Religion on TV News:

Secular Orthodoxy Still Reigns

Evening News Programs

In the last study period, the number of evening news stories on ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, and the NBC Nightly News rose to 292, up dramatically from the 121 news stories our first annual survey found in 1993. In the 2004-05 study period, the number of evening news stories declined to 239. Without February, it would have been 175, less than 60 percent of the last study’s story total. 

This total includes both the longer, reporter-based story ranging from 90 seconds to a few minutes, as well as a small number of anchor-read news bites, often about 30 seconds in length. CBS had the most stories with 98, compared to 74 for ABC and 67 for NBC. (Last year, CBS also had the most stories with 103, compared to 95 for NBC and 94 for ABC.) But in the study period, CBS also had a much higher number of anchor-read stories with 32, while ABC aired 11 and NBC aired 17. So in reporter-based stories, CBS led slightly with 66 to ABC’s 63 and NBC’s 50. Of those 179 reporter-based stories, 45 of them (or 27 percent) came in February. NBC in particular would have plummeted to only half of the last study’s total without February (from 74 full stories and 21 briefs to just 36 and 15).

Part of that decline (without a comparative decline in morning news stories or magazine stories) might be attributed to the rise of campaign news in a presidential election year. But as evening news story counter Andrew Tyndall has demonstrated, the number of minutes devoted to electoral politics on the evening news in 2004 was unquestionably light in many weeks. (For example, Tyndall’s June total of evening-news coverage from Monday to Friday was 46 minutes on the three networks, little more than 15 minutes a month for each network.) Not only did John Kerry’s campaign almost disappear from the national scene in slow weeks, the networks in recent election cycles have not shown much interest in other state and national campaigns, unless a movie star is running.

The Faith Breakdown

True to the pattern of previous MRC religion news studies, the Catholic Church received the most coverage among faiths. The Catholic Church was the subject of 60 out of the 179 reporter-based stories (35 percent), and 27 of the 60 anchor briefs (45 percent). Last year, the Catholics drew 75 out of 208 reporter-based stories (36 percent), and 53 of the 84 anchor briefs (63 percent). The coverage of the Pope’s health troubles (and perhaps the networks preparing to scramble over who would get the best access to the next papal conclave) drew a more positive tone and more church officials to the February coverage.

In relation to past years, the number of stories on clergy sexual abuse headed toward the margins of coverage, with only ten full stories and 11 anchor briefs. (In the 2003-04 study, almost half of the reporter-based stories on the Catholic Church – 35 out of 75 – focused on clergy abuse scandals.) The stories centered on the conviction of Boston priest Paul Shanley, the controversy over the Diocese of Boston closing more than 60 churches due to poor attendance and financial decline spurred by the scandals, and abuse-related bankruptcy declarations by dioceses in Portland, Spokane, and Tucson.

Islam came in second, with 23 reporter-based stories and 11 anchor briefs, about half of the coverage it received in our study last year (48 full stories and 14 briefs). It should be noted that our study measures the number of TV news stories on the religion of Islam, not the political entities of Islam. Daily news coverage of Iraq during the study period often mentioned the prospects of civil war between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, or as the elections drew near, explained their differing approaches on the road to democracy. (See more on that later in the report.)

TV journalists continued to press American officials about the way their actions are perceived in “Muslim nations” or the “Muslim world,” even though the same reporters wouldn’t dream of describing America as a “Christian nation” or as leader of the “Christian world.” Muslims make up a little over two percent of the American population, and Christians are about three percent of the Iraqi population. Ironically, reporters are sensitive to these terms on our home turf because of our tradition of religious liberty, but the media do not seem to expect growing toleration of minority religions in the “Muslim world.”

With election-year controversies over religion and politics and Supreme Court cases like atheist Michael Newdow’s complaint against a school district making his daughter utter the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, church-and-state issues came in third with 40 full stories and seven anchor briefs.