Hitting a nerve: Politics, class, morality, social issues, religion, news

When Doug and I started GetReligion.org, I decided early on I would not post my Scripps Howard News Service columns week after week. If anyone wants to see them, they can go to tmatt.net or even get on the listserv. But I am posting some info on this week's column for a simple reason: It continues a discussion we have already been having on this site about the recent survey of journalists released by the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism. This data hit a nerve, and not just because Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post connected the dots between liberal attitudes on social issues and celebratory coverage of same-sex marriage. I tried to get past that issue in my column, with the help of Tom Rosenstiel, director of the project.

Once again, the Pew survey has raised a divisive question about media bias: Is the wide gap between journalists and their readers on social issues the result of (a) politics, (b) social class, (c) religious practice or (d) all of the above?

Rosenstiel said journalists are used to having their political beliefs criticized and most -- on left and right -- believe they can achieve accurate, balanced coverage. But this is where survey questions about religion and morality are important. For most journalists, these highly personal issues may be hidden in the blind spots of their professional training.

"If you are truly trying to be fair, it's probably easier to overcome your most obvious political biases. You're used to thinking about them," he said. "But the cultural and religious values that we hold are much harder to recognize. They are just a part of us. They are part of how we view the world and we may have trouble seeing that."

In my background reading for the column, I was also fascinated by an emerging theme in this debate -- social class. As the saying goes, journalists are working stiffs who really view themselves as public intellectuals. It is also interesting to note that, after a decade of seeking diversity in newsrooms, many media executives seem unaware that they have created environments dominated by people (whatever their race and gender) of highly similar backgrounds and ideologies.

In future research, Rosenstiel said it would be crucial to focus on these issues of class, just as much as on the issues of morality and faith. There is clearly a connection, one linked to the fact that there are more religious believers of various stripes in local newsrooms than in elite newsrooms.

Conservative scribe John Leo dug into this reality in one of his columns for U.S. News & World Report.

Why does the news business keep hiring more and more people who disagree sharply with the customers, many of whom are already stampeding out the door for a variety of reasons? One explanation is that national journalism is now an elite profession, staffed by people -- black and white, female and male -- who went to elite colleges and who share the conventional social views of their class. This was not true a generation ago. When I was at the New York Times, the leadership was full of people who had gone to the wrong schools and fought their way up with brains and talent. Two desks away from mine was McCandlish Phillips, a born-again Christian who read the Bible during every break, no matter how brief. Phillips was a legendary reporter, rightly treated with awe by the staff, but I doubt he would be hired by most news organizations today. He prayed a lot and had no college degree.

PERSONAL NOTE: Doug is still on the road, chasing Canadian Anglicans. Meanwhile, I am headed home for a few days -- taking a short break from my teaching duties in Washington, D.C. It's going to be a very busy summer, but Doug and I will do our best to stay active on the blog. We also continue to hunt a foreign-news specialist. Oh, and anyone who wants to know more about that amazing McCandlish Phillips guy can click here.

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