Only eight percent of Americans are atheists, according to the National Cultural Values Survey,* yet atheism was the 'it' religion in 2007, with just three best-selling books generating much of the media coverage. Christianity Today put the topic at No. 2 in its Top 10 list of religion stories for last year. 'The Roar of Atheist Books' was the seventh biggest religion story of 2007 according to Time magazine.
Media indifference and even hostility toward religion in general and Christianity in particular has been well documented by the Media Research Center for years. With the ascendancy of atheism as a 'religion' story, the Media Research Center's Culture and Media Institute wondered whether the media gave atheism the same degree of scrutiny as Christianity and other religious faiths? To assess the news media's coverage of atheism in 2007, CMI examined the morning, evening, late night and weekend news programs on all three broadcast networks, all issues of the three leading weekly news magazines (Newsweek, Time and U.S. News and World Report), and four programs aired on taxpayer-funded National Public Radio (Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation).
CMI found 105 stories either featuring atheism or introducing the views of atheists while reporting on other issues. Among the key findings:
§ 80 percent (17 out of 21) of feature stories about atheism or atheists had a positive tone, exemplified by Time's December 3 story on a Sunday school for atheists. 20 percent were neutral. No feature stories were negative.
§ Atheists were used to challenge religious viewpoints more than journalists used religious viewpoints to challenge atheism. Fifty-four percent of atheist-themed stories included a religious counterpoint, but 71 percent of the Christian-themed stories included atheist counterpoints or were written from an atheistic perspective. The most striking example was Newsweek's choice of avowed atheist and Mother Teresa-basher Christopher Hitchens to critique a book detailing Mother Teresa's spiritual struggles.
§ Atheism stories or commentaries by atheists were present in 51 percent (25 of 49) of the issues of Newsweek and 35 percent (17 out of 49) of the issues of Time. This included features, mentions in stories on other issues and groupings of letters to the editor from atheists. In sharp contrast, only one issue of U.S. News and World Report referred to atheism.
§ ABC provided the most enthusiastic television network coverage of atheism, exemplified by features on an atheist Web site called Blasphemy Challenge and an atheist convention held in Baltimore. The network addressed the subject 24 times in five of its six news programs. This number is just under the combined total for CBS (16) and NBC (11). ABC also aired more produced packages (5) on the subject than CBS (4) and NBC (2). ABC's Nightline devoted an entire program to a live debate between atheists and Christians.
§ Six out of seven news organizations considered in this study addressed the concerns and interests of atheists in the upcoming presidential election. Only Republican candidates for President were asked how they would treat atheists.
This report concludes that, whether deliberately or not, the news media did not subject atheism or atheists to the same skepticism to which they subject Christians and Christianity. By airing unchallenged interviews and reporting predominantly positive-toned features, the news organizations in this study effectively promoted atheism and held it in higher regard than other religions. While the media are not obligated to treat all religions and belief systems equally, their failure to subject atheism to the levels of skepticism directed at Christianity and other religions suggests a deplorable double standard.
Using atheism as a foil against Christianity, but not against any other religion, suggests an anti-Christian bias. If journalists call on atheists to comment on one religion, they should use atheists to comment on all. Further, if reporters use prominent atheists to offer opposing views on religion-themed stories, they should - in equal measure - invite leading believers to provide perspective on stories about atheism. Journalists who look at America's majority religion through a skeptical prism should equally apply their critical faculties to atheism.
* The National Cultural Values Survey was conducted for the Culture and Media Institute in December, 2006.