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Associated Press

Defying some claims saying faith-fueled fervor in the U.S. is in decline, 2010 marked a year rife with religious interest and exposure.

According to a new study done by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, religion garnered more attention from mainstream media in 2010 than in any other year since the Pew Research Center began measuring the topic, starting in 2007.

Fueled by ongoing debates and national controversy, three main events — the plan to build an Islamic community center near ground zero, Pastor Terry Jones' threat to organize a public banning of the Quran and the Catholic clergy abuse scandal — accounted for 56 percent of religious news coverage in the U.S. in 2010.

Surpassing science, education and immigration, religion coverage more than doubled, jumping from 0.8 percent of the overall news in 2009 — where it has hovered in the two years previous — to 2 percent in 2010.

Jesse Holcomb, research associate at the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said storylines and controversies related to Islam dominated U.S. media coverage, capturing more attention than any other religious topic in the mainstream media or blogosphere.

"Those events and various storylines all sort of coincided around the same time in a slow point in the news cycle during the summer," he said. "[It is] possible one of the reasons Islam-related themes were part of the religious news narrative was the coincidence of the timing of these events … [and] the media found connective tissue."

In the first year since the Pew Research Center began tracking religion coverage, 2010 marked the first time neither the Catholic Church nor American politics claimed the top religious story, Holcomb said, calling the pope and the president "the biggest newsmakers." Instead, four out of five of the top stories were related to Islam.

The landscape of the blogosphere also reflected the rise in faith-based news interest with religion showing up as a hot topic among bloggers more often than traditional news outlets, the study reports.

With the help of Crimson Hexagon, a social media monitor that provides a statistical analysis of the online conversation, the researchers attempted to analyze the tone of the conversation regarding the Park 51 establishment near ground zero.

"We found that there was quite a divide in the attitudes among bloggers about that issue," Holcomb said. "The majority of the conversation was based solely in one point of view or the other. [It is] one of those topics that seem tailor made for an intense and violent debate in the blogs. Certain issues or events are able to catalyze a large community of passionate and opinionated individuals. This particular storyline was one of those issues."

As media across the board increased religious content due to highly controversial issues, coverage in 2010 continued to focus on domestic affairs.

National stories took up 70.3 percent of religion coverage in the mainstream American media, while only 18.9 percent dealt with international events.

"I suppose the biggest reason for the emphasis on domestic news is that we study the American press and these news organizations are going to be more interested in focusing on religious matters at home," Holcomb said.

"Even if they have foreign implications, they'll look for a domestic hook. Lots of the religious news stories will be focusing on trend pieces — things happenings in churches, mosques and synagogues throughout the country."

With speculation over potential presidential candidates and continuing turmoil in the Middle East, 2011 could prove to be another notable year in the media's religious coverage.

Top Religion Stories in 2010

Percent of mainstream religion coverage devoted to each subjet

22.7 percent 51 Park Place controversy

18.8 percent Catholic priest abuse scandal

14.5 percent Terry Jones Koran burning

6.0 percent Religion and Obama administration

4.7 percent Sept. 11 commemorations

2.3 percent Westboro church protests

1.7 percent Rev. Eddie Long sex scandal

1.5 percent Pope Benedict visit to U.K.

1.5 percent Religion in the midterm elections

1.4 percent Education and religion issues

Source: Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Selected Topics in the U.S. Media, 2010

Percent of mainstream media coverage devoted to each subject

11.9 percent Elections/campaigns/politics

9.3 percent U.S. foreign affairs/diplomacy

8.3 percent Economy

2.0 percent Religion

1.7 percent Science/technology

1.6 percent Education

1.6 percent Immigration

1.1 percent Race and gender issues

Source: Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

e-mail: clarson@desnews.com