Faith and presidential politics, especially as it relates to Mitt Romney and Mormonism, was the top faith-related news story of 2011, according to a new analysis released today by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. "Overall, religion accounted for 0.7 percent of all mainstream media coverage studied in 2011, down from 2.0 percent in 2010," Pew officials said in a news release. "In the 52 news outlets monitored throughout the year, including the evening TV news programs, newspaper front pages, top cable news programs, top news websites and top radio programs, religion received about as much coverage as race/gender/gay issues (0.8 percent) and immigration (0.7 percent)." Read: When journalists cover religion While presidential politics was the top faith story of 2011, six of the top 10 stories had to do with Islam. Here's the top 10:
The sixth Muslim-related story in the top 10 had to do with the death of Osama bin Laden. Some of this coverage looked at the ritual aspect of the terrorist leader's death and burial. A significant number of stories looked at joyous feelings so many Americans felt at his passing, and wondered if it was appropriate for people of faith to rejoice at someone's death – even someone who was considered a villainous despot.
According to Pew, there was "a mix of unrelated stories about the intersection of religion and education." Collectively, these stories accounted for 2.1 percent of the religion coverage in 2011.
The religious underpinnings of the "Arab Spring" revolutions that swept through countries like Egypt and Libya inspired stories on the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the precarious state of Coptic Christians. Since the revolutions, the national media has also been examining the new regimes and their respective positions on religious freedom.
The threats by Florida pastor Terry Jones to publicly burn a copy of the Quran generated a lot more attention in 2010, when it accounted for 14.5 percent of the religion coverage for the year, than it did in 2011, when it garnered 3.7 percent of the coverage. In fact, the overall coverage of Jones' threats to burn the Quran was far more extensive than the coverage in March when he actually carried through on his threat.
Coverage of sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church was down from 2010, but still comprised 29 percent of the total news coverage of the Catholic Church. Much of that coverage focused on the Philadelphia archdiocese's suspension of 21 priests in March as a result of an extensive sex-abuse investigation.
Many news organizations used the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to look at the religious implications of events 10 years ago. Some of the coverage looked at how the tragedy affected the faith of victim families and others who were involved at Ground Zero, while others explored how American Muslims have been impacted in the aftermath.
The controversial Topeka, Kan., church attracted 4.4 percent of faith-based news coverage for 2011. A big chunk of that coverage occurred in early March, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the First Amendment protects the church's right to conduct anti-gay protests at military funerals.
While not tied to any specific event, news stories involving anti-Muslim sentiment – including both stories about anger or distrust and stories in defense of the faith – made up nearly 7 percent of all religion coverage in 2011. Much of this coverage came from cable TV talk shows, the Pew study said.
The top Islam-related story of the year focused on the March 10 hearing on the subject of radical Islam organized by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). Although a Washington Post headline said the hearing had "Plenty of drama, less substance," the story dominated the news from March 7-13.
If it felt like there was an awfully lot of news coverage of Mitt Romney and Mormonism, it's only because there was. According to Pew, 13.1 percent of all religion coverage had to do with the U.S. presidential election campaign, and more than half of that coverage focused on Romney and his LDS faith. The Robert Jeffress incident – in which the Texas pastor referred to Mormonism as a "cult" – clearly focused the spotlight on Romney's faith, and the light hasn't dimmed.