Religion on TV News:More Content, Less Context

The Catholic Church received the most coverage among faiths, but coverage of Islam rose dramatically.

Evening News Coverage

True to the pattern of previous MRC religion news studies, the Catholic Church received the most coverage among faiths. The 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate drew significant coverage with a balance of positive and negative angles. But due to its status as the largest church in America, media outlets continued to press stories on Catholic clergy sexual abuse and other ministerial failings. The Catholic Church was the subject of 75 out of 208 reporter-based stories (36 percent), and 53 of the 84 anchor briefs (63 percent). The most common religious anchor brief was an update on one of the pontiff’s foreign trips, or his saying Mass on a holy day like Good Friday.

The American church’s continued attempts to deal with the criminal and spiritual nightmare of clerical abuse drew almost half of the reporter-based stories (35 out of 75). The Catholic Church was nearly alone in facing this scrutiny. CBS reporter Jane Clayson broke the mold by providing one report on sexual abuse allegations within the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

textbox0404_1Coverage of Islam was up dramatically from 1993, when coverage was rare. In the 2003-04 study period, it came in second place with 62 stories (14 of which were anchor briefs). Much of the coverage was about the new religious freedom in Iraq – for example, the ability of the Shi’ites to make a pilgrimage to the Iraqi town of Karbala, which they were not allowed to do under Saddam Hussein. ABC and NBC also reported on the first liberated Easter for Iraqi Christians.

 The 13 stories on Islam in America mainly portrayed Muslims as victims of discrimination by non-Muslims. NBC’s Lisa Myers reported a story on Washington D.C.-area Muslims who came under FBI investigation because they liked to play paintball in the woods. ABC’s Dean Reynolds reported from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on local protests of Muslim Dick Aossey’s plans for a Muslim youth camp that would include foreign youth. One exception to that victim line was the investigation into Muslim chaplain James Yee on charges of espionage (which were recently dropped). MRC analysts did not count as religion stories the more secular or political usage of the Muslim faith, news reports on how the Iraqi factions might fit into the new Iraqi constitutional system, or how leaders of “Muslim nations” are feeling about American foreign policy.

The Episcopalian Church came in third with 30 stories (six of them anchor briefs) on the election and installation of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson. CBS aired 13, ABC had 11, and NBC did six. The church-state struggle of Alabama Supreme Court chief Roy Moore to maintain his monument of the Ten Commandments in his state judicial building drew 19 stories, four of them anchor briefs. Unlike more substantial coverage in other parts of the television day, The Passion of the Christ drew only 11 evening-news stories through the end of February.

Morning News Coverage

The Catholic church led the coverage with 147 stories (78 reporter-based stories or interview segments, and 67 anchor briefs). The Catholic sexual abuse story was less prominent in the morning. While abuse problems drew almost half of reporter-based stories on the evening news, only 13 of the 78 morning show reports (17 percent) focused on abuse. Due to their exclusive access to the Vatican, Good Morning America had fully half (39 of 78) of the longer network segments on Catholic subjects.

textbox0404_2Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ drew 40 segments (just three of them anchor briefs), 16 on ABC to 13 on CBS and 11 on NBC. Two-thirds of the coverage (27 segments) arrived in February. While ABC and NBC first reported on the movie in August, all thirteen segments on CBS came in January and February. Despite Gibson’s traditionalist Catholic faith, none of the religious leaders featured in interview segments on The Passion were Catholic. The networks did consult Jewish rabbis and evangelical leaders.

The Roy Moore imbroglio in Alabama was the third largest story with 34 stories (11 of them anchor briefs), followed by the Episcopalian Church’s “historic” changes with 33 stories (16 anchor briefs). Perhaps due to the softer focus of the morning programs, Islam was not as heavily covered as it was on the evening shows, with just ten segments (four of them anchor briefs).

Magazine/Interview Show Coverage

Magazine and interview programs had the most variation in their focus on denominations. Sixteen segments focused on the Catholic church, 15 on The Passion of the Christ, 14 on evangelical or Protestant churches, eleven on the general question of faith in God, seven on Jews, four on general Christianity, two on the Mormons, and one on the gay Episcopal bishop.

The Catholic segments included an hour-long Dateline on an unfaithful priest who fathered children and left the mother as she lay dying several decades ago. Nightline had three shows (or nine segments) on Catholic topics – two shows on clergy sex-abuse scandals, and one on Indiana priest Raymond Schaeffer, who told his parishioners from the pulpit that he was gay, and that gay rights must be supported as a “justice issue.” The papal anniversary was only marked by a segment on This Week and a 60 Minutes piece on the beatification of Mother Teresa.

The Passion of the Christ attracted an entire hour of Primetime, an entire hour of Dateline, and a Nightline. It also drew a controversial 60 Minutes commentary by Andy Rooney in which he claimed God spoke to him and God called Mel Gibson “a real nut case.” Evangelical Christians were the subject of two Nightline half-hours on a preaching competition, three Dateline segments on the American missionary Gracia Burnham, who had been taken hostage in the Philippines, and two negative 60 Minutes segments – one on evangelicals supporting the retention of Israel’s occupied territories, and the other on the theology in the best-selling “Left Behind” books, as critiqued by gay black Harvard theologian Peter Gomes.

The segments with a general focus on God included a one-hour Dateline on the healing power of prayer, following the recovery from leukemia of TV reporter Lance Williams. The Mormons drew a positive story on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on CBS’s 60 Minutes II, and a Tom Brokaw story for Dateline on author Jon Krakauer’s book about Mormon extremists in Utah. The seven Jewish segments were all on Rabbi Fred Neulander, convicted of hiring a killer for his wife, although throughout this study, most segments on The Passion of the Christ featured analysis and debate from Jewish leaders.