July 10, 2008

Running on Faith

As the historic 2008 presidential primary season came to an end, the presumptive Republican and Democratic nominees faced similar dilemmas. Both Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) decided to sever ties with controversial religious figures who had been backing their campaigns.

As the general election campaign got under way, both candidates continued to face questions related to their religious backgrounds. Obama’s decisions to relinquish his membership with Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and to sever ties with its controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, could influence voters’ opinions of him, especially since he is a relatively new figure in national politics. And McCain’s ability to turn out the conservative religious base of his party could be a deciding factor in how he fares in November. Indeed, religion could be at least as important in the 2008 presidential campaign as it was in 2000 and 2004.

So how might the media cover the issue of religion in the 2008 general election? To help address that question, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life analyzed the coverage of religion in the campaign through the majority of the primary season, a 16-month period from January 2007 through April 2008. (Report methodology is included at the bottom of the report.)

The study finds that when coverage of the “horse-race” aspects of the campaign is excluded, religion emerges as a relatively prominent topic, accounting for 10% of the non-political-process coverage during the 16 months studied. In fact, religion garnered nearly as much coverage as race and gender combined (11%), even though the front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination were a black man and a woman.

Overall, however, religion stories, along with other substantive and policy issues, took a back seat to campaign tactics and political strategy, which together garnered 81% of the coverage. So despite the attention paid to Obama’s former pastor, questions about McCain’s relationship with his party’s conservative religious base, interest in Mitt Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the surprisingly strong campaign of former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, only 2% of all the campaign stories directly focused on religion.

When the coverage did turn to religion, it often did not deal directly with questions of faith but instead focused on more familiar territory. For instance, when Obama gave a speech to quell concerns over the controversial statements of his former pastor, both the campaign and the press steered the emphasis toward the race angle of the story. Meanwhile, questions about McCain’s association with controversial pastor John Hagee, whose endorsement he once courted, received very little coverage – political or otherwise – during the 16 months studied. Even with respect to Romney – for whom religion was a significant issue from the start of his campaign – faith-related coverage focused largely on one moment: his December 2007 address on “Faith in America.”

These findings suggest a continuing discomfort among news organizations in tackling deep questions of how candidates’ personal faith may influence their public leadership. When the press does cover such stories, it tends to focus on discrete events – such as a speech, video or TV appearance – rather than the underlying connections, and often the coverage is fairly short-lived.

The study examined a total of 13,386 campaign stories from January 2007 through April 2008 in 48 different mainstream news outlets from print, online, network TV, cable and radio, including talk shows. Of these, the study did further analysis on the 252 religion-focused campaign stories.

Among the key findings:

  • More than one-third (35%) of all religion-related campaign stories focused on Romney, a Mormon, who ultimately lost his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Most of Romney’s coverage (66%) occurred in December 2007 when he gave his “Faith in America” speech. His chief competitor for the evangelical vote, Huckabee, was the focus of only 4% of all religion-related stories.
  • Despite the media’s perennial questions about McCain’s conservative credentials, coverage of his relationship with the religious base of the GOP was all but absent from the primary coverage. McCain was the focus of less than 1% of all religion-related election coverage during the 16 months studied. Even his endorsement by conservative pastor Hagee drew only minimal media attention.
  • For Obama, it was not until clips of his former pastor began to hit the airwaves in March 2008 that religion became a negative association. In 2007, just 5% of religion-related campaign coverage was on Obama. From March through April 2008, when the Wright controversy hit its peak in the news media and Obama delivered a public speech on the matter, he became the lead newsmaker in 55% of the religion-focused campaign stories.
  • A closer look at the two events that dominated the religious narrative in the 16-month period covered by the study – Romney’s and Obama’s pivotal speeches – suggests that even when coverage of candidates’ faith becomes almost unavoidable, oftentimes the press still turns its lens a different way. In coverage of both speeches, for example, one-third (33%) of the stories emphasized the strategic, rather than religious, elements of the story.
  • For Obama, whose speech dealt with themes of both race and religion, the press tended to focus on the racial aspects more than the religious ones. In fact, about half (51%) of the stories on the speech were about race while only 1% focused on the religious angle.

Navigate this report:

Religion Coverage in the Primaries
Differences by Type of Media
Obama: Wright, Race and Religion
McCain: A Small Story with Big Implications
The Media’s Treatment of Romney and His Mormon Faith
Other Candidates
Content Methodology
Report Topline

The Project for Excellence in Journalism also did a more in-depth chronological assessment of coverage of the two largest religion-related events of the primary campaign – Obama’s and Romney’s major speeches on religion, race and civil liberties. This “etymology” of the events, traces how these two stories developed in the press and the extent to which religion was a part of the candidates’ narratives at all.

