Pope Benedict XVI and the Obama
administration generated the most religion-related coverage in the U.S. press in
The pope, though he made no visits
to the United States
last year, was the subject of two of the top 10 religion stories, while the
Obama administration accounted for three of the top 10 religion-focused
storylines during the year.
No single event dominated religion
news coverage in 2009 the way the
pope's visit to the U.S. did in 2008. Instead, when religion made the news,
it was often just one element of a larger story, such as the debate over abortion
funding and health care reform, the impact of the recession on religious
institutions, or the actions of President Barack Obama's administration, including
its continuation of the "faith-based initiative."
These are some of the findings of a
new study by the Pew
Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public
Life that examined news stories from January through December 2009.
Among other key findings:
- The overall amount of religion coverage remained
fairly steady, at 0.8% (compared with 1% in 2008) of the newshole – the total space
or time available for news content in newspapers, on television and in other
- About two-thirds of religion coverage in 2009
focused on stories that took place in the United States. About a third of the
content focused on stories outside the U.S., down from 42.3% in 2008.
- Religion-related issues drew more attention in
new media than in traditional press outlets. In a separate analysis of blogs
throughout 2009, religion-related news made a list of top stories in 11 out of
the 45 weeks studied. The topics that showed up in new media ranged from a Swiss
ban on construction of minarets to a French trial of a group of Scientologists
to the debate about same-sex marriage.
- The importance of new media platforms as a place
for news and discussion about religion may grow as the number of religion
writers in traditional news outlets decreases. According to the Religion
Newswriters Association, at least 16 major print news outlets have reduced or
abandoned their religion beats since 2007.
The study of traditional news sources analyzed more
than 68,700 stories from newspapers, the internet, network and cable
television, and the radio (for details, see the full methodology).
The new media content was analyzed separately by aggregating and coding a
sample of blogs, tweets and other sources monitored by Technorati and
Icerocket, which track millions of blogs and social media entries (for details,
see the full New Media Index methodology).
Religion Coverage Overall in 2009
Religion accounted for 0.8% of the mainstream media's
newshole in 2009.1 This level of attention was on par with press attention to several other
specialty areas, such as education and immigration.
While some news topics received
much more attention in 2009 than they had a year earlier, religion coverage
remained fairly steady. Health news coverage, for example, nearly quadrupled to
11% of the overall newshole, an indication of media interest in the debate
about health care reform. Religion coverage saw a slight dip, dropping from
1.0% of overall news coverage in 2008 to 0.8% in 2009.
The bulk of the religion coverage in
American media outlets in 2009 (67.0%) focused on stories that took place in
the United States.
About a third of the content (32.8%) focused on stories outside the U.S., primarily on coverage of Benedict's
travels and activities in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Attention to events on foreign soil was down from 2008, when 42.3% of
religion-related coverage dealt with events abroad.
Top Stories of the Year
The pope's visit to the Middle East from May 8-15 accounted for 4.5% of all
religion news last year, making it the No. 2 religion news story of 2009. The
only storyline to receive more attention was the role of religion in the Obama
administration, but this narrative ebbed and flowed for several months,
following a number of different actions taken by the new administration. Obama
and Benedict also dominated many of the other top religion stories of 2009,
such as the president's speech to the Turkish parliament in April and the papal
pardon of a controversial bishop.
Taken together, the various actions of the pope accounted for 7.3% of religion
coverage for the year. Religion storylines related to the Obama administration
made up 9.6% of all religion-related news.
Press Still Followed the Pope
Press coverage of the pope's
activities focused on his diplomatic efforts as well as several controversies.
Benedict's trip to the Middle East was the biggest of these storylines, at 4.5%
of the religion newshole. Some news reports picked up on the pontiff's efforts
to build bridges both to Jews and to Muslims in the region. On May 11, for
example, NBC's Today Show reported on
the pope's visit to Bethlehem,
where he honored Holocaust victims and called for a Palestinian homeland.
But some other reports painted a
picture of an embattled pope. For example, a segment on the May 12 broadcast of
ABC's World News Tonight described
the pontiff's attempt to promote peace, but it also focused on the politics
that continued to prevent peace in the Middle East.
As ABC News Middle East correspondent Simon McGregor-Wood noted, "Pope Benedict
XVI came to Jerusalem
today as a pilgrim of peace, but this is a place of conflict." And a BBC News
Web story on the same day referenced Benedict's involvement in Hitler Youth
during World War II. "The chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial
Directorate, Avner Shalev, said he was disappointed that the pope did not more
strongly condemn the Nazis," reported the BBC.
