“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
–Alice in Wonderland
Are journalists irreligious, and does this affect their coverage of religious news? For some years a number of media critics have been arguing that such is the case. Early in September 1993, in an obvious effort to counter such critics, the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University published Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media, a study by John Dart and Jimmy Allen, based on a survey of the views of journalists and religious leaders about press coverage of religion. (The survey was conducted by Robert Wyatt.)
The work of S. Robert Lichter, Linda Lichter, and myself, especially our book The Media Elite (1986), figures prominently in Bridging the Gap. The authors conclude that we are responsible for much of the contemporary misunderstanding of media coverage of religious news. As John Seigenthaler, the Chairman of the Freedom Forum, notes in his introduction to the study:
Data compiled by Dart, Allen, and Wyatt provides valuable information that should serve to destroy another false impression about the media: that its members are basically irreligious. This erroneous view grew out of a limited, misused, and misunderstood survey known as the Lichter-Rothman study. . . . The false impression that study created has festered as coverage of religion has continued to focus almost exclusively on conflict and controversy. That survey was based on interviews with only 240 of the several thousands of journalists who work for seven major news agencies in two cities, Washington and New York. Because 86 percent of those 240 journalists told the researchers that they seldom or never attended religious services, the Lichter-Rothman survey has been read as finding that the national news media is irreligious. . . . In fact there are news media representatives in Washington and New York who are offended by the suggestion that their religious faith, or lack of it, is represented by the 240 Lichter-Rothman interviews.
In the September 8, 1993 New York Times, Peter Steinfels reported on the survey and assumed that its results provided a corrective to our earlier findings.
The authors of Bridging the Gap are better informed than Mr. Seigenthaler, knowing as they do that a random sample of 240 journalists is perfectly satisfactory if the universe of those being studied consists of several thousand. After all, most regularly conducted surveys of the 250 or more million inhabitants of the United States rely on samples of 1,200 respondents or less. Indeed, Messrs. Dart and Allen agree that our findings probably describe “East Coast” reporters accurately. Their expressed concern is that our data have been taken by others to apply to journalists as a whole, and they argue that we, too, sometimes imply that our results are applicable to all American journalists.
In our study we asked journalists, “What is your present religious preference?” Half those interviewed replied “none.” On the other hand, the authors of the Freedom Forum Study report that only 4 percent of the managing editors they surveyed chose that response, as did only 9 percent of the religion reporters surveyed. On the basis of that question and another that asks respondents how important religion is to them, Allen and Dart conclude that reporters are as religious as the general public.
Before comparing our study with that of the Freedom Forum, we should describe its nature and purpose. The truth is, the study of journalists’ religious attitudes and reporting of religious news was not a central concern of our work. The Media Elite was the first of a series in a project of which I am the director. My colleagues and I are studying various elite (leadership) groups in the United States, including journalists, businessmen, military officers, and bureaucrats, as part of an attempt to understand contemporary social change. The theory underpinning this approach borrows from Max Weber, Daniel Bell, Harold Lasswell, and Robert Dahl, among others.
Since the appearance of The Media Elite, the Lichters, now co-directors of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, and I have published a variety of books and articles about other leadership groups and are writing a volume placing our work in historical and theoretical perspective. In addition, I am, with two other scholars, completing a systematic study of changing social and political themes in motion pictures, a study that includes Hollywood’s treatment of religious matters.
Thus, in writing The Media Elite, we were not concerned in particular with journalists’ coverage of organized religion (though the Lichters later completed a study of elite media coverage of the Catholic Church), much less the “fairness” of that reporting—a very difficult matter to evaluate. Rather, our concern was to understand the nature and causes of the changes taking place in American journalism and to discuss these in nonjudgmental terms. Our treatment of the religious attitudes of journalists is part of a comprehensive profile of their backgrounds and attitudes. Bridging the Gap, on the other hand, is a full-scale study of journalists’ religious beliefs and their relation to the coverage of religion. The two studies, therefore, are not strictly comparable. Nevertheless, they can be juxtaposed for the purpose of understanding the differences between some of their findings and ours.
The major difference between the two studies has to do with the population sampled. We did not merely interview “eastern” reporters. We interviewed journalists at what were, at the time, the country’s leading media outlets. These were the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, the three television networks, and PBS. One need not belabor the importance of these outlets: the selection was dictated by scholarly studies demonstrating their impact on elites and the general public. Seventy-four percent of the people we chose for our sample completed the full interview.