Religion Coverage in the Primaries

In the period from January 2007, when candidates began to formally announce their candidacies, through April 2008, when most of the candidates had exited the race, only 2% of all campaign stories in the study focused primarily on religion – including the personal faith of candidates, the role of religion in policymaking or the religious makeup of the electorate.

Consistent with previous years’ election coverage, the press was more oriented toward the political process – much of which focused on campaign strategy and other “horse-race” elements – which accounted for a commanding 81% of all election coverage studied.
Presidential Campaign Topics chart
1 To calculate this breakdown of campaign coverage over 16 months, we used a combination
of variables designed to capture and differentiate the topics. In 2007, our “broad story”
categories allowed us to classify the general topic of each campaign story. In 2008, our
“presidential campaign topic” categories allowed us to do the same thing but in greater
detail. These variables operate according to the same measurement principles; however,
the more detailed categories developed for analysis in 2008 were collapsed for this study
to match the broader filter of the 2007 variables.

But when the tactical stories are eliminated, the study finds that religion played a fairly significant role in the coverage. Within campaign news not focused on the political process, religion still trailed foreign policy issues (14%) and domestic policy issues (26%), but it received roughly the same amount of attention (10%) as race and gender topics combined (11%).
Non-Horse Race Campaign Topics chart
The 16-month time period studied breaks down logically into two distinct phases: the pre-primary campaign period of 2007 and the heat of the primary contests in the first four months of 2008.

In 2007, 3% of all campaign news coverage studied focused on religion. Coverage that focused on the politics, tactics and strategy made up 84% of the stories studied.

In 2008, as primary voting began in earnest, coverage of the horse race and political processes decreased somewhat, and religion coverage dropped as well. The former made up 78% of all election stories studied, while faith-related issues comprised only 1% of the total coverage.

Race and gender issues, on the other hand, received a greater amount of press attention in 2008. As Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) battled for the Democratic nomination, these topics – often intertwined – grew to 3% of all coverage in the first four months of 2008, up from 1% in 2007.

At several different points during the primary season, faith and religion surfaced as potential areas for further press inquiry, but in most cases, the media, whether shy to tackle such issues or simply more drawn to the daily political maneuverings inside the campaigns, focused its lens elsewhere.

Differences by Type of Media

When looking at the entire 2007-2008 period of campaign coverage, no single media sector stands out for devoting more coverage to religion and the campaign than any other. Throughout the 16-month period, newspapers and cable TV programming only slightly edged out other media in their share of the “newshole” – the time or space available in an outlet for news content – devoted to religion. The only conclusive takeaway when looking at the breakdown by industry is that all media sectors consistently focused less on the role of religion than on the horse race aspects of the campaign.
Religion-Related Campaign Coverage by Media Sector chart

Barack Obama
Sen. Barack Obama poses with his pastor, the Rev.Jeremiah Wright, in Chicago on March 10, 2005. Obama later distanced himself from Wright due to the controversy surrounding Wright’s sermons.

Obama: Wright, Race and Religion

On the Democratic side, the largest story involving religion was about Barack Obama’s ties to the controversial former pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation on the South Side of Chicago.

Obama called the 8,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ, where Wright served as pastor, his spiritual home for nearly two decades. Obama credits Wright’s sermon, “The Audacity to Hope,” as bringing about his spiritual rebirth, or “conversion experience” as it was described by the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody. This sermon inspired the title of Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope.

An influence early on in the campaign, Wright would become a major part of the media story line, or press narrative, for Obama. In the first four months of 2008 – roughly the period when the controversy surrounding Wright’s sermons began to develop traction – Obama was the focal point of 55% of religion-related campaign stories. In about half of these stories (47%), Wright was a lead newsmaker as well, often accompanying Obama in the headline or lead. On April 30, 2008, national newspapers around the country ran front-page headlines pairing the two men: The New York Times ran a story entitled “An angry Obama renounces ties to his ex-pastor.” In The Washington Post, it was “Obama Calls Minister’s Comments ‘Outrageous.'”
Lead Newsmakers in Religion Stories chart
In all, the Wright story represented 3% of all the coverage studied – no small amount for a single controversy that did not appear until the 15th month of the 16-month period studied. For the most part, the coverage of the Wright story was concentrated in March and April 2008 and was sparked by the brief clips of Wright’s controversial remarks that first appeared on ABC News, Fox News and on the Web in March 2008. During these two months, the Wright controversy filled 12% of the campaign newshole.

A Story Largely Overlooked

If journalists had looked more closely at the hometown coverage of Obama, however, they would have discovered that media awareness of Wright’s controversial remarks went back long before video clips of his sermon appeared on TV and the Web.

