Everyone knows that journalism has serious, largely self-inflicted problems. A new survey from the Faith & Media Initiative explores the generally unfortunate ways in which it intersects with religion.
(Yes, the topic is serious, but the picture is funny. Hey, nuns read newspapers too.)
How do people see the media?
But first, let’s see what people generally think of the media. A June 2021 report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford said:
The United States ranks last for trust in the media – at 29% – among 92,000 news consumers surveyed in 46 countries, according to a report released Wednesday. It’s worse than Poland, worse than the Philippines, worse than Peru. (Finland leads with 65%).
Lest you say, “Oh, so be it. We do not care? A pox on all their houses! I would like to highlight a comment by Thomas Jefferson. Writing to Edward Carrington of Paris in January 1787, he observed (emphasis mine):
… the basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to guard this right; and if I had to decide whether we have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I would not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter. but I mean every man should receive these papers and be able to read them.
What happened to the media?
You can blame journalism’s woes on the country’s political polarization (although there are those who believe the media is a major cause), or the crumbling advertising infrastructure, or the relentless digital push for clicks.
But the problem is deeper than that. What ensues is a crack running through many newsrooms, dividing mainstream journalists from a significant percentage of their readership.
Too often, what seems mundane to one is bizarre to another; what seems important to one seems insignificant to another; what comforts one frightens another. This is particularly striking in the coverage of religion.
Questions need to be asked about this, and I’m with anyone willing to ask them.
So who did this survey of faith and the media?
As I said, the study comes from the Faith & Media Initiative, in partnership with HarrisX, which describes itself as “a market research and advisory services company focused on the telecommunications, media and personal technologies.
For the sake of full disclosure, my research revealed that the Faith & Media Initiative is part of the Radiant Foundation, which is connected to Radiant Digital (which now owns Patheos, the website that hosts this blog), which itself is owned at Bonneville Communications, part of Deseret Management Corporation, which is a for-profit corporation affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Beginning in August 2022, the Faith & Media Initiative launched “a global survey of over 9,000 people in 18 countries about faith and media”. The survey results ring true for me, for the most part. Click here to watch it yourself.
The song that made me scratch my head
As for what doesn’t make sense, the study begins with a snapshot of global religiosity, ranging from “very faithful/religious” to “secular.” China, an officially atheist nation, ranks fourth in the first category, after the United States, Nigeria and South Africa, and just ahead of India.
This seems unlikely, even more so when you consider how China is reported to persecute believers. So why would anyone out there tell a pollster he was one?
I asked, and the answer I got was, in part, “Despite the politics of a country like China, people within it have religion as a central part of their personal identity.”
Apart from that, the newsroom results – apparently self-reported by journalists – are telling.
What the Media Says About Themselves Regarding Religious Coverage
Survey respondents representing media consumers believe the media should cover religion, but 53% believe the media “actively ignores religion as an aspect of society and culture.” So consumers want nuanced and well-informed coverage, but most feel they’re not getting it.
And when covered, they don’t like what they see, with 61% believing the media perpetuates narrow and outdated stereotypes about believers. Conversely, 8 in 10 believe religious groups should “provide more and more relevant spokespersons”.
So why is this happening in the media?
Here are some excerpts from the study regarding possible explanations, from a media perspective.
First, there’s the very real issue of budget (refer to the aforementioned collapse in ad revenue):
Media respondents said reduced budgets led to a lack of specialized journalists, leaving GPs to cover topics – including faith and religion.
The media prefer to avoid the subject rather than risk being wrong:
The media interviewed described a general to fear around covering religion. At a time when religion has become increasingly politicized the often rapid news coverage comes with the tacit acceptance that it is impossible to cover the subject with any level of nuance and sensitivity given the time and resources available.
Additionally, as all media and entertainment have become more secular or even anti-religious (partly due to a similar shift in education), there are fewer and fewer believers in newsrooms. The push for diversity, equity and inclusion doesn’t seem to include people of faith, either because they don’t get hired when they apply or because they don’t apply.
And for those who are working in the media:
Respondents from all regions indicated that the newsroom rarely represents the plurality of religious views in society. Among journalists with a strong religious background, there was a sense that they might be judged negatively if they covered stories related to their beliefs out of concern, it raise questions about their impartiality and risk damaging their reputation.
(That fear doesn’t seem to stop many journalists from covering other topics near and dear to their own hearts and beliefs, but I digress.)
The undeniable power of the three Cs
I spent over two decades earning a living as a full-time journalist, working as a senior entertainment editor for a division of the Tribune Syndicate (when there was such a thing). These days I also work in social media, which is so intertwined with journalism that I’m not sure the two can ever be separated.
In both, I saw a relentless march toward what I call the three Cs of engagement: Clickbait, Controversy, and Complaining.
While positive stories (especially cute animal videos) drive traffic, it’s hard to argue with the logic of the three Cs – and religious coverage, what there is, is no exception.
From the study:
There is a consensus that faith and religion are not seen as a driver of reader engagement. Publishers almost never encourage stories in this area unless they correspond to a controversial story, dispute or scandal. This runs counter to findings that suggest 63% of people globally said high-quality content about faith and religion is needed in their respective countries.
No one wants to tell the good news about the good news
As Catholics, we are well aware that our good works get no attention, but our misdeeds make the headlines. Almost any other member of a major religion can probably say the same (that is, unless they publicly align themselves with currently popular social justice movements).
Plus, as with everything in life, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. From the study:
Stereotypes were identified as a problem, with a lack of diverse media sources and spokespersons perpetuating the problem. Religion is often positioned as a conservative or extreme force in coverage, creating a tendency to seek outspoken dogmatic spokespersons rather than more middle-of-the-road religious observers with mainstream views.
Believers talk about faith and the media
The website also includes video interviews with believers, but none are identified as Catholic (although there are pictures of Catholics scattered around the site). There are two people wearing Roman necklaces. One describes himself as “interfaith” and the other as Episcopalian.
The study data can be downloaded here. I’d be interested to hear what faith-based media professionals and working mainstream journalists think of the results.
Again, this just goes to show that what people want to hear about and what the media wants to talk about are often two very different things.
Images: Shutterstock (nun); Faith and Media Initiative
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