Wyatt, by contrast, mailed questionnaires to a sample of members of the Religion News Writers Association, and members of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association. As Dart and Allen note, the managing editors who responded are decision-making executives on newspapers in small to midsize cities. No television broadcasters were surveyed. The response rate for the editors was only 48 percent. When the response rate is this low, survey researchers routinely conduct follow-up interviews to help determine whether those who responded hold attitudes different from those who did not. (For example, a belief that religion is important may be correlated with a willingness to fill out and return a lengthy questionnaire on this topic.) Unfortunately, Dart and Allen do not appear to have followed this standard research procedure.
Even if one does not question the accuracy of the results they obtained (more on that later), Allen and Dart are comparing apples and oranges. Our sample is a far better indicator of the attitudes of important journalists than that sponsored by the Freedom Forum. Religion writers — according to the authors’ own findings — are responsible for covering no more than 30 percent of stories on religion in papers like the New York Time. Frequently they cover routine events in special sections of the newspapers for which they work, and are not widely read. Further, it is really difficult, in this day and age, to believe that managing editors of newspapers in small and medium-size cities are the real movers and shakers in the media.
John Dart and Jimmy Allen assert that other studies support their views. However, they mention only one systematic survey of a national sample of journalists, i.e., that of David H. Weaver and G. Cleveland Willhoit. The other commentators they cite offer only opinions or anecdotal evidence. For some reason the authors, throughout the study, weigh the opinions of persons they consider knowledgeable observers no differently than they do systematic evidence. Further, they fail to comment on the many studies that support our general findings, several of which are summarized in our book, including the well-known Los Angeles Times Survey (1985). (Incidentally, Lichter analyzed the Weaver-Willhoit results. The views of journalists at the leading media outlets in their sample were not very different from those in our sample.)
In summary, the findings of the Freedom Forum study differ from ours in part because its organizers and authors studied something else. Readers must decide for themselves which group of journalists it is more important to study if one wishes to understand the nature of the American mass media and the messages it conveys.
In addition, they and we asked somewhat different questions. We simply asked for current religious preference and left it to the respondents to answer as they wished. The comparable Freedom Forum survey question was broader in some ways and more constricted in others. Respondents were asked, “What religious category do you currently belong to or are most closely associated with?” The questionnaire offered a number of alternatives including the vague term “mainline Protestant.” The only nonreligious response permitted was “nonbeliever or humanist.” It is reasonable to believe that non-observing editors are less likely to choose that alternative than a simple “none.”
Thirty-five percent of their editors state that religion is personally important to them. However, no questions were asked about church attendance. Pace Seigenthaler, church attendance, for Christians at least, is a good measure of commitment to organized religion.
One final note on Dart and Allen’s critique of The Media Elite. At one point the authors intimate that our use of the term “media elite” is an attack on journalists designed to discredit them. But surely, as educated persons, they know that elite is a widely used term of art in both sociology and political science. Our study is part of a tradition concerned with the role and influence of various leadership (elite) groups in our society. No one has ever suggested that we are being insidious when we describe the results of our studies of the business elite, the bureaucratic elite, etc.
Bridging the Gap has other weaknesses. The Lichters completed a carefully designed and methodologically sound systematic study of elite media coverage of the Catholic Church. In the Freedom Forum study, Dart and Allen do not deal directly with their work, but rather cite others who argue that the Lichters’ study was not sufficiently nuanced, at least in part because a substantial proportion of the stories covered noncontroversial matters, something the Lichters themselves point out.
The authors’ treatment of the Lichters is not untypical of their handling of related issues. In discussing actual news coverage they give roughly the same weight to systematic evidence, anecdotal evidence, and “knowledgeable” opinion. However, one can find anecdotes that prove almost anything, and those whom we regard as knowledgeable are often those who agree with us — or at least there is that danger.
Even when they cite the few supposedly systematic studies at their disposal, Dart and Allen make no effort to evaluate the methodology of such studies. For example, was the scoring blind? What were the coding categories? Did more than one coder score the stories? What was the level of coder agreement? The Lichters are always careful to report this information. Their (and our) codebooks are publicly available, the scoring is blind, and high levels of multiple coder agreement are required, usually .80. This care is necessary if the studies cited are to be considered seriously.
Bridging the Gap is a peculiar study in other ways. Citing commentator after commentator, the authors conclude that religious reporting is not what it should be. They are not quite sure why, but initially they argue that ours is a secular society. In such a society reporters, like others, do not regard religion as all that important; they are ignorant of religion rather than hostile to it. In other sections of the study, however, Dart and Allen make a rather different case. A few brief quotes will give the flavor of their argument.