Wright had been Obama’s local pastor and mentor for 20 years and was a respected figure in the black community. Wright’s well-known Chicago church was rooted in liberation theology. In 1987, a PBS Frontline documentary on the state of the black church contained an interview with Wright as one of its authoritative spokespersons.

When Obama launched his campaign for the presidency in February 2007, he began to distance himself from Wright. The pastor was originally slated to deliver the invocation at Obama’s formal entry announcement in March 2007, but the invitation was rescinded by the campaign.

Still, the Wright story continued to lie dormant for the rest of the year. Of all the stories that year focused on Obama, only 1% were about his faith, and roughly half of those stories were about his church, black liberation theology and the potential liability of Wright.

Obama’s hometown press was more tuned into the potential controversy and raised questions about his history with the black church. But even in Chicago, the focus was more on race and politics than on religion. For example, a Feb. 6, 2007, piece in The Chicago Tribune summarized the situation, saying, “Obama also faces his own challenges in dealing with race as he seeks to frame himself as a candidate who can bridge historic divisions not only of race, but class and religion as well.”

That remained the case until March 2008, when ABC News and Fox News released edited video clips of some of Wright’s more controversial statements from the pulpit, where he used strong rhetoric to critique America’s treatment of race. Suddenly, the candidate found himself the target of questions about his faith background and also found himself sharing the stage with his former pastor.

A close look at the coverage, though, suggests that the press was still shy about tackling questions of faith and putting them in the front of the campaign coverage.

Although Obama received the majority of the religion-related coverage in the first part of 2008, the bulk of his overall press coverage was not about religion. When the study broke down the data and looked at each candidate individually, it found that religion made up only about 2% of Obama’s stories in early 2008, while the bulk of his coverage was focused on strategy and the horse race, as well as policy issues and other personal topics. This was more than any other candidate still in the race but just a sliver of what the media covered overall.
Portion of Each Candidate's Coverage Devoted to Religion chart
Part of this had to do with the sheer volume of press attention Obama was getting. During the first four months of 2008, Obama commanded more coverage than any other candidate, starring as a lead newsmaker in 41% of campaign stories for that time period. His rival, Clinton, was a lead newsmaker in 36% of the stories and McCain was a lead newsmaker in 19%. But the amount of coverage also had to do with the more complicated nature of the Wright story. Statements made by Wright spurred questions not only about religion but also about patriotism, race relations and civil rights in the United States. Press coverage tended to focus on what the relationship said about the candidate and the challenges it posed for him, as well as the candidate’s public remarks to address the controversy, rather than on the religion angle.

The Speech

When the Wright controversy surfaced as a major story, the Obama campaign quickly determined that a major public speech was necessary to address concerns about Obama’s church background. In his March 18 address in Philadelphia, Obama talked about his own spirituality but focused more heavily on the black church – its traditions, conventions and ways of communicating. The press covered the speech extensively.

The media framed its analysis of the speech as essentially about race – even more than about political strategy. For about every 50 news stories that primarily focused on race, only one took a distinctively religious angle.
Focus of Obama Speech Coverage chart
Press reaction among the pundits divided generally along ideological lines. On the day of the address, conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh responded by saying, “Jeremiah Wright is a hatemonger. He hates America. It is patently obvious Barack Obama sought to excuse that today in ways that I found a little bit troubling.” On the other end of the political spectrum, radio host Ed Schultz reacted this way: “This is Sen. Obama just tellin’ it like it is about [the] Rev. Wright,” Schultz said. “He always seems to find a higher ground.” One thing the pundits agreed on, regardless of political persuasion, was the oratorical panache of Obama’s speech.

The Wright controversy got a lot of play in nighttime cable news, which claimed the single largest share of the newshole for this sub-story at 24%. During the same three-week period analyzed, the Wright sub-story received the most coverage in the several days leading up to Obama’s speech, dropped off the radar the day before the speech was given, but then jumped back up after the speech.
Obama Speech Coverage Over Time chart
Politically, the speech seemed to help Obama survive the initial controversy. Four days after the speech, according to survey data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Obama was holding a 49% to 39% advantage over Clinton for the Democratic nomination, roughly the same as his lead before the Wright controversy erupted (49% to 40%). Additionally, more voters viewed Obama’s handling of the Wright controversy positively than negatively at that time.

Media coverage of the Wright story, however, was far from over. In April, Wright returned to center stage when he held a series of appearances, including an interview with journalist Bill Moyers on April 25 and a press conference at the National Press Club on April 28. These appearances provoked a stronger response from Obama and resulted in 24-hour cable TV rehashing the drama once again.

