Media matters, religion doesn't

religionpolitics2 01Earlier this week Media Matters for America issued a report that claims religious conservatives are overrepresented in the media. The liberal group is "dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media." Though they come from a different perspective, they share some similarities with the conservative Media Research Center. And they do an excellent job of exposing gaffes made by anyone who's not progressive, including Bill O'Reilly and Pat Robertson. I waited to write about the report because, frankly, I expected much more media coverage of it. And now I'm giving up. Even if the report comes from a heavily biased group, I think its methodology and conclusions deserved more of a hearing than received. Media Matters' own listing of media mentions of the report shows very few mainstream media outlets and quite a few conservative and liberal outlets.

Part of the problem may be that the report is really about politics, not religion. It looks at ten conservative religious/political leaders and ten liberal religious/political leaders and determines the following:

Combining newspapers and television, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders.

On television news -- the three major television networks, the three major cable news channels, and PBS -- conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed almost 3.8 times as often as progressive leaders.

In major newspapers, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed 2.7 times as often as progressive leaders.

The study doesn't indicate whether the mentions, quotes or interviews were in positive or negative stories, but the numbers are still interesting.

The religious conservatives analyzed were James Dobson, William Donohue, Gary Bauer, Charles Colson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, Ted Haggard, T.D. Jakes, Richard Land, Tom Minnery, Joel Osteen, Rod Parsley, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren and Wendy Wright. The religious liberals analyzed were Tony Campolo, Joan Chittister, Robert Edgar, Jim Forbes Jr., C. Welton Gaddy, Jesse Jackson, Michael Lerner, Brian McLaren, David Saperstein, Al Sharpton, John H. Thomas and Jim Wallis.

The study's authors appeared to look out for problems with data collection. For instance, all mentions of Haggard's indiscretions were removed from the data pool. Still, there might be some limitations when you're only looking at ten folks from either side.

Before we get to the journalistic analysis, I must point out how -- once again -- this study exists in a media environment where politics is everything. Even in religious coverage. Of the 20 folks analyzed, not a single one represents my theological views. None even come close, as a matter of fact. From my perspective, all 20 share a somewhat similar religious viewpoint -- not a political one. Their ministries don't emphasize creeds, the liturgy, forgiveness of sins or sacraments. No, every single one of these people is focused on politics and personal or societal improvement. It supports the views of historian Darryl Hart, who argues that this left-right comparison obscures the fact that political religious types on left and right are two sides of the same coin. If these guys feel they don't get a fair shake from the media, imagine how those of us feel whose churches are less concerned with politics! We're invisible!

The survey also fails to highlight one of the greatest wrongs perpetrated against the religious left. There is simply no discussion at all of the theology of the religious left. There's very little on the right, either. But the absence of coverage of the left's theological views is just sinful.

Religion reporter Gary Stern had some thoughtful analysis of the survey on his must-read blog. He said journalists are drawn to conflict and controvery and that conservatives provide that:

If conservatives want states to pass pro-marriage (and anti-gay rights) laws, that's a story. Cut and dry. No doubt about it.

Liberal and moderate religious voices tend to allow for shades of gray. They hedge. They generalize. They leave room for doubt. They're okay with exceptions.

I agree that liberals shade and hedge, but I don't think that makes their positions less decisive or newsworthy. I think that media folks may not realize how newsworthy liberal positions are because they share liberal views. There are just as many -- if not more -- liberal ballot initiatives as conservative ones. Consider the Missouri initiative, supported by religious liberals, that enshrined embryonic-destroying stem-cell research in the state's Constitution. Not much room for gray there!

And again, why are we talking about politics? Religion and politics aren't completely overlapping circles -- sometimes they're quite separate, in fact. What about other liberal positions -- on, say, sex outside of marriage. When you look at how Episcopalians on left and right view the issue, both are newsworthy. And yet frequently only one side is grilled on the topic. Why is that?

[Liberals] also tend to take positions -- on fighting poverty, for example -- that do not provide for as much conflict. Everyone agrees, more or less, that poverty is a bad thing (even if some folks aren't as concerned as others with doing something about it).

And another thing: Journalists probably view the "moral" issues that conservatives focus on as somehow more religious than the social issues that liberals worry about.

But this is another example of how the media fail news consumers. It may not be newsworthy that liberal religious folks oppose poverty. Few people support poverty. But it's the manner in which they choose to fight poverty that does create conflict. No one would be upset that liberal religious types share food, shelter or clothing with those in need. But when folks start calling for massive bureaucratic programs that cost taxpayers billions of dollars -- and invoke Jesus' name while doing so? That's controversial.

Stern goes on to say that the media should take more time to find out what liberal religious folks believe and why. Amen! But he says that liberal religious types shoud do a better job of explaining what they believe:

Get to the point. Make your case. Quote from Scripture like conservatives do. Be passionate. Make the media pay attention.

What do you think should be done to improve media coverage of the religious left?

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