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The biggest religion stories of 2011 involved tensions
over Islam and questions about faith in presidential politics, especially
Mormonism, according to an annual review of religion in the news by the Pew
Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) and the Pew Research
Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Events and controversies related to Islam also dominated U.S.
press coverage of religion in 2010. However, coverage of some stories faded
in the past year, notably coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman
Catholic Church, which received much more media
attention in 2010.
Compared with topics such as politics and the economy, religion
does not typically receive a lot of attention from the mainstream news media, and
2011 was no exception. When religion did make news, it was often because of
accusations about extremism or intolerance. For instance, among the biggest
individual stories of 2011 were a controversial congressional hearing about the
threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism and the fallout after a Florida pastor
staged a Koran burning. And one of the top religion and politics stories of the
year centered on an incident in which a Texas minister called the Mormon faith
The discussion of religion in social media in 2011 was quite
different than the coverage in the traditional press. None of the top religion-related
subjects among bloggers in 2011 was a top story in traditional media outlets.
While the presidential campaign and political incidents involving Islam
captured the attention of the traditional press, bloggers focused on such
topics as the Rapture predictions of a Christian radio host and science and
religion. Bloggers also tended to cover religion in a less sustained way than
the mainstream media.
These are among the findings of a new study that examines
news coverage in a broad range of mainstream media sources, as well as in blogs
and on Twitter, from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2011.
Among the key findings of the study:
- Religion accounted for 0.7% of all mainstream media
coverage studied in 2011, down from 2.0% in 2010. In the 52 news outlets
monitored throughout the year, including the evening TV news programs,
newspaper front pages, top cable news programs, top news websites and top radio
programs, religion received about as much coverage as race/gender/gay issues
(0.8%) and immigration (0.7%).
- Islam has become a bigger part of the media’s
focus on religion in recent years. Six of the top 10 religion stories in 2011
were about Islam. This continues a trend first seen in 2010, when four of the top
five religion stories involved controversies related to Islam. In 2007-2009, by
contrast, Islam-focused stories generally accounted for a much smaller share of
- Viewed from another angle – the specific
religious faiths on which media coverage focused – Islam again ranked at the
top. It was the subject of nearly a third (31.3%) of the religion ”newshole” – the
amount of space and time devoted to religion news online, in print, on
television and on the radio – in 2011. This was nearly three times the amount that
focused on Catholicism (11.3%) and more than three times the amount that
focused on Mormonism (9.6%).
- While a variety of stories about Islam collectively
accounted for the biggest share of media coverage about religion in 2011, the largest
single storyline involving religion was the presidential election campaign. The
campaign accounted for 13.1% of all religion coverage studied.
But while it ranked first for the year, coverage of religion in the presidential
election was down considerably from four years earlier, in the run-up to the
2008 election, when campaign news made up 23.8% of 2007 religion coverage.
- An analysis of the past five years of religion
coverage suggests that interest in religion tends to be heavily event-driven,
at least at the top of the media agenda. In 2008, for instance, Pope Benedict
XVI’s visit to the United States accounted for about 37% of all religion
coverage during that year, though the visit itself lasted for only six days in
April. And 82.3% of the stories about the visit were published or broadcast
within that six-day window.
- Users of another social media platform, Twitter,
gave less prominence to religion in 2011 than they had the previous year. Only
during one week in 2011 did a religion-focused story appear among the top five stories
discussed on the micro-blogging tool. (Interest was triggered by a BBC report
on a group of scientists who predicted that religion was headed for extinction in
certain parts of the world.)
This examination of religion coverage in the media is
built from two separate areas of research. The study of traditional news
sources analyzed nearly 46,000 stories from newspaper front pages, home pages
of major news websites, the first half-hour of network and cable television
news programs and the first half-hour of radio news and talk shows. (For
details, see the methodology.)
The content of new media was analyzed separately by aggregating and coding a sample
of blogs, tweets and other sources monitored by Tweetmeme, Technorati,
Icerocket and Twitteruly, which track millions of blogs and social media
entries. (For details, see the New Media Index methodology.)
Religion Coverage Overall in 2011
Overall, religion received somewhat less media attention
in 2011 than it did a year earlier.
Of the entire universe of news content analyzed by PEJ on
an ongoing basis, religion-related issues and events accounted for 0.7% of the
total “newshole” or amount of space and time devoted to news online, in print, on
television and on the radio in 2011. That was down from 2.0% in 2010.
PEJ monitors 25 different general topics in the news. At
the top of the list in 2011 were government agencies/legislatures and politics/elections,
followed by U.S. foreign affairs and the economy.1
Religion ranked 22nd, receiving about the same level of attention as
immigration, transportation and race/gender/gay issues. By comparison, coverage
of science and technology, the environment and education slightly outpaced coverage
of religion this past year.