Millions of Americans are attuned to spiritual matters . . . . For most people, faith is a spiritual melody that gives meaning and definition to life . . . . Yet, many journalists are tone deaf. To them, religion in all its complexity is either a disturbing cacophony of sounds or innocuous background music easily tuned out. (p. 7)
To the extent that the news media unthinkingly reflect secularized culture and discount the validity of committed beliefs contrary to secular culture, coverage of religion and religious influences sinks below journalism’s own standards of fairness and insightful perspective. (p. 17)
Religion news finds no niche on TV and normally receives superficial treatment — a formula that too easily leads to blandness or mischaracterization. News broadcasters are no less assimilated into a secularizing culture than are press people. (p. 21)
The authors then quote Bill Moyers who argues that journalists are not biased. Rather they are simply ignorant. Thus Moyers notes, if you want to discuss religion on national television, “you get people who are offended by the parochialism of the very idea. I just don’t see any way to do it on the national level” (p. 21).
In contrast to their earlier statements, the authors now seem to be arguing that journalists, whatever their professions of religious belief and its importance to them, are essentially secular persons who have no feeling for the beliefs of most Americans to whom religion is important. Consequently they fail to understand institutionalized religion in its own terms and describe religious activity in ways that are inaccurate — if, that is, they describe it at all.
In other words, Dart and Allen’s analysis seems to differ little from ours. It is not clear, then, why they criticize our work. They prefer the word “ignorance” to the word “bias.” We, too, do not like the word bias. In our analysis of how journalists treat various issues we have always emphasized that their reporting flows out of certain assumptions about “reality,” which, with the best will in the world, sometimes lead them to report events inaccurately. As Dart and Allen describe the situation, the ignorance they ascribe to the journalists is associated with a certain indifference if not some hostility toward organized religion. At first blush, then, Dart and Allen’s difference with us would seem to boil down to a question of terminology.
Actually, the key issue between us is rather different. However, in order to understand what that issue is we must examine the general reception given The Media Elite by journalists and professors of journalism.
That reception has been checkered. The Media Elite is a carefully wrought social science study, and academic reviews have, on the whole, been favorable. We relied on a random sample and a variety of traditional measurement instruments that command respect in the profession, as well as a few we designed and tested ourselves for use in the study. Our language in the book is nonjudgmental. We make no recommendations.
We believed that we had demonstrated, both by our questionnaire and careful content analyses, that journalists, as hard as they may try to be accurate, allow their own views to determine what “news” they cover and to some extent how it is reported. Since journalists are “liberal cosmopolitans,” coverage, over the long haul, and in ambiguous situations, tilts in that direction.
When our study was discussed in more general periodicals and newspapers the responses were usually, though not invariably, unfriendly. The Columbia Journalism Review entitled a sharp critique of our work by Herbert Gans “Are Journalists Dangerous Liberals?”—not exactly an accurate description of our analysis. Gans has continued to pursue our efforts in essays in which he attacks us personally as being involved in some sort of sinister conservative plot.
Some newspapers whose staffs we surveyed even denied that the interviews had taken place. Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post claimed that he had asked many journalists on the Post if they had been interviewed, and only one said yes. The Washington Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal, Al Hunt, also denied that interviews had been conducted with his staff. Barry Sussman, the Washington Post polling expert, asked us for additional computer runs, clearly designed to check whether responses to other questions fell into a plausible pattern. Fortunately, the interviews for the study (and coding of the results) had been conducted by Response Analysis, a highly reputable survey firm, and charges that the study had been faked were soon dropped. In addition, the data we sent to the Post must have been persuasive. We never heard from them again.
What sin had we committed? It was simply this: we had presented solid evidence that journalists were not simply objective professionals with a social conscience, but that they, like everyone else, perceived and described the world in terms of a particular Weltanschauung. They did not stand above the fray. They were part of it. Such an argument is, of course, lèse majesté. Journalists do not have thin skins—they have no skins.
The truth is that, for reasons nicely outlined by Daniel Bell in the mid-1970s, the cultural elites, including journalists, are still at the cutting edge of a cultural revolution that is transforming America. This revolution involves indifference (and sometimes hostility) toward many traditional institutions, including religious institutions. As is the case with other liberal cosmopolitans, criticism from what is perceived of as the left does not seriously bother journalists. Those on the left are believed to have their hearts in the right place, even if they are not always practical. On the other hand, criticism from what are seen, accurately or not, as conservative sources is not to be countenanced, for they are among the seriously misinformed, if not wicked, of the earth. Thus, to return to Bridging the Gap, criticisms by a bona fide liberal like Bill Moyers are acceptable, while those by, say, Michael Novak are less likely to be so.
One final word. I begin to wonder to what extent journalists’ attitudes will be measurable in the future. As they become increasingly conscious that they, too, are under the microscope, will they, like other subjects of experiments, begin to respond in ways that project the image they wish to project? My guess is that increasingly they will. Indeed, as a recent study demonstrates, this is already occurring in Germany, where scholars are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain reliable responses to social and political questions from journalists.
Stanley Rothman is the Mary Huggins Gamble Professor Emeritus of Government at Smith College.