We focus on religious groups as 'oddity.' This isn't to say it is odd, but the news media looks for the unique news value the public seems to be attracted to. —Debra Mason, Religion Newswriters Association
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.
A Muslim moment
Following a three-year trend, coverage of Muslims increased in 2011. Six of the year's top 10 stories were related to Islam. "Islam is getting more attention than usual, but that is because it is less familiar to people," Mason said. "The same goes for the Mormon church as well. We focus on religious groups as 'oddity.' This isn't to say it is odd, but the news media looks for the unique news value the public seems to be attracted to."
The biggest story about Islam centered on Rep. Peter King's (R-N.Y.) hearings in Congress about "radical Islam." As the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, King called for the hearings — bringing criticism that he was singling out American Muslims.
Media coverage called the hearings emotional and combatative — and epithets of "McCarthyism" and "political correctness" vied to define what each side saw in the other.
Other Islam-related coverage included the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment, 9/11 commemorations, Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden and Florida pastor Terry Jones burning a copy of the Koran.
"A lot of the way religion is covered is in reaction to controversy and violence and trauma," Kaleem said. "There is not a lot of practical coverage of religion as a part of everyday life."
Edmonds agrees. "There is some tendency to say conflict and extreme positions are newsworthy, and there is less of an inclination to look at religion's role in everyday life and its different meanings among people," he said.
The other top stories bear out Kaleem and Edmonds' observations. Westboro church protests, the Catholic priest abuse scandal and religion and education issues rounded out the top stories.
But as big as many of these religion stories may seem, they are dwarfed by the coverage given government agencies and legislatures (12.8 percent), general campaign and political news (10.6 percent), U.S. foreign affairs (9.9 percent), the economy (9 percent) and crime (5.7 percent).
Pew broke down the religion stories to see which religious groups received the most coverage. The largest groups received a large share of the coverage — Protestantism getting 20.1 percent of the coverage and Catholicism receiving 11.3 percent. Islam received the greatest proportion of coverage with 31.3 percent of religion stories. The LDS Church had 9.6 percent of the religious coverage.
For all the stories, one quarter focused on beliefs and practices of many different faiths. But almost the same amount of stories, 21.6 percent, featured religious violence and extremism — most of those concentrating on extremists allegedly among Muslims.
"We are always missing the stories of religions cooperating and the good works of faith communities," Mason said. "Many stories are harder to write and tend to be missed unless you have a religion specialist."
The Pew Research Center has looked at religion coverage for the last five years. The studies show that religion is rarely covered. In 60 months, religion hovered between 1 and 2 percent — but rarely higher. Most of that coverage was event-driven and ignored deeper questions of faith. The two biggest stories over the five years? The building of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" and pastor Jones' announcing he was going to burn a Koran.
The survey also looked at the religion stories that were biggest in social media. Like mainstream media, religion overall received less attention than other news. In most years, the top topics in social media were similar to mainstream media coverage. In 2011, however, the topics didn't align. The top subjects were Harold Camping's rapture prediction, an LA Times op-ed article on science and religion, a speech by the Dalai Lama, the national Day of Prayer and the Presbyterian Church allowing gay members to serve.
But as compelling as some of the flashier stories about religion may be, Kaleem believes there can be more to religion reporting than conflict. "Religion is a big and important part of people's lives," he said, "and more reporting on it would lead to more understanding and help us all get along better."