The pope also made news in January for
lifting the excommunication of a group of bishops who had been ordained 20
years earlier without the Vatican's
approval. The pardons drew criticism from European leaders when it turned out
that one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, recently had questioned whether 6
million Jews died in the Holocaust and claimed that none were killed in Nazi
gas chambers (2.3% of all religion coverage). The pardon was a home page story
on ABCNews.com on Feb. 3.
The third major papal storyline was
the pontiff's trip to Africa in March, which
garnered 0.5% of religion coverage for the year. Once again, controversy followed
Benedict. On March 27, National Public Radio broadcast a BBC story about a
British medical journal's denunciation of the pope's stance against the use of
condoms in Africa. "The pope, who will shortly
celebrate his 82nd birthday, has been involved in a series of public relations
gaffes," reported the BBC's David Willey. "The Vatican has so far shown no sign of
any willingness to modify its doctrinal views on the necessity of changing
peoples' sexual conduct rather than relying on condoms."
The pope also was featured
prominently in many stories during the Christmas holiday season. Holiday stories accounted for 4.2% of religion coverage
and about half of these were about a papal Mass at which Benedict was attacked
and dragged down by a female assailant, who was quickly subdued; the pope was
not injured in the incident. A Dec. 25 CNN.com report described the scene: "The pope was quickly helped to
his feet by his aides—prompting cheers from the crowd—and the service resumed."
Religion and the President
Three of the top religion stories
of the year revolved around the ideology, policies and rhetoric of President
Obama. Together, these stories made up 9.6% of the religion newshole in 2009.
One storyline, which accounted for
5.8% of all religion coverage, centered on the role of religion in the new
administration. Early in the year, the media covered the administration's
choices for the presidential inauguration festivities, where both evangelical
pastor Rick Warren and an openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson, delivered
prayers. CNN's Campbell Brown, in her prime-time program on Jan. 12, delved
into the political implications of these choices, recalling that "it was only a
few weeks ago that gay rights groups were pretty outraged when Obama picked
Pastor Rick Warren, who, of course, campaigned against gay marriage in
California, to say the prayer at the inauguration. Is this a way of placating
Other news reports from early in
the president's first year raised questions about Obama's religious ideology.
For instance, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, in his program's opening
segment, "Talking Points Memo," stated that "the president is a secular guy."
O'Reilly proceeded to describe some incidents he felt were indicative of
Obama's approach to religion in the public sphere: when Obama spoke at Georgetown University, a religious symbol behind
him was covered; he did not choose a home church once in office; and he did not
attend National Day of Prayer events. Other news outlets picked up on the
latter observation. CNN's Situation Room
aired a story on May 6 describing how the new president had upset certain
Christians by not participating in the National Day of Prayer in May. CNN White
House correspondent Ed Henry noted, however, that "many past presidents marked
the occasion by just signing a proclamation."
Additionally, a number of media
accounts focused on Obama's continuation and expansion of former President
George W. Bush's faith-based initiative (see the report by the Roundtable on Religion
& Social Welfare Policy) and the creation of a faith-based advisory
council (see the Pew Forum's
report on Obama's advisory council). On Feb. 6, Barbara Bradley Hagerty of
National Public Radio interviewed Jim Towey, who ran the office under Bush for
five years. Towey's advice to Obama was that "he'd better pray, every day,
because you really need the wisdom to navigate a very treacherous landscape
between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the
Two other media storylines focused
on speeches by the president. His April address to the Turkish parliament and a
related news conference received 2.1% of religion coverage in 2009. While in Turkey, Obama stressed the positive impact of
Islam on the United States
and the world, which generated some backlash from conservative talk show hosts.
Radio broadcaster Michael Savage
argued on his April 6 program that Obama was wrongfully defending Islam during
the visit. "Obama said that ‘Islam has made contributions that have shaped or
shaken the world, including my own country.'…so I said I couldn't think of one
contemporary Islamic contribution to America other than Obama … Barack
Hussein Obama, their mouth piece."
In May, the topic of abortion and
Catholicism appeared in the news when Obama delivered the University of Notre
Dame's commencement address. Some bishops took issue with the university's
selection of Obama because the Democratic president's views on abortion made
him, in their view, an inappropriate choice for a Catholic university. Coverage
of the event made up 1.7% of the religion newshole for the year. Fox News' Sean
Hannity interviewed anti-abortion activist Randall Terry, the founder of stopobamanotredame.com,
on his May 15 program, where Terry said, "Human life is being snuffed out
because of President Obama. And they're honoring him."