Most of the religion coverage in 2011 (74.6%) dealt with stories that took
place in the U.S. Less than a sixth of the coverage (15.2%) had an international
focus, while 9.1% of the coverage had both domestic and international
The coverage of domestic stories was slightly higher in 2011 than it was in
2010, when 70.3% of religion coverage was focused on domestic topics.
Top Religion Stories of the Year
Tensions With Islam Are Becoming a Bigger Story
Six of the top 10 religion stories in 2011 focused at
least in part on Islam – the highest number since PEJ and the Pew Forum began
monitoring religion news in 2007. Nearly one-third of all religion coverage
focused on Islam or Muslims in the U.S. or abroad. In 2010, four of the top 10
religion stories focused on Islam, and these stories accounted for 47.9% of religion
coverage. Prior to that, Islam had appeared less often among the top 10 stories
of each year and accounted for far less coverage: three of the top 10 stories
in 2007 (3.9% of coverage), two of the top 10 in 2008 (2.2% of coverage) and
one of the top 10 in 2009 (2.0% of coverage).
Congressional Hearing on Radical Islam
The top Islam-related story of
the year was the congressional hearing organized by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) on
the subject of radical Islam in the U.S., accounting for 9.4% of religion
coverage. It was the No. 2 religion story overall, behind the presidential
King, chairman of the House
Committee on Homeland Security, announced the hearing in December 2010. He later
defended his decision to single out American Muslims, arguing that radical
Islam posed a special threat to national security. “[U.S. Attorney General]
Eric Holder is not saying he's staying awake at night because of what's coming
from anti-abortion demonstrators or coming from environmental extremists or
from Neo-Nazis. It's the radicalization right now in the Muslim
community," King told
The March 10 hearing included
testimony from supporters of King’s premise as well as critics, among them
Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, one of two Muslim members of Congress, whose
emotional defense of the patriotism of American Muslims was recounted by many
The media coverage of the
hearing characterized it as emotional and combative. A March 10 New York Times story said
the hearing was “attacked by critics as a revival of McCarthyism, and lauded by
supporters as a courageous stand against political correctness.” A Washington
about the hearing declared: “Plenty of drama, less substance.”
Nonetheless, for a single
congressional hearing, the King event was a big story, filling 5% of the
newshole – the total space and time devoted to news coverage – for the week of March
7-13, enough to make it the fourth-biggest story of the week.
by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that Americans
were moderately interested in the hearing. During the period March 10-13, 18%
of those polled said that they were following the story closely. By comparison,
15% said they were closely following the presidential campaign at the time and
52% said they were closely following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
The third-biggest religion storyline of the year involved
anti-Muslim sentiment that was not tied to any particular event. Some of these
stories articulated anger or distrust of Islam, while others included defenses
of the faith. Collectively, they made up 6.7% of all religion coverage in 2011.
Stories about anti-Muslim sentiment often found a home on
cable TV talk shows. For example, the Feb. 2 edition of the Fox News program “Hannity”
featured Imam Anjem Choudary, co-founder of the Islamist organization
al-Muhajiroun, in a shouting match with Sean Hannity, the program’s host, over
On Feb. 3, MSNBC host Chris Matthews played a clip of
conservative commentator Frank Gaffney, the founder and president of the Center
for Security Policy, speaking about the influence in the United States of the
Muslim Brotherhood, which Gaffney suggested was a serious threat to domestic
security. After watching the clip, Matthews expressed indignation. “Isn’t this
what it’s about – pure, utter fearmongering?” he asked.
Coverage in this category also included stories about
attempts by groups in Tennessee and elsewhere to counter the perceived threat
of sharia law.
The 10th anniversary of 9/11 provided the media with an
opportunity to reflect on the experiences of Muslim Americans since the
attacks. Collectively, these stories accounted for 4.2% of religion coverage
for the year. That made it the fifth-biggest religion storyline of the year.
Some of the coverage was triggered by a Pew Research
that found that more than half of Muslim Americans (55%) say life has been more
difficult for them in the years since the attacks.
Other stories explored ways that Muslims are trying to improve
their interactions with fellow Americans. According to a Los Angeles Times story
from Sept. 3, “The decade since the
attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon has seen a shift in the way many
American Muslims negotiate their delicate position as a minority group
associated, fairly or unfairly, with the perpetrators of the deadliest acts of
terrorism in the nation’s history.”
