Survey: Media Does a 'Poor Job' of Explaining Religion, and Especially TV News

A new survey on religion and journalism released on Thursday by two collegiate study groups -- the Knight Program in Media and Religion at USC and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron -- found a majority of both the public and reporters agree the news media “does a poor job of explaining religion in society,” with 57.1 percent and 51.8 percent agreeing, respectively.

Both the public and reporters ranked TV news lowest in the quality and quantity of religion coverage compared to other media with 28.1 percent of the public and 8 percent of reporters responding that broadcast news provided “good” religion coverage. The reporters have seen more: TV coverage of religion is often terrible -- when you can find it. (See our new MRC survey, Secular Snobs.)

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Two-thirds of the American public says religion coverage is too sensationalized in the news media – a view held by less than 30 percent of reporters. And less than one-fifth of journalists, or 18.9 percent, say they are “very knowledgeable” about religion. Most reporters in that minority say they are mainly familiar with their own religious traditions, not the wider array of faiths and practices. This is not shocking, even if it is saddening.

The American public sees religion in starkly polarized terms.  A narrow majority, 52.6 percent, sees it as a fount of good, while 43.6 percent believes religion is to blame as a source of conflict in the world. Most reporters, 56.1 percent, consider religion to be a mixed bag, offering both benefits and drawbacks for society. But only 3.8 percent of the general public shares this more circumspect angle on religion.

Most reporters believe their audiences want personality-driven religion news related to specific institutions and events. But 69.7 percent of Americans say they’re interested in more complex coverage that looks at religious experiences and spiritual practice. Those don't seem "newsworthy" to journalists.

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