Study finds coverage of religion in newspapers grows but is less accurate

May 19, 2003

A study at the University of Rochester, released April 30, finds that coverage of religion in newspapers may have broadened but the accuracy of that coverage and the context often remain incomplete.

Faculty and students in the department of religion analyzed 12 daily newspapers, in what they claim is the most exhaustive review of religion in the media in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 'Since September 11, America's stakes in understand the visions and hopes of the world's religions are higher now than ever,' said Prof. William Scott Green, dean of the college and professor of Judaic studies. 'For most Americans the press is a primary source of information about other peoples' religions. Knowing what Americans see every day helps explain how--and what--we learn about one another.'

'When it comes to religion, the press seems at odds with itself,' the introduction to the study said. 'On one hand, religion pervades America's newspapers as part of the background on topics from politics and economics to sports and the arts. On the other hand, stories about religion itself infrequently address religion's beliefs and values.'

The study, 'Religion in American Newspapers: A Critique and Challenge,' found that much of the coverage of the Roman Catholics is associated with the church's sex-abuse scandals, and coverage of Islam is 'more than ever identified with terrorism.' The study asks whether 'religion is a topic that is too difficult to treat in daily newspapers? Does it pose challenges to reporting that other subjects do not? Should the press be obligated to cover religion fully?' The answers to those questions 'raise important issues for the conduct and character of American life.'

Among the recommendations emerging from the study are:

1. Remember that the context is the key to the complete reporting of a story.

2. Make a clear distinction between religion and criminal activity associated with that religion, clarifying the context whenever possible.

3. Consider a religion section as one way of providing fair, comprehensive and interesting coverage.

4. Accentuate religion close to home by using more feature stories about local religious groups and individuals.

5. Be balanced in coverage to help readers recognize an 'accurate perspective on their communities.'

6. Reflect both the newspaper's region and country, especially in terms of race, gender and religion, to provide balance.

7. Use advisory groups to identify issues that are newsworthy--and how the paper is covering current stories.

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