Several weeks later, a visiting preacher, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest, criticized Clinton’s presidential bid from the Trinity United Church of Christ’s pulpit, saying she had cried on the campaign trail because “there’s a black man stealing [her] show.”

At that point, Obama took even further steps to distance himself from the situation, resigning his family’s membership at Trinity Church.

It remains to be seen whether the general election campaign causes the coverage of this issue to turn more toward an examination of Obama’s faith and its relationship with culture and public life or if the attention turns even more toward the purely political fallout from the Wright controversy.

McCain: A Small Story with Big Implications

John McCain
Sen. John McCain speaks at a news conference at the Omni Hotel in San Antoniowith the Rev. John Hagee, a Texas televangelist who endorsed McCain. McCain and Hagee later parted ways after controversial remarks by Hagee surfaced.

Obama is not the only candidate for whom faith and politics may be a factor in the November election. As John McCain looks to rally the GOP base around his candidacy, questions loom not only about the perception about how conservative he is but also his appeal to evangelicals – a crucial voting bloc in recent elections.

So far, McCain’s faith, his connections to religious leaders and his relations with conservative Christian voters have received relatively little attention from the national media. In 2007, when he was competing against other Republican candidates, McCain was the subject of less than 1% of all religion-focused campaign stories. Even in 2008, as he became the front-runner, that portion remained at roughly the same level.

McCain has a rocky history with evangelicals. In his 2000 bid for president, McCain ran afoul of the religious right when he labeled their leadership an “evil” force with a message of “intolerance” during a major speech at Virginia Beach. Many credit this moment as a turning point in his ultimately unsuccessful campaign that year.

Not surprisingly, relations with that critical base of the GOP were a big question for McCain heading into the current campaign. From the beginning of the 2008 campaign, McCain’s candidacy depended in large part – at least according to the pundits and polls – on whether he was conservative enough to secure the support of the GOP base.

According to a recent PEJ study examining press coverage of character in the primaries, the idea that McCain is not a “reliable conservative” and may alienate the conservative base was by far the dominant narrative about McCain. His relations with the conservative base accounted for half of all assertions studied about McCain’s character during the time period studied. It was a criticism that stuck and proved difficult for the McCain campaign to put down. Rebuttals of this charge – either by sources in the media or by the McCain campaign itself – amounted to a mere 9% of all statements studied about McCain in that report.

But little of this coverage focused on the part of the conservative base with which McCain may have the most problems – the religious right. Even the controversy over McCain’s endorsement by conservative evangelical minister Hagee in February 2008 attracted hardly any media attention through April 2008.

Appealing to the Christian Right

McCain’s harsh criticism of the religious right during his previous run for president garnered feelings of resentment from a number of conservative Christians. But this potentially big story in the 2008 primaries was not a focus of media coverage about evangelicals’ and other conservatives’ discontent with the GOP choices.

In fact, the press focused more attention on the leaders of the evangelical movement themselves, rather than on McCain. During the pre-primary period of 2007, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, North Carolina preacher Tadd Grandstaff and the Southern Baptist Convention together were just as likely to be featured in a religion story as McCain.

Like Obama, McCain later ran into trouble with the media over his relationship with a controversial religious figure. McCain was one of several GOP candidates to court the endorsement of Texas preacher and televangelist Hagee, and he announced that he had won Hagee’s support on Feb. 27, 2008. Hagee, an influential figure in the conservative Christian community, is also known for past comments that have offended Catholics, gays and other groups. While McCain received some pressure to distance himself from Hagee and his controversial remarks, that pressure took on a new intensity when an audio recording of one of Hagee’s sermons, which suggested that the Holocaust was part of God’s plan for the Jewish people, surfaced on the Internet.

On May 22, 2008, McCain officially renounced the endorsement of the minister. While the story bears some resemblance to the Wright controversy, the Hagee endorsement drew little attention compared with the Wright controversy. In the first four months of 2008, Hagee was a lead newsmaker in only one campaign story among all that were studied (including religion-focused items), whereas Wright was a lead newsmaker in one out of every 50 campaign stories – 181 in total.

On the April 25, 2008, broadcast of ABC’s Good Morning America, co-host Diane Sawyer invited commentator guests Cokie Roberts and Juan Williams to discuss the differences between the Wright and Hagee controversies. Williams pointed out that McCain, unlike Obama, had not belonged to Hagee’s church for 20 years. A video clip was shown of McCain’s response to criticism over the Hagee link, in which he made the same point: “There’s a great deal of difference, in my view, between someone who endorses you … and other circumstances.”

