WASHINGTON — The biggest religion story of the year was "Religion in the 2012 election," and the biggest chunk of that coverage was presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Mormon faith.
Every year the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life analyzes the mainstream media's coverage of religion.
In 2010, religion took up 2 percent of the "newshole" — the total coverage of all subjects by the news media. That was a banner year for religion coverage and some hoped it would be a trend. But in 2011 the total amount of religion coverage dropped to 0.7 percent of total news coverage. That is about the same amount of coverage given race/gender/gay issues (0.8 percent) and immigration (0.7 percent).
Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association and a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri wasn't surprised at the decline in coverage of religion in 2011. "In 2010, there were a few particular stories that got a lot of attention and increased the overall coverage of religion," she said.
None of the top religion stories of 2011 had the same impact.
Rick Edmonds is a media business analyst at Poynter Institute, a non-profit school of journalism located in St. Petersburg, Fla. He organized the institute's conference last December called "Politics and Religion: Getting it Right."
One of the topics discussed at the conference, he said, was how for many people in the newsroom, religion is not a great part of their lives. This doesn't mean they don't want to get religion right, but that certain topics are going to be noticed more often than others.
"In past years, the trigger for religion stories has been event driven," Edmonds said, "more often than not a pastor saying something screwy."
And that is what happened to Romney.
Candidates and religion
The Pew Research Center measured the top religion stories of 2011 and found the presidential campaign generated the most coverage. One candidate, Romney, accounted for half of all that religion coverage. And the biggest story on Romney and his faith was when Texas evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress introduced Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7. After the event Jeffress called Romney's faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a cult.
Jaweed Kaleem, a religion reporter for The Huffington Post, said the coverage of Romney was mostly kept within certain parameters. "The coverage of Mitt Romney's faith hasn't been about what Mormons believe," he said. "It is more about who would not vote for him because he is a Mormon and why."
The reason more reporters don't go more in depth into religious beliefs is because it isn't easy and they are not really writing about religion. "It is always related to more popular topics such as politics, war and terrorism," Kaleem said.
"It is the same-old same-old," Mason said. "We haven't broken out of reporting 'religion as conflict' or 'religion of the day.'"
The interest in Romney's Mormonism continued after the Jeffress flap — but with less impact. His faith was mostly cited as only one possible explanation why he hadn't completely nailed down the Republican nomination.
In contrast, only 5 percent of the religious stories about the campaign focused on President Barack Obama.
And compared to the run-up 2008 presidential election, interest in religion is much lower so far. In 2007 the coverage on religion in the election was 23.8 percent of all religion coverage. In 2011 it was only 13.1 percent.
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