Violence Sparked by Koran Burning
Another major Islam-focused
storyline in 2011 was the plan by Florida pastor Terry Jones to stage a Koran
burning. The story first surfaced in 2010 but culminated in March 2011 when
Jones carried through on his threat. The act itself, however, received far less
coverage than Jones’ prior talk about it, amounting to 3.7% of religion
coverage for the year, down from 14.5% in 2010 when the pastor first threatened
to burn the Islamic holy book. “It’s like people forgot about us,” Jones was quoted
as saying in a Washington Post story
on April 2. Not everyone ignored the incident, however. The event incited
violence in Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of more than a dozen people,
including United Nations workers. That made it news again in the United States.
On the April 4 broadcast of “NBC Nightly News,” anchor
Brian Williams raised some questions about “this incident, which no one in this
country knew about.” To one of NBC’s foreign correspondents, Williams asked,
“We didn’t know this Koran had been lit. …. How did it then explode into
violence overseas?” The correspondent went on to discuss the strength of the
overseas intelligence operation of the Afghanistan insurgency, which presumably
found out about the Koran burning before many Americans did.
For the year as a whole, the Koran burning episode and its
aftermath were relatively small components of religion coverage, receiving
about a quarter of the media attention that Jones’ threat had garnered in 2010,
when it first became something of a sensation.
International Stories Focusing on Islam
Two stories among the top 10 focused on Islam and foreign
One of these, which made up 3.4% of the religion coverage,
had to do with the so-called Arab Spring revolutions that swept countries including
Egypt and Libya in 2011. In Egypt, for instance, a component of the coverage of
these protests focused on religion, particularly on the influence of the Muslim
Brotherhood and the plight of Coptic Christians.
A May 30 New York Times story
described fears among Egyptian Christians in the wake of the revolution. “The
revolution has empowered the majority but also opened new questions about the
protection of minority rights like freedom of religion or expression as
Islamist groups step forward to lay out their agendas and test their political
might.” Such stories appeared throughout the year on the front pages of major
The other major foreign story of the year involving
religion related to the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (1.7% of the
religion coverage). A Washington Post story
from May 2 focused on the ritual aspects of the death and burial of bin Laden
after he was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan and his remains were disposed of
at sea. A “CBS Evening News” story
from May 4 explored reactions to his death by members of a Muslim family in Dearborn,
Mich., a city with a high concentration of Muslims.
Other Top Stories
Campaign Coverage Focuses on Romney,
As noted above, the single biggest religion storyline of
the year was the U.S. presidential election campaign, which accounted for 13.1%
of religion coverage.
More than half of the coverage of religion and the
campaign focused on a single Republican presidential candidate – former Massachusetts
Gov. Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith. One incident in particular drew a lot of
On Oct. 7, Texas evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress
introduced Texas Gov. Rick Perry, himself an evangelical, at the Values Voter
Summit in Washington, D.C. In his remarks, Jeffress implied that Romney’s faith
should be a concern for voters. After the event, Jeffress spoke to reporters
about the matter, calling Romney’s Mormon faith a “cult.”
As NPR reported,
“The Mormon religion, and the dim view of it held by so many evangelical
Protestants, has mostly been below the radar so far in the 2012 presidential
race,” but “Rev. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas opened a
closet that had stayed pretty much closed until now….”
CNN’s Anderson Cooper challenged Jeffress during an
interview, saying “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does – they
consider themselves Christian, and on their website they say they accept Jesus
Christ as their savior, as their redeemer, and they say, ‘each of these titles
points to the truth that Jesus Christ is the only way by which we can return to
live with our heavenly father.’”
Jeffress maintained his position, but added, “I think
it’s better to have a non-Christian like Mitt Romney who embraces biblical
values than to have a professing Christian like [President] Barack Obama who
embraces unbiblical positions.” He cited Obama’s position on abortion as an
While the bulk of attention to Romney’s faith in 2011
clustered around the Jeffress incident, some of it lingered later into the
fall. After a Pew Research Center poll
revealed skepticism among some GOP primary voters about Mormonism, CNN’s Erin
Burnett asked on her Nov. 23 broadcast, “Is the Mormon issue going to hurt
[Romney] again?” to which CNN analyst David Gergen responded, “We’ve wondered
why Mitt Romney has had a hard time breaking out as a front-runner, which
typically Republican front-runners do. This poll suggests that in the mix – I
don’t think the driving force, but in the mix – there is the question of
While there is no clear connection between media coverage
of Romney’s faith and attitudes of the public toward Mormonism, the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has called on the U.S. media to resist
letting others speak for it. At a December Poynter Institute for Media Studies event
for reporters on the subject of religion in the election, church spokesman
Michael Otterson made a direct plea
to those in attendance on the eve of the primaries: “Engage us directly.
Include us in your sources. While you obviously will have multiple sources,
please allow us to define our own beliefs and practices.”
Over the course of the year, some stories focused on
which candidate would gain the most backing from evangelical voters, and some
described aspects of the Mormon faith as journalists acquainted readers with
Romney’s biography. Occasionally, Islam and Catholicism appeared in campaign
coverage, too. But the Jeffress controversy was by far the single biggest
religion story in 2011 campaign coverage, echoing some of the patterns that
emerged in the 2008 campaign, when religion coverage spiked whenever there was a
controversy involving a religious leader or cleric.
(For his part, Obama was the subject of little
religion-related campaign coverage in 2011, just as was the case in 2007,
during the run-up to the 2008 election. While half of 2007
religion-related campaign stories focused on Romney, just 5% focused on
Westboro Baptist Church Ruling
On March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the
First Amendment protects the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to conduct
anti-gay protests at military funerals. News about the group comprised 4.4% of
the religion coverage studied, making it the fourth-biggest religion storyline
of the year.
Many of the news reports noted that the court ruling was
controversial, pleasing civil libertarians but angering others, including
veterans and their families. The church, based in Topeka, Kan., had become
notorious for protesting at funerals of soldiers as a way of drawing attention
to its position against homosexuality. During the week of the Supreme Court ruling,
the church accounted for 78.5% of all religion coverage.
The ruling was closely followed by the public, with 24%
of Americans saying they were following it closely, according to the
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. That was about the same
percentage that said they were closely following the heated discussion about
the federal budget deficit (26%).
Catholic Priest Abuse Scandal
The scandal over sexual abuse of children by Catholic
priests received less coverage in 2011 than a
year earlier, though it continued to be one of the larger ongoing stories
of the year (No. 6 overall). In total, 3.9% of the religion coverage studied
related to the subject, down from 18.8% in 2010.
In 2011, 29% of the religion coverage that focused on the Catholic Church was
about the sexual abuse scandal. Much of the media narrative centered on the
Philadelphia archdiocese’s suspension of 21 priests in March as part of a sex-abuse
investigation. A grand jury report in February had accused the archdiocese of
covering up the abuse.
The rest of the coverage of the Catholic Church focused
on a range of topics, including the steps being taken to declare Pope John Paul
II a saint and the Vatican’s adoption of new media technology.
Religion and Education
Rounding out the top 10 was a mix of unrelated stories
about the intersection of religion and education. Collectively, these stories
accounted for 2.1% of the religion coverage in 2011.
Coverage of Specific Religious Traditions
Another way of looking at religion coverage is to assess
which religious groups received the most attention from the media. Here again, Islam
featured prominently, accounting for 31.3% of coverage studied. That was nearly
three times as much coverage as Catholicism received (11.3%) and somewhat more
than was devoted to Protestantism (20.1%), including evangelical Protestantism,
mainline Protestantism and African-American church traditions.
The Mormon faith was the subject of 9.6% of religion
coverage in 2011, most of which focused on politics, as discussed above.
Themes in 2011 Religion Coverage
Still another way of examining religion coverage is to
parse stories according to the broader themes they raised. All religion stories
are included in this examination (a total of 302), whether they were part of
continuing storylines, focused on a single event or were feature pieces.
A quarter of the coverage (25.0%) focused on religious beliefs
and practices, touching on many different faiths. Nearly equal in attention was
the theme of religious violence and extremism, which was found in 21.6% of the coverage
studied. The vast majority of these stories focused on concerns about extremism
in the Muslim community.
Another theme was religious tolerance, which accounted
for 9.0% of the religion coverage and also included many stories dealing with
Muslims. Other themes receiving significant attention were church-state issues
(14.6%) and religion and politics (16.8%). And 4.1% of the coverage focused on
Religion Coverage by Sector
Does one medium cover religion more than another? This was not the case in
2011, at least when religion rose to the top of the news agenda – the front
page of newspapers, the top stories online, the nightly newscasts and top cable
shows. There was little variance between the media sectors, though overall, newspapers
were somewhat more likely to cover religion, while the network news programs
were least likely to do so.
The religious dimensions of the 2012 presidential
campaign got the most airtime on cable, where the subject accounted for 22.2%
of the coverage that related to religion in 2011.
Five Years of Episodic Religion Coverage
PEJ and the Pew Forum now have five years of content
analysis data about religion in the news. That time frame is enough to look
beyond the events that drive news coverage in a particular year and to provide
some sense of structural patterns about how the U.S. mainstream media – at the
top of its news agenda, at least – treats the subject of faith.