In May 2008 – following the 16-month period studied – the Hagee controversy flared up again. During that month, the Hagee narrative accounted for 2% of campaign stories. However, this still did not match the coverage that continued to trickle in related to Obama and Wright, and only 11% of the stories emphasized the religious angle of the Hagee controversy.

It is impossible to definitively say why media coverage of McCain paid relatively little attention to the issue of religion. It might be related to the impression that the conservative religious base of the Republican Party has lost some political influence (see May 2007 news stories about the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death).

The Media’s Treatment of Romney and His Mormon Faith

Mitt Romney
Republican presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gives an address entitled, “Faith in America, on Dec. 6, 2007, at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.

One major religion narrative occupied most of the space in the media narrative during the primary season: the faith of Mitt Romney. Here, there may be some further hints as to the way the press may approach faith in the general election coverage.

On Feb. 8, 2007, The New York Times ran a front-page story on the former governor of Massachusetts, who was expected to announce his bid for the presidency within a short time. Romney, the Times reported, faced a “threshold issue” in his ties to the Mormon church. The paper cited poll numbers suggesting a large number of Americans would never vote for a Mormon. When asked about the polls, Romney responded, “If you did a poll and said: ‘Could a divorced actor be elected as president? Would you vote for a divorced actor as president?’ my guess is 70% would say no. But then they saw Ronald Reagan. They heard him. They heard his vision. They heard his experience. They said: ‘I like Ronald Reagan. I’m voting for him.'”

Nevertheless, it was Romney who drew fire – and press coverage – over his religious background, accounting for half (50%) of all religion-related campaign stories in 2007. The candidate with the next highest amount of religion-related coverage was Mike Huckabee, who still received only a fraction of the religion stories (6%) compared with Romney.
Lead Newsmakers in Religion Stories chart
In addition to tracking each candidate’s percentage of the total religion-related stories, another way of looking at the impact of religion on a candidate’s campaign is to examine the percentage of each candidate’s coverage that focused on religion. Nearly one-third (30%) of Romney’s media coverage in 2007 focused on his Mormon faith. No other candidate even came close to receiving the same amount of attention to their faith that year.
Portion of Each Candidate's Coverage Devoted to Religion chart
In the lead-up to Romney’s formal announcement of his candidacy for president, the press was already investigating the implications of his religious background. Just one month after The Boston Globe reported that Romney had acknowledged he was thinking about running for president, it printed an article on July 21, 2005, entitled “Are we ready for a Mormon president?”

From the day he entered the race on Feb. 13, 2007, Romney’s affiliation with the Mormon church dominated his media image more than anything else. On Feb. 18, 2007, during a Florida campaign event, Romney was heckled by an attendee who announced, “You do not know the Lord … you are a Mormon.” The moment was captured on video and replayed frequently over the course of the next 24 hours, gaining a thorough treatment on cable news shows.
Romney Religion Coverage Over Time chart
Media analysis of the heckling incident kicked off what would become a pattern over the course of Romney’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign: Journalists often expressed sympathy for a candidate subject to anti-Mormon sentiment while simultaneously fueling the fire by suggesting his religion could be an impediment to his electability. For instance, on the Feb. 19, 2007, edition of CNN’s The Situation Room, correspondent Carol Costello noted that Romney’s courteous response to the heckler earned him a standing ovation, but she also predicted that “Romney’s faith will dog him.”

Questions over Romney’s church background resurfaced in an even bigger way in May 2007, this time in an attack from the left. The well-known activist the Rev. Al Sharpton sharply criticized Romney’s faith, suggesting, “Those who really believe in God would defeat Romney, a Mormon, in the 2008 presidential race.” During that month, Sharpton alone accounted for 33% of the religion-related campaign stories. Neither Obama nor McCain were the subject of religion reporting at all that month.

Throughout the fall, headlines such as “Time to Channel JFK: Romney would be wise to give speech on his faith” (Dallas Morning News, Nov. 30, 2007) filled the news as speculation that Romney might address the issue of his religion in a public speech increased.

By and large, the media viewed Romney’s timing as a response to competitor Mike Huckabee’s rise in the polls and as reflective of the challenge Romney would face among evangelical voters in the upcoming Iowa caucuses. On Dec. 5, 2007, The Tampa Tribune attributed the speech timing to Huckabee’s recent appeal among conservative voters. The Grand Rapids Press, on Dec. 3, 2007, said: “The decision, made after months of debate at his Boston headquarters over whether to make a public address about his religion, comes as the former Massachusetts governor’s bid is threatened in Iowa by underdog Mike Huckabee. The ex-governor of Arkansas and one-time Southern Baptist minister has rallied influential Christian conservatives to erase Romney’s months-long lead and turn the race into a dead heat.”