Press coverage of Obama's speech at
Cairo University in June focused almost
entirely on the diplomatic angle of the event. Although Obama addressed matters
of faith explicitly, even quoting the Koran, the vast majority of the
mainstream coverage emphasized the broader international relations aspect. "Most notable in the hourlong
address was Mr. Obama's reiteration of his support of a state for Palestine, and his rejection of continued construction by Israel
of new settlements on disputed land," reported the Wall Street Journal on June 4. Only about halfway down did the
article briefly touch on Obama's references to Islamic traditions and beliefs,
noting that Obama "quoted from the Quran and recited Muslim contributions to
the world and to America."
Religion and Public Affairs
Attempts to change the U.S.
health care system and the struggling economy were two stories that generated a
great deal of coverage in 2009. These two issues also generated some
Faith groups' activism around
health care reform made up 3.0% of the religion newshole in 2009, sometimes
providing a window into how religious groups take different stances on the same
issue. An Aug. 11 CNN story published on Google News described the efforts of
religious groups in favor of health care reform. The story quoted a Baptist
minister and a Jewish rabbi who argued that access to health care is a moral
issue. But some reports examined religious coalitions that opposed an overhaul
of the health care system. A front-page
New York Times story on Aug. 28 described a group of Catholic bishops
opposed to the proposed health care legislation, having "concluded that
Democrats' efforts to carve out abortion coverage are so inadequate that
lawmakers should block the entire effort."
Religion narratives tied to the
economic recession accounted for 2.2% of all religion-related coverage. These
stories mostly examined how houses of worship were faring under financial
duress, as well as the growing demands on religious charities and social
service providers. A few stories went deeper, such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's front-page account on July 8 of the
pope's encyclical about the moral aspects of economic responsibility. Reporter
Ann Rodgers noted where the pope spoke to Wall Street in "Caritas in Veritate."
"The pope criticized economic decisions made solely for the short-term interest
of investors, particularly when jobs are lost," Rodgers wrote.
The perennial debate over abortion
rights also made the news in 2009, accounting for 1.7% of religion-related
coverage during the year. Most of the coverage focused on tensions between the
hierarchy of the Catholic Church and Catholics who question or depart from the
church's teachings, particularly on abortion. For example, Yahoo News carried
an Associated Press story in November that reported that Providence, R.I.,
Bishop Thomas Tobin had asked Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy to refrain from
receiving Communion in light of his stance on abortion.
Other Notable Stories
Two other religion-related stories
received notable coverage in 2009. One of these was the shooting at Fort Hood,
which filled 2.0% of the religion newshole. When Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan
went on a shooting spree at the Texas
military base in November, the media focused on whether and how the Muslim
psychiatrist had been radicalized.
Worried about a backlash, leaders
of the American Muslim community were eager to convey their own message through
the media. NPR's Nov. 6 broadcast of Morning
Edition contained a statement by Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on
American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). He insisted that "this is just something
that … should not be used to somehow paint Muslim military personnel or the
American Muslim community as somehow unpatriotic or anti-military." The cable
news channels were another venue where Islamic leaders spoke freely. On MSNBC's
Nov. 6 edition of Hardball, host
Chris Matthews spoke with Nihad Awad, also of CAIR. Awad told Matthews,
"Sincerely, I offer condolences for the families who lost their loved ones and
I pray sincerely for God to give a speedy recovery for those who were injured
in this attack. But also I remember the thousands of Muslims continuing to
serve in the U.S. military
and also the many headstones in Arlington
that have crescents on them."On the
same day, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow interviewed Suhail Khan, an expert on
Muslim-Christian relations, who also stressed that thousands of Muslims serve
with honor in the U.S.
Another storyline involved
Republican Sen. John Ensign, who admitted to having an affair with the wife of
one of his aides. Stories on this topic, which accounted for 1.6% of
religion-related coverage for the year, addressed Ensign's conservative
Christian positions on social issues and his ties to The Fellowship (also known
as The Family), an evangelical Christian group that includes members of
Congress and other public officials.
Religion Coverage by Medium
Each sector of the media devoted
about the same amount of coverage to religion during the year. Across network
and cable television news, radio broadcasts, newspapers and websites of
traditional news organizations, about 1% of the total newshole focused on
But there were differences in the
type of religion stories that were featured most prominently. On cable TV,
religion-related stories that had a political component received the most
attention. For example, the top religion-related storyline on CNN, Fox News and
MSNBC was the policies and ideology of the new Obama administration (15.2% of
cable's religion coverage) followed by faith groups' involvement in the health
care debate (6.7%). Cable also devoted a significant portion of its religion
coverage (6.5%) to Ensign's affair.
Broadcast networks, including NBC,
CBS and ABC, focused more on the pope; the networks' top two religion stories
included Benedict's travels to the Middle East
(9.5% of the networks' religion coverage) and his pardon of the bishop who had once
denied the Holocaust (8.3%).
Newspapers devoted significant
space (5.8% of their religion coverage) to religion and the economic downturn.
They were the only news outlet to devote much attention to that issue.
And on the Web and radio news
programs, no particular type of news story dominated religion-related news
New Media and Religion
In 2009, religion attracted
significantly more attention in new media sources than in the mainstream media.
An analysis of nearly a year's worth of commentary in a sample drawn from
millions of blogs and social media finds that religion was a top story in
nearly a quarter of the weeks studied (11 out of 45 weeks).2
(For details, see the complete methodology of PEJ's New Media Index.)
The specific religion-related
topics covered by new media were broad in scope. Some reappeared throughout the
year, while others surfaced quickly and faded abruptly. For instance, the
debate over same-sex marriage was the top theme in five of the 45 weeks studied.
Religion Topics on Blogs in 2009
Percent of Links
Catholic Indulgences (#3 story that week)
Founder of Islamic TV Station Charged with Beheading Wife (#4 story)
Decline of Organized Religion (#1 story)
Culture Wars (#4 story)
Same-Sex Marriage (#1 story)
Same-Sex Marriage (#2 story)
Same-Sex Marriage (#1 story)
Same-Sex Marriage (#1 story)
Same-Sex Marriage (#2 story)
Scientology (#4 story)
Swiss Ban on Minarets (#1 story)
*Topics included in this table appeared among the top five
overall topics for that particular week.
Between April and June, the debate
over same-sex marriage appeared frequently in the blogosphere, stemming mostly
from state legislation. On April 7, for example, Vermont
legislators voted to allow same-sex couples to marry and the City Council in Washington, D.C.,
voted to recognize gay nuptials that had been performed elsewhere. Most
bloggers who linked to news reports applauded the developments. "It's been an
amazing last few days for gay rights in America," declared blogger Collin
Kelley. "The Vermont
legislature approved same-sex marriage, so I guess that means the Christian
right-wing crazies and their Republican cohorts will have to find someone else
to blame besides ‘activist judges.'"
But a minority of bloggers were
critical of the developments. "While we Christians should abhor the events that
have taken place in Vermont,"
warned blogger Nathaniel Darnell, "more concerning to us than the legalization
of sodomy should be the Church's failure to proclaim the Law of God and the
failure of fathers to train their sons in manliness."
This is an illustration of a new
media trait that emerged throughout the course of the year – its ability to
quickly amass a passionate community of commentators around any particular
subject (for more on the character of new media audience engagement, see the 2010 State of the
News Media report). This was the case for same-sex marriage as well as for other
religion topics that sometimes generated intense debate.
Some religion-related topics that
did not get much attention from the mainstream media received more coverage in
new media. During the week of Feb. 9, for example, the subject of Catholic
indulgences was widely debated in new media sources. It was sparked by a New York Times story that chronicled the
return at some Catholic churches of plenary indulgences – a practice that
allows for the mitigation of punishment for sins. During the week of Oct. 26,
Scientology was the topic of conversation in the blogosphere after a French
six members of the Church of Scientology guilty of organized fraud and
fined each as much as 400,000 euros. And from Nov. 30-Dec. 4, 17% of the links
in blogs were about a Swiss referendum banning the construction of minarets.
The blogosphere and other social
media tools have grown over the past few years. According to the Pew Internet
& American Life Project, 51% of internet users post online content that
they have created themselves. Eleven percent of all adults use blogs. The use
of Twitter has tripled since 2008.
At the same time, the number of
reporters assigned to the religion beat in the mainstream media has been
shrinking. According to Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion
Newswriters Association, at least 16 major print news outlets have reduced or
abandoned their religion beats since 2007. At the same time, she says, online
newspapers such as The Huffington Post and Politics Daily have increased their
religion staff. "We're in the midst of growth of the [religion] beat online,"
Mason says, "but newspapers haven't kept up with the trend and have instead let
religion coverage languish."
1 Percent of newshole is calculated using an algorithm that accounts for total space or
time devoted to news content in newspapers, television, audio and Web sources.
2 For the sake of
authenticity, misspellings and grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes
from blog postings have not been altered.Photo credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images