Study: Media, public views of religion often don't meld; public more likely to see religion as force for good

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Media gather whilst Pope Benedict XVI kneels to pray at the main altar of the Dom cathedral on Sept. 23, 2011 in Erfurt, Germany.

It’s the first academic study of its kind, asking news media professionals and consumers of news about what they look for in religion coverage. Not surprisingly, the two views don’t often match.

Among the points of difference is the finding that a majority of the public thinks religion is a force for good in the world. By contrast, the news media’s view of religion isn't as broadly positive.

The public tends to be more interested in coverage that focuses on religious experiences and spirituality, whereas the mainstream media prefers to talk about religion in relation to institutions and events.

Diane Winston, who teaches media and religion at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, was a co-author of the study. She doesn’t believe the reason for these differences is a largely secular media.

“By and large, I think there are churchgoers, and synagogue-goers and people who go to mosques and Hindu temples in the media," says Winston. "I just think that many of them don’t know how to capture those stories of personal religiosity."

She also believes there's more pressure in the mainstream media to do things "as they've always been done."

"Which is to cover politics like horse races," she explains, "and to make a big deal out of conflict."

The study also argues that too few journalists today specialize in religion. Less than one-fifth of all reporters surveyed say they’re knowledgeable on the topic.

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