Romney spoke on the topic of faith in front of 300 invited guests – many of them evangelical leaders – in the auditorium at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas on Dec. 6, 2007. The speech lasted 20 minutes and touched on Romney’s views on the separation of church and state, the role of faith in public life and his own spirituality. But in the entire speech, Romney explicitly referenced his Mormon faith by name only once.

Media coverage of the speech was brief but intense and was all but over in a day. Fully 61% of news stories about the speech were printed or broadcast on Dec. 6 – the day the speech was given. In the three-week period surrounding the speech, only 11% of the stories were about the politics of the speech. Instead, the vast majority of stories (86%) focused on the topic of religion.
Romney Speech Coverage Over Time chart
Focus of Romney Speech  Coverage chart
Some of the initial news reporting following Romney’s speech was deeply sympathetic: “It’s hard not to be impressed with the speech former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gave Thursday on faith and religion,” reported USA Today on Dec. 7, 2007. Marc Caputo of The Miami Herald praised the speech in an analysis on the same day: “If giving the speech were like singing in a choir, then Romney hit all the right notes.” A few other outlets, including the New York Post, which ran an article entitled “Failed Bid to put the Religion Issue to Rest,” were not as kind. In the weeks that followed, some papers, especially in their op-ed pages, used a comparison with John F. Kennedy and his 1960 speech to critique Romney, such as Maureen Dowd’s column in the Dec. 9, 2007, The New York Times, “Mitt’s no JFK.”

According to survey data from the Pew Research Center, about half (49%) of those who heard about the speech said Romney did a good or excellent job of addressing the concerns some voters may have about his Mormon faith. Four-in-ten (39%) said he did only a fair or poor job. Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, with little difference between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, were a bit more positive: 60% said he did a good or excellent job versus 28% who said he did a fair or poor job.

These reactions also coincided with a slight bump in Romney’s favorability ratings, although Huckabee maintained his lead among evangelical voters.

But the bump was not sustained and Romney’s overall unfavorable ratings jumped from 35% in December 2007 to 44% in February 2008. While it is highly unlikely that his religious affiliation alone sunk his candidacy, it did not appear to help him, nor ultimately, did his “Faith in America” address. According to a Gallup poll conducted on Dec. 6-9, 2007, the likelihood that individuals would vote for a Mormon candidate had not changed from March 2007. A later Gallup survey, conducted Feb. 9-11, 2008, indicated that Americans’ opinions about voting for a Mormon candidate were much the same as they had been for decades. Nearly one-in-four said they would not vote for a Mormon.

Twenty-eight days following the speech, Romney lost the first primary battle to Huckabee, and on Feb. 7, 2008, he withdrew from the race.

Other Candidates

Hillary Clinton

There was also some coverage of the religion angle when it came to the other candidates in the 2008 presidential race. As with Obama, McCain and Romney, religion coverage of the other candidates during the primaries was largely event-focused and faded soon after the event subsided.

The Democratic candidates had a major opportunity to discuss their views on faith in June 2007, when CNN sponsored a debate about faith. The June 4 “Faith Forum” was organized by the progressive evangelical organization Sojourners/Call To Renewal.

The forum gave front-runners Obama, Clinton and John Edwards the chance to discuss faith with a public and journalistic audience that had maintained some skepticism about the prospect of devout Democrats. On ABC’s Good Morning America the following day, co-host Robin Roberts introduced a segment on the debate by saying, “Traditionally, matters of faith have been largely Republican territory.” The segment also featured an interview with Jim Wallis, one of the conveners of the debate, who tried to steer the conversation away from the personal and back to the political dimensions of the faith discussion that had taken place the night before.

During the debate, Clinton discussed how her faith helped her through the difficult times when the controversy over her husband and Monica Lewinsky occupied the nation’s attention. In an Associated Press story the next day, which also ran on CNN.com, Clinton made the headline, “Sen. Clinton: God got me through marital strife.” This was one of the few moments during the primary campaign when the media reported on Clinton’s faith. Indeed, Clinton’s faith amounted to less than 1% of her overall campaign coverage during the 16-month period studied.

Mike Huckabee
Mike Huckabee

Ordained Baptist minister Mike Huckabee had some of the strongest conservative views of any candidate and was often portrayed in the media as everything evangelicals were looking for in a presidential candidate. He was an early advocate of and participant in the covenant marriage movement, a proponent of teaching intelligent design in public schools and an opponent of legalized abortion. Nevertheless, Huckabee was a lead newsmaker in just 6% of the religion-focused campaign stories in 2007, an amount that totaled just 6% of his total coverage for the year. And in 2008, as he receded from the headlines, his share of the religion headlines fell to less than 1%.

