason said the Media Research Center is relying on outdated, stereotypical information in painting a picture of a largely secular press.

The disagreement stems from MRC’s one-year-long study of TV religion stories that concluded Feb. 29. It found that ABC, CBS and NBC aired 699 segments overall, compared to 336 in a study during the 1993 calendar year.

However, Tim Graham, MRC’s director of media analysis, said the coverage usually featured a skeptical tone.

Graham said the media cover religious issues much like they cover political debates. They turn to scholars who question the Bible’s authenticity — a view he says doesn’t match most Americans’ religious beliefs.

“Even when the amount of religion news increases, the media’s tone remains cold, questioning, even hostile,” Graham said. “The more traditional or orthodox the religious belief, and the more influential it threatens to become in the culture at large, the more the television networks seem to explain it away, as something ‘scholars’ and ‘experts’ dismiss.”

In addition to religion coverage doubling, the MRC said it discovered:

— Among all religious groups the Catholic church received the most coverage on the evening news (75 stories), while coverage of Islam rose dramatically.

While the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate received significant coverage, media outlets continued to run stories on sexual abuse by priests and other ministerial failings, the MRC said.

Coverage of Islam appeared in 62 stories, much of it concerning religious freedom in Iraq. The 13 stories on Islam in America mainly portrayed Muslims as victims of discrimination, the report said.

— Reporters often approach religious issues from a secular and political perspective.

The MRC used the case of openly homosexual Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson as an example, saying reporters focused on political and cultural angles rather than scriptural or theological matters.

“On CBS’ ‘The Early Show’ … reporter Gretchen Carlson declared: ‘It was a landmark moment as Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop,” the report said.

The focus of the story, the report said, “was reserved for the gay protagonist and his worldview.”

— The MRC said most network coverage was hostile to orthodox faiths and supportive of minority religions and progressive fads.

It pointed to the contrast between Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of The Christ,” and novelist Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code.” The latter suggests that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered her child.

For example, the report said ABC’s “Primetime” devoted an hour each to the movie and the book. Gibson’s epic was shown as divisive and scary while Brown’s theories reported as mellow and intriguing, it said.

— The media’s Rolodex of religion experts was dominated by those hostile to religious orthodoxy.

In religion stories, networks favored scholars and journalists who question orthodox religion and the accuracy of the Gospels, but did not describe them as liberals or secularists, the report said.

For instance, in ABC’s special on “The DaVinci Code,” the network used 58 sound bites in favor of the liberal theological interpretation, compared to 10 opposed, the report stated.

Commenting on the survey, MRC founder L. Brent Bozell said the media’s habit of accentuating the negative can be seen through devoting half its evening-news stories on the Catholic church to clerical sexual abuse.

Meanwhile, the quiet work of the faithful goes on without media interest, Bozell wrote in a syndicated column.

The MRC chief also lamented hostility to most traditional religious interpretations, such as Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”

While suicide bombers are blowing up buses in Israel and anti-Semitism is on the march in Europe, TV networks point to the danger zone as the space between Gibson’s ears, Bozell said.

“In short, the media have taken a burst of passionate Christian enthusiasm for an orthodox movie, and responded with a vision of religion programming that too often dismisses rather than debates that very orthodox vision,” Bozell said.

“When surveys of the national media have shown that half of journalists are religiously unaffiliated and 86 percent never attend church or synagogue, it’s not a surprise that they just don’t get it.”

However, Mason of the Religion Newswriters Association told Baptist Press Bozell’s assertion stems from a narrow study of 240 journalists in New York and Washington, D.C. in 1979-80.

Despite updates showing more prevalent religious belief among journalists, Mason said the old study has been repeated endlessly.

A 1992 survey of 1,400 journalists by David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit showed journalists’ religiosity generally mirrors that of the population as a whole, Mason said.

She said in a 1996 Religion Newswriters Association study of more than 250 religion reporters, three-fourths said religion was “important” or “very important” in their personal lives.

Mason also questioned the accuracy of MRC’s report, saying its look at alleged biases uses simplistic labeling and other indicators to identify problems.

For example, counting “liberal” or “conservative” tags of scholars relies on qualitative interpretation of phrases, she said. Mason called that unreliable as a neutral, social science technique.

“The real culprit in coverage problems of religion news is not an intentional liberal slant,” Mason said. “Rather, it is ignorance from reporters unaware of the complex diversity of religious belief.”

Two Southern Baptist commentators with media roots said the survey emphasizes the need for Christians to take a more pro-active stance in dealing with reporters.

Former television reporter Lawrence Smith said the church must shoulder some of the blame for any misunderstandings or hostility toward it.

“For too long, Christians have cursed the darkness,” said Smith, now vice president for communications at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “It is time we began lighting candles. We must view the media as we would any ‘unreached people group.’”

Smith said Christians must become more intentional about taking the Gospel into newsrooms, both praying for reporters and encouraging other believers to enter the field of journalism.

Dwayne Hastings, editor of Faith & Family Magazine — published by the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission — said Christians can’t expect secular reporters to offer accurate representations of their faith. But Christians can offer to assist them in understanding Christianity’s tenets, he added.

“(We can) ask that the playing field be level in news stories pertaining to any faith,” Hastings said. “If you have a concern about a news story you read or view, communicate your concerns to that media outlet.

“It is a given that the national press focuses on the most sensational stories, which typically are not flattering to our faith. The real stories are Christians serving quietly and changing lives in Christ’s name. While reporters look for the chinks in Christians’ armor, we need to be diligent telling the story of what Christ did for mankind by every means God provides.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker