“Most Americans Say Media Coverage of Religion Too Sensationalized” reads the headline of a report on a poll of a sample of “the public” and of journalists.
That headline is perhaps a bit too sensationalized itself, because the pollsters had to choose which finding to feature, if they wanted your and my attention. Less apparently sensationalized findings abound and merit more attention than that truly predictable one which made the headline. News magazines, newspapers, radio news, online news websites, and (last and least of all) television news beckon for attention, and the religion which beckons for attention will tend to be sensationalized. Blah and bland religious events and reported-on ideas induce yawns, so competitive media people naturally reach for what grabs.
Why sensationalized? Because religion on the media usually contrasts with what the typical member of the public sees. Call in Groucho (or Chico—there are arguments about that) Marx to picture the media communicators’ question: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” The citizen’s own eyes usually see prosaic, routine, passive, peaceful expressions of people next door or down the block. Yet the media remind them that abuse scandals, tribal wars, embezzlements, wild (to them) religious ideas, and the sensational in general—usually occurring at a distance—make news.
It’s time to mention the source of the survey: The Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, Diane Winston capably in command, and The Roy C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, John C. Green equally capably in command, interviewed 2,000 adult Americans “and a representative cross section of presumably also adult reporters. You’ll find a link below, because I hope to lure many subscribers to Sightings to read the 44-page report. It will throw light on the kind of sources on which we draw a couple of times a week.
I won’t even try to summarize all of those findings which are not sensational and do not try to be. If you do want to pick one out, note the one Winston-Green turned into a subhead: “Less than one-fifth of reporters call themselves ‘very knowledgeable’ about religion.” I found their novel approach to categorizing five public audiences to be helpful; they define these on page 16 and keep showing up throughout. Thus: “Focused Consumers” are one-seventh of the sample, which means they keep up “a lot” and think religion coverage is “very important.” Add one-tenth of the public to locate “Specialized Consumers,” who keep up “somewhat” but still consider coverage “very important.” “Casual Consumers,” one-tenth of the public in the sample, are more, yes, “casual,” as they follow the coverage “a lot” and find religion coverage “somewhat important,” which is what the “Occasional Consumers,” one-sixth of the public also do, as they “enjoy” the religion coverage “somewhat” or less. That leaves fewer than two-fifths who are “Non-Consumers,” and who find religion coverage “not important” and so pay little attention.
When years ago we started covering religion and paying attention to the coverers, they almost unanimously complained that they had great difficulty getting producers, programmers, chief news editors, and broadcasters interested in religion at all. The bosses were seen as hard-boiled secularists. Some “elites,” as they are often called, may still be tone-deaf or may wear blinders about religion. This survey is more evidence that they are the ones who are at least “somewhat” out of it. Sensationally.
Diane Winston and John C. Green, “Most Americans Say Media Coverage of Religion Too Sensationalized,” USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Martin E. Marty’s biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
See also: Reporting on Religion: A Primer on Journalism’s Best Beat