In December 2007, Huckabee stirred up the smoldering controversy over Romney’s Mormon faith when he suggested that the Mormon tradition views Satan and Jesus as brothers. While Huckabee’s comments were not applauded, they certainly put his opponent on the defensive once again by attracting some press attention.

Huckabee’s dearth in religion coverage might be explained in part by his relatively small presence in the news overall; in 2007, he was a lead newsmaker in only 3% of campaign stories. However, there may be more to the story than that. While the candidate indeed remained on the margin of the media’s plane of vision when it came to religion reporting, there were several stories that could have focused on him but instead focused on a different religious figure. For example, a Jan. 1, 2008, CNN election special, which led with news of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s endorsement of Huckabee, focused mainly on what it would take for any GOP hopeful to gain favor with evangelical voters, and therefore was not considered a story that focused on Huckabee. The press paid more attention to Huckabee’s base than to Huckabee himself; thus the candidate was lost in his own story for much of the primary season.

Content Methodology

This report is based on additional analysis of content aggregated and coded for PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index (NCI).

The NCI is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. It examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets in five media sectors, including newspapers, online, network TV, cable TV and radio. The findings are released in a weekly NCI report. All coding is conducted in-house by PEJ’s staff of researchers continuously throughout the year. The complete methodology of the weekly NCI can be found at http://www.journalism.org/about_news_index/methodology.

Main Universe of Stories: This report is based on NCI coding from Jan. 1, 2007, through April 30, 2008. All stories that had been already coded as being about religion and the campaign were isolated and further analyzed to locate the role of religion in campaign coverage in 16 months of news – encompassing the majority of the pre-primary and official primary seasons.

This resulted in a total of 13,386 stories focused on the presidential campaign: 1,187 newspaper stories; 813 online stories; 3,025 network television stories; 6,217 stories on cable news; and 2,144 stories from radio programs.

To ensure that all relevant stories were identified and captured, PEJ researchers began by identifying all stories that were primarily about “presidential bids for 2008,” as labeled in the “big story” category. Big stories are particular events in the news that extend over a period of time and are featured in multiple news outlets during the time period under study. For the 16-month time period studied, this resulted in 13,386 stories.

Then, to narrow that universe down to stories specifically addressing religion and the campaign, the study took four additional steps. The first three steps involved different ways of identifying religion in the news in the weekly coding system. And the fourth step merged those stories into one set, eliminating any duplicates. This process, while lengthy gave the best assurance of capturing all relevant stories over the 16-month time period. In the weekly analysis, PEJ captures religion at three different levels: broad story topic, big story sub-storyline and presidential campaign topic.

Most of the religion content was taken from stories coded within the “broad story” topics of “religion” and “politics and religion.” These are stories that deal with religion as a general topic. It casts a wide net that includes everything from stories about a candidate’s personal church affiliation to stories about religious concerns of the electorate. This process resulted in a total of 183 stories: 21 newspaper stories; 6 online stories; 44 network television stories; 89 stories on cable news; and 23 stories from radio programs.

Second, PEJ employed the “big story sub-storyline” code to capture stories that dealt with a candidate’s religious faith but were categorized as a broad story other than “religion” or “politics and religion.” Sub-storylines are used to denote the discrete storylines that develop within a particular big story. In the case of the “presidential bids” big story, one of the sub-stories used for the month of December 2007 captured stories about candidates’ personal topics – including race, gender and religion. To pull out religion stories from the rest, these stories were combed through manually and assigned based on information included in the story describer – a brief abstract that is written by the coder summarizing the story. The universe for this component consisted of a total of 143 stories: 14 newspaper stories; 10 online stories; 47 network television stories; 45 stories on cable news; and 27 stories from radio programs.

Third, for 2008 campaign stories, PEJ pulled stories that were coded within the presidential campaign topic category called “personal religion.” This variable was added in January 2008 to capture narrower storylines in campaign reporting, similar to the sub-storyline category. All stories that were coded as “personal religion” were included in the sample. The universe for this component consisted of a total of 58 stories: 8 newspaper stories; 1 online story; 6 network television stories; 30 stories on cable news; and 13 stories from radio programs.

Finally, because some of the stories pulled from these three coding categories were included in more than one of these categories, the final database of stories was cleaned, and all duplicates were deleted from the sample. The final universe of religion-focused campaign stories consisted of a total of 252 stories: 26 newspaper stories; 10 online stories; 49 network television stories; 126 stories on cable news; and 41 stories from radio programs.

