Religion on TV News:More Content, Less Context

Reporters often approach religious issues from a secular and political perspective

When religion confronts social issues, reporters usually present the controversies through their own secular and political lenses. As New Hampshire Episcopalians elected openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson, reporters focused relentlessly on the political and cultural angles, not scriptural or theological matters.

But for all the focus on church politics, the networks failed to employ one old news-making strategy they routinely use with the American Catholic church: a poll. Even as ABC used the papal anniversary to do another poll of Catholics on October 15, finding 62 percent of self-proclaimed Catholics thought the pontiff was “out of touch” on church policies (including on sexual issues), the networks attempted no poll of self-declared Episcopalians to get a nationwide opinion on the Robinson ascension. This is especially odd since Catholics do not elect their bishops, as the Episcopalians do.

To secular liberal reporters, the ascent of Bishop Robinson was “historic” in the most inspiring sense and a “landmark” for the culture in 64 stories (22 of them anchor briefs). On CBS’s The Early Show on November 3, reporter Gretchen Carlson declared: “It was a landmark moment as Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop.”

But to the orthodox believer, the observer of Scripture, which clearly decries homosexuality as an “abomination,” the installation of the first gay Christian bishop marks not only a departure from God’s word, but the installation of a false prophet, a spokesman for pride in sin and defiance of God, with the dangerous result of leading a flock of believers away from their path toward Heaven. To them, it’s a little like celebrating the first chef to use arsenic in his recipes. That theological complaint rarely surfaced.

textbox0404_3 The traditionalists’ emphasis on the fact of the Bible’s view against homosexuality was treated as merely an unsubstantiated charge. On the October 7 CBS Evening News, reporter Bob McNamara claimed that the Episcopal church “becoming officially all-inclusive to gays is a scriptural gray area these U.S. conservatives vow not to accept.” To the believer, this sounds strangely neutral on an easily checkable factual matter, like reporting “According to conservatives, the Bible mentions the Ten Commandments,” or in a more secular vein, “According to oil company spokesmen, cars can be operated with gasoline.” It suggests to viewers that the expert cited is making a self-interested assertion that should be viewed as factually questionable, or at least as a fact highly favored by people with a questionable agenda.

The center of the story was reserved for the gay protagonist and his worldview. On the morning shows, Canon Robinson and his supporters drew almost all the network interview time: ten interviews, compared with just one for a neutral church spokesman, and one for an opponent. The church spokesman (Daniel Englund on ABC’s Good Morning America) and the opponent (Bishop Kendall Harmon on NBC’s Today) both appeared on August 5, when Robinson’s ascent was briefly halted by an allegation of inappropriate touching that church officials dismissed. Without that charge, critics could wonder if opponents would have been interviewed at all.

Many questions to Robinson were procedural (how does the church vote go?), political (what do you think of President Bush’s remarks on gay marriage?), or personal (how do you feel?). But Robinson was occasionally asked a question about religious doctrine. The most thorough, theological interview with Robinson came on This Week with George Stephanopoulos on October 26. Stephanopoulos asked some religious questions like “You said you discern God’s voice? How can you be sure?” He also inquired, “Isn’t the point, some would say of Christianity, that it is exclusive? That it is open only to those who believe certain things and act in certain ways?”

On August 6, the morning Robinson was interviewed wall-to-wall on all three network shows, CBS Early Show host Harry Smith suggested, “Strict adherents to Scripture say homosexuality is against the teachings of the Bible. What do you say to them?” Robinson responded with a notion of biblical elasticity: “The Bible does not address what we are talking about today, which are faithful, monogamous, lifelong intentioned relationships between people of the same sex. It’s not that the Bible is explicitly supportive of such a thing. It was just unknown to people at the time that that was written.” Smith did not follow up.

In this epic cultural battle between conservatives and liberals, reporters failed to describe each side equally, describing the conservatives accurately as conservatives, but portraying the liberals inaccurately as non-ideological. On the August 6 World News Tonight, substitute anchor Elizabeth Vargas relayed the two sides as conservative versus inclusive: “Some conservative Episcopalians say homosexuality is contrary to scripture and therefore totally unacceptable. But supporters of the decision call this a step toward a more open and inclusive church.”

In news stories, reporters nearly achieved balance in soundbites between Robinson opponents and supporters: 39 for opponents to 45 for Robinson and his supporters, with another 27 neutral or informational soundbites. But the labeling was very imbalanced: reporters and anchors used 42 “conservative” labels for opponents, compared to just five “liberal” labels for the church or Robinson’s supporters. Robinson himself was never described as “liberal” or “radical,” and reporters never even used the word “activist” to describe him.

chart0404_3CBS was perfectly one-sided in its labeling, with 14 conservative labels and zero liberal ones. (In two stories, CBS tried to cast the Robinson decision as part of an inevitable historical process that would be eventually accepted by referring to the Episcopal decision to ordain women in the 1970s as a “then-radical” idea.) ABC offered the most liberal labels (three), but that was nowhere near their 14 conservative tags. All three were used by reporter Tamala Edwards in her stories. She did match the two: “No matter how this turns out, it appears the dividing lines have grown only deeper between church liberals and conservatives.” NBC’s labeling count was 18 to 2.

Another word that secular reporters avoided was “sin.” A Nexis search of the words “Gene Robinson” within 25 words of “sin” during the study period found that ABC aired one Tamala Edwards story (airing on the August 3 World News Tonight and the August 4 Good Morning America) where one man in a soundbite declared homosexuality was a “sin.” CBS and NBC searches came up empty: “No documents were found for your search.”