America is 26 percent atheist these days? Kansas City Star's uncritical report on shock stat

"Everything's up to date in Kansas City," the musical Oklahoma once told us, and if Oscar Hammerstein said it, it must be true. "They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high, About as high as a buildin' orta grow," we were told therein.

Kansas City, and its flagship daily newspaper have received recurring attention here in GetReligion-land. Earlier this week, my colleague Julia Duin examined a Kansas City Star piece about the local Catholic archdiocese and the Girl Scouts that left readers hunting for details

Last August, the Star was found wanting in its coverage of a gay clergy issue within the United Methodist Church -- again, crucial facts were missing. 

So the, ahem, "revelation" that a stunning 26 percent of all Americans are atheists, in the same Kansas City Star merits close attention. Particularly when -- surprise! -- elements that would make for a fully orbed report are M-I-A.

Let's get to the news element of the article:

A recently published study based on 2,000 interviews suggested that a quarter of Americans or more are atheist — multiples of what other surveys have found.
[University of Kentucky psychologist Will] Gervais and fellow University of Kentucky psychologist Maxine Najle posed a list of innocuous statements — “I own a dog,” “I enjoy modern art” — and asked how many of the declarations applied to a respondent. Then they put the same statements to another group but added the statement, “I believe in God.”
By comparing the results, they concluded that 26 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t believe in God. Previous surveys in 2015 by Pew and Gallup asked directly about the belief in God and found the number of atheists at between 3 and 11 percent.
“Obtaining accurate atheist prevalence estimates may help promote trust and tolerance of atheists — potentially 80 million people in the USA and well over a billion worldwide,” the study said.

Those of us who've been inside a newsroom for more than 15 minutes might imagine the above paragraphs to have been the lead (or, to some, lede) of the story. But this disclosure arrives 14 paragraphs in from a somewhat tortured introduction of how atheists have to be careful about how public they are with their disbelief:

Josh Stewart differs from most atheists. He’ll tell you there is no God.
But when he gets together with other faithless folks in the Kansas City Atheist Coalition, they color code their name tags. One hue for those who are proudly public about their beliefs, another for whom photographers are asked to avoid.
“It is an issue,” said the 31-year-old Westport resident and coffee shop worker. “They’re worried how their boss or their family or somebody else might react. It’s not always good.”

I can imagine atheists have some difficulties in this life -- as, of course, do self-identified devout or observant Christians, Jews and Muslims in many settings. But I can't recall a single instance of encountering an atheist who was somehow reluctant to declare "there is no God."

Pro tip: There's a term for folks uncertain about proclaiming whether or not a Deity exists. The accurate word is "agnostic."

I digress. A single study at the University of Kentucky, based on a sample of 2,000 people, posits a higher percentage of Americans being atheist than any atheist group or other survey has revealed. That would be news, and it should have been at the very top of the story, one might think.

There are several journalistic issues here. One is that while the story references data from the Pew Research Center (shortened to "Pew" in the article), it doesn't mention that the 2014 Religious Landscape Study  (results released in 2015) is based on a sample of 25,000 people, far larger than the UK study. 

Nor does the Star report note that Pew's research offers a drill-down on who atheists are and what they specifically do or do not believe and practice. And, no, the Star didn't link online to any of Pew's research, even though the article embedded the University of Kentucky report online.

That's a reporter's or editor's prerogative, I suppose, but it seems a tad one-sided to me. Again, as is one of our mantras at GetReligion, the goal of journalism is not to reflect only one side, it is to bring all voices into the conversation.

Instead, we get paragraph after paragraph of how atheists are viewed with hostility by some people of faith. (Not a word is said, however, about the aggressive anti-religion agitation of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin nonprofit, or that of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, headed by self-described "Jewish agnostic" Mikey Weinstein, a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.)

We're also treated to assertions unsupported by statistics, from a spokesman for a religious research group, no less:

Still, atheists may become increasingly unavoidable. Young adults of the millennial generation attend church less than their parents did at the same age, pray less on their own and are less likely to believe in God.
“They’re the least religious generation we’ve ever seen by virtually every measure,” said Daniel Cox, the research director for the Public Religion Research Institute. “There’s no indication that there will be a rush back to the church.”

Numbers, please? A web link, perhaps?

Finally, the piece's conclusion is a bit puzzling. What are we to make of the local atheist willing to take the point in the battle of faithlessness?

Stewart, the Westport atheist, was raised by devout Christians and now takes an approach to telling people about atheism much like a preacher. He’ll sometimes stand on a street corner with signs such as “I’m an atheist. Ask me anything” or “No God, no problem.”
The resulting conversations can get rough. Stewart insists he’s not trying to talk somebody out of their faith. Rather, he aims to get people beyond their anti-atheist prejudices.
“It’s real common to get a kind of hostile reaction,” he said. “But ultimately I don’t want to have a fight. I want to have a conversation.”

I'd love to know more about the "devout Christians" who raised Stewart, specifically which denomination they belong to, and perhaps even their reaction to a son who is now an evangelist of sorts for non-belief. There's no indication of any attempt to reach said parents, or that either Stewart asked the reporter to pass over contacting his family, or that the family didn't want to speak. I hate to say it, but covering such bases is a basic thing in journalism, especially when a person is staking out a controversial position.

Neither does the Star go to any cleric -- Islamic, Jewish or Christian -- to get their perspective on the issue. Rather, it presents the University of Kentucky study as a scroll descended from the non-heavens, and ends up being more advocacy than proper reporting.

Frankly, that's not the kind of journalism I can believe in. And I'm not agnostic about that.

NOTE: My thanks to reader Steven Sarafian who, in the comment section, corrected my reporting of the quote from "Oklahoma." This post now reflects the actual wording.

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