Sub-Universe of Stories: Within the overall 16-month time period, PEJ looked more intensely at two periods of coverage that coincided with key events related to religion and the campaign: two speeches addressing religion, one given by former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and the other given by the Democratic presumptive nominee Barack Obama. Romney delivered his speech on Dec. 6, 2007, and Obama delivered his on March 18, 2008. In order to more closely analyze the news media buildup to the speeches, as well as the follow-up coverage, PEJ derived a sample of stories encompassing the week prior to and two weeks following each speech. In Romney’s case, this sample fell between Nov. 29, 2007, and Dec. 20, 2007. In Obama’s case, the sample fell between March 11, 2008, and April 1, 2008. Stories were pulled that fell within these time periods, were coded as “presidential bids for 2008″ big story, contained the candidate of interest as lead newsmaker and contained the word “speech” in the story describer, which is written by the coder analyzing each story.

For Romney’s speech analysis, the universe for this component consisted of a total of 46 stories: 3 newspaper stories; 4 online stories; 13 network television stories; 19 stories on cable news; and 7 stories from radio programs. For Obama’s speech analysis, the universe consisted of a total of 114 stories: 7 newspaper stories; 8 online stories; 30 network television stories; 56 stories on cable news; and 13 stories from radio programs.

In addition, to complement the data on Obama’s 2008 speech, we calculated the rate of media attention given to the Wright controversy during the same three-week period. These stories were captured by way of a sub-storyline in the “presidential bids” big story, labeled “Obama’s relationship w/Rev. Wright.” These stories came to a total of 67.

Similarly, we calculated the amount of coverage of Republican presumptive nominee John McCain’s relationship with Hagee by using the sub-storyline in the “presidential bids” big story, labeled “McCain’s relationship w/Pastor J. Hagee.” These stories – measured in the month of May 2008 (outside of the main sample dates) – came to a total of 36.

In an effort to analyze the ways in which individual candidates received different religion coverage, the lead newsmaker variable was used. If 50% or more of a given story is about one person, that individual is credited as the lead newsmaker. This variable was added in July 2007. Prior to that, in order to determine the lead newsmaker, a previous study of campaign coverage from Jan. 1, 2007, through May 31, 2007, was used. That study, “The Invisible Primary” (see http://www.journalism.org/node/8200 for methodology) used the “Primary Figure” variable to indicate who dominated any given story. For the month of June 2007, all religion-focused campaign stories for that month were manually coded and attributed with a lead newsmaker when appropriate, based on evidence from the story describers.

Outlets Examined
The outlets examined included stories:

  • On the front page of newspapers
  • In the entirety of commercial network evening newscasts
  • In the first 30 minutes of network morning news, the PBS evening news, NPR’s Morning Edition, and all cable programs
  • In the top five stories on each website at the time of capture

Newspapers (Sunday to Friday)
The New York Times every day
Coded two out of these four every day
The Washington Post
The Los Angeles Times
USA Today
The Wall Street Journal
Coded two out of these four every day
The Boston Globe
The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune
The Austin (Texas) American-Statesman
The Albuquerque Journal
Coded two out of these four every day
The (Attleboro, Mass.) Sun Chronicle
The (Ashtabula, Ohio) Star Beacon
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
The Bakersfield Californian

Web sites (Monday to Friday)
– CNN.com
– Yahoo News
– MSNBC.com
– Google News
– AOL News

Network TV (Monday to Friday)
Morning shows
– ABC – Good Morning America
– CBS – Early Show
– NBC – Today
Evening news
– ABC – World News Tonight
– CBS – CBS Evening News
– NBC – NBC Nightly News
– PBS – NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

Cable TV (Monday to Friday)
Daytime (2 to 2:30 p.m.) – coded two out of three every day
– CNN
– Fox News
– MSNBC
Nighttime CNN – coded three out of the four every day
Lou Dobbs Tonight
Situation Room (6 p.m.)
Paula Zahn Now/Out in the Open
Anderson Cooper 360
Nighttime Fox News – coded three out of the four every day
Special Report With Brit Hume
Fox Report With Shepard Smith
O’Reilly Factor
Hannity & Colmes
Nighttime MSNBC – coded two out of the four every day
Tucker Carlson (6 p.m.)
Hardball (7 p.m.)
Countdown With Keith Olbermann
Scarborough Country/Live With Dan Abrams

Radio (Monday to Friday)
News Radio
Headlines – every day
– ABC Radio headlines at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
– CBS Radio headlines at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
– NPR Morning Edition – 5:00-5:30 a.m. as broadcast on an East Coast member station.
Talk radio
– Rush Limbaugh every day
One out of two additional conservatives each day:
– Sean Hannity
– Michael Savage
One out of two liberals each day:
– Ed Schultz
– Randi Rhodes

For additional details, view the report topline.

Photo credits: AP