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TV news still ignores religion; prime time increases, studies show

WASHINGTON (BP)–Religion continues to get short shrift from television network news, but its portrayal in prime-time entertainment shows made a dramatic leap upward last year, according to recently announced studies.

While coverage of religion stayed below 2 percent of all news stories on network television in 1996, the number of depictions of spirituality on prime-time TV increased to 436 last year from 287 in 1995, the Media Research Center and an affiliate reported.

The upswing in portrayals of religion on prime-time TV is tempered by other findings:

— There was only one depiction of religion in every four hours of programming.

— Though religion in general was portrayed positively by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, the laity is depicted negatively four times as often as it is positively.

Meanwhile, a recent survey commissioned by TV Guide showed 56 percent of adults polled believe religion does not receive enough attention on prime-time TV and only one-third of those surveyed think prime time accurately portrays the characters’ spiritual sides.

At a West Coast news conference March 25, the Parents Television Council, the Media Research Center’s Los Angeles affiliate, released its findings on prime time’s increased attention to religion.

“The good news is that shows like ‘Touched by an Angel,’ ‘Promised Land,’ ‘7th Heaven’ and others depict religion and faith positively,” actor Dean Jones said in a prepared statement.

“I wish more shows would follow their lead. The bad news … is that nearly seven out of 10 laypeople — people like me — are portrayed negatively on prime-time television,” said Jones, a professing Christian and an advisory board member for the Parents Television Council.

Aided by such shows as “Touched by an Angel” and “Promised Land,” CBS easily outdistanced the other five networks studied with 172 depictions of religion. NBC, with 87 portrayals, and Fox, with 83, were second and third, respectively. ABC, Warner Brothers and UPN trailed far behind.

CBS and ABC easily led the others in the positive-to-negative ratio of overall religious depictions. Fox was the only network with more negative than positive treatments.

In recommending the networks present more “faith friendly” shows, the Parents Television Council said in its report it was not referring to series “featuring angels, or even clergymen. Rather, we would merely like to see a small-screen depiction that indicates religion’s importance to everyday Americans . … Whether it’s a child praying before bedtime or a family attending a service, religion is an indispensable part of life for tens of millions, and prime time’s fully recognizing this would be most welcome.”

The TV Guide survey, reported in its March 29 issue, also found:

— 68 percent of adults are eager to see more spirituality on prime time.

— 82 percent would like more references to moral issues.

— 61 percent believe TV has become less spiritual and less moral in the last five years.

When asked to name the most spiritually rich prime-time show, 66 percent chose “Touched by an Angel,” TV Guide reported. ABC’s “Family Matters” was a distant second at 6 percent.

TV Guide also reported at least four new shows concerning angels, spirits or ministers are being prepared for next season.

The trend in coverage of religion by television news is not as encouraging.

On the evening news, religion stories increased from 249 to 269 in 1996, according to the Media Research Center, but that was only 1.5 percent of some 18,000 stories telecast on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and PBS. On the morning news, the increase was from 224 to 258, only 1 percent of some 26,000 stories shown on ABC, CBS and NBC.

In the four years MRC has tracked network news, only 1.3 percent of evening news stories have been devoted to religious topics, while 0.8 percent of morning stories have covered spiritual issues.

“With this evidence before us, it raises the question: What have religious people done to the networks to deserve this annual slighting, this clear signal that religion isn’t important enough to make the news?” said MRC chairman Brent Bozell in a March 25 news conference in Washington.

Among newsworthy religious subjects in 1996 that received no attention from the networks, Bozell said, were the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which has a larger monetary award than the Nobel prizes; the growing debate over evolution; the State Department’s establishment of a committee on religious liberty overseas; and the role of faith-based charities in solving such problems as welfare reform.

ABC, the lone network with a religion reporter, had the most religion stories on the evening news with 76. On the morning news, NBC had the most with 112. Bozell praised the work of Peggy Wehmeyer, ABC’s religion reporter.
MRC has recommended the networks hire religion reporters, present religious leaders’ social positions in a respectful manner and report church controversies fairly.

“Virtually no recommendation has been taken seriously,” said Bozell, who said print journalism is doing a “pretty good job” in its religion coverage.

“There is a bigotry against the notion of covering a religious story,” he said. “It’s not a bigotry against religious people or religion itself. … but there is a narrow-minded intolerance towards covering religion in this country on the national networks.”