Religion on TV News:More Content, Less Context


In the last 12 months, it seems, the mainstream media have rediscovered religion. It wasn't spontaneous, of course: a number of dramatic religious stories have unfolded recently, from religious freedom in Iraq, to the installation of an openly gay bishop, to the religious and commercial phenomenon around the movie The Passion of the Christ.

But has the media’s newfound interest also meant new respect for religious institutions and traditional values? To measure the upsurge in religion coverage in 2003 and the beginning of 2004, MRC analysts surveyed every religion news story on ABC, CBS, and NBC news programs in the 12 months from March 1, 2003 through February 29, 2004. We then compared those numbers to MRC’s first religion news study of 1993.

The numerical findings were dramatic. Overall, the networks aired 705 segments in the study period, up from 336 in 1993. The number of evening news stories on the three networks is up significantly (121 in 1993, 292 in the 2003-04 period). The number of religion segments on prime-time magazine shows and late-night and Sunday interview shows is way up (18 in 1993 to 82 in the 2003-04 period). A smaller jump came on the morning shows (197 in 1993, 331 in the 2003-04 period).

But the skeptical tone of religion coverage – covering religious issues like everyday political debates, favoring “religious” scholars who strongly question the authenticity of the Bible – doesn’t match the religious belief that Americans state in polls. In a Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll last September, 92 percent expressed belief in God. A broad majority also expressed belief in Heaven (85 percent) , miracles (82 percent), angels (78 percent), Hell (74 percent),and the Devil (71 percent).

In February, an ABC News poll found a majority of Americans believe in the literal truth of the Bible. When asked if a story was literally true or not literally true, nearly two-thirds of respondents believed in the story of Noah and the flood (60 percent true, 33 percent not literally true), the creation of the world in six days (61-30), and Moses parting the Red Sea to escape Egypt (64-28). By contrast, polls over the years have established that journalists seldom or never attend religious services and are much less religious than the public as a whole.

That disconnect between the media elite and the public is especially risky for journalists when religion news is “hot,” as it is right now. Even when the amount of religion news increases, the media’s tone remains cold, questioning, even hostile. The more traditional or orthodox the religious belief, and the more influential it threatens to become in the culture at large, the more the television networks seem to explain it away, as something “scholars” and “experts” dismiss.