A few conclusions emerge. In a country that is highly
religious, the subject is not a major focus of the news. In the 60 months
studied, the percentage of stories on religion in any given month rarely
fluctuated above or below 1-2% of the space online, in print, on television and
on the radio. Another conclusion is that religion tends to make news when it
engenders controversy. Deeper questions of faith and its meaning are not,
typically, news. Rather, much of the coverage is event-driven. The two biggest
religion stories over the past five years were the intense controversy over
plans to build an Islamic center, including a mosque, near the World Trade
Center site, and Florida pastor Terry Jones’ announcement that his church would
burn a Koran. The third-biggest story during that time was a visit by the pope
to the U.S.
Religion as a topic generally receives so little
attention at the top of the news agenda that these momentary events often
account for a large share of all the attention given to faith in the press.
For instance, Benedict’s six-day visit to the United States
in April 2008 accounted for 37% of all religion coverage that year. More than
80% of the stories were published or broadcast within a six-day window around the
In 2010, similarly, the Park51 Islamic center and mosque controversy
was the No. 1 religion story of the year, accounting for more than a fifth (22.7%)
of all religion coverage. Nearly three-quarters of the stories about the
subject (72.4%) were published during a two-week period in August, after Obama
gave a speech supporting the efforts to build the center. Arguably, the story
was as much about presidential politics as about religion.
In 2011, this cycle was less pronounced but still
noticeable. King’s congressional hearing on Islam accounted for 9.4% of the
year’s religion coverage (it was the No. 2 religion story, after the U.S.
presidential campaign). More than 90% of the coverage was concentrated in one
week in March. (King held another hearing in June with a focus on the
radicalization of Muslims in American prisons, but that event barely registered
in the media.)
Religion in Social Media
As with traditional media, religion received less
attention in social media in 2011, particularly in blogs. Overall, religion was
among the top five subjects covered in the blogosphere for only five weeks of the
That is about half the number of times religion appeared among the top five
weekly topics in 2010 (12 weeks) and 2009 (11 weeks).
For the three years that PEJ and the Pew Forum have
conducted such tracking, the discussion of religion in social media generally has
aligned with the coverage in mainstream media. That was not the case in 2011,
however. None of what emerged as the top religion stories in the mainstream
media were hot topics in the blogosphere during the year.
The subjects that moved bloggers included the Judgment
Day prediction by Harold Camping, head of the Family Radio broadcast network.
Camping predicted that Saturday, May 21, would be Judgment Day and
the Rapture would occur, transporting faithful Christians directly to heaven
and leaving behind others on Earth to suffer through the Tribulation, as some
Christians believe is prophesied in the Bible. When the day came and went, many
bloggers characterized Camping's followers as naïve. But a number of religious
bloggers also discussed the incident with more sympathy for Camping, and a few
commentators also said they felt badly for those who had devoted so much time
and energy to the cause.
The second-biggest religion story in the blogosphere, as
measured on a week-by-week basis, was a July 18 op-ed
in the Los Angeles Times that discussed the “psychological mechanisms behind
faith.” The op-ed was the second-most linked to story in the blogosphere for
the week of July 18-22, accounting for 17% of blog attention.
Twitter users did not focus very much on religion in
2011. In only one week during the year did a story about religion rise to the
ranks of the top five most-tweeted topics, and that was during March 21-25,
when the future of religion was much discussed on Twitter. It was instigated by
a BBC story
about a team of researchers who studied census data worldwide and predicted
that religion is headed for extinction in such countries as Australia, Canada
About this Study
The Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew
Forum on Religion & Public Life made use of two primary data sources for
this study. The analysis of mainstream media coverage of religion relies on data
from PEJ’s News Coverage Index content analysis (see the methodology). Analysis of new media treatment of religion uses data from
PEJ’s New Media Index content analysis (see the methodology).
1 PEJ’s coding distinguishes between what is called a broad topic and a big
story. The entire universe of media coverage is accounted for with the list of
broad topics, such as the environment, foreign affairs or government. Big
stories, by contrast, are used to track discrete media narratives around
singular events, for instance, the 2012 presidential campaign, the tsunami and
earthquake in Japan or the 2011 federal budget showdown. Not every story in
PEJ’s sample is automatically coded as a big story. (return to text)
2 An additional 1.2% of religion news content was local in nature, representing a
handful of religion stories that appeared on the front pages of newspapers in
the sample. (The sample is designed for the study of national and international
news.) (return to text)
3 PEJ tracked the blogger news agenda for 49 of the 52 weeks in 2011. (return to text)
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