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The media may be the message, but who are the messengers?

c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) There’s an old saying that to get along in polite company, you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics. But religion and spirituality are increasingly shaping public life and influencing politics. A catalyst for the influence of religion in public life, more than ever before, is the media. Media in all […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) There’s an old saying that to get along in polite company, you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics. But religion and spirituality are increasingly shaping public life and influencing politics.

A catalyst for the influence of religion in public life, more than ever before, is the media. Media in all forms have accelerated time into non-stop cycles of constant information. Information has long been power, but now it’s everywhere, all the time.

What might we learn by examining the intersection of these two behemoth forces? The breadth of media meets the depth of religion: How does the lens of one affect the understanding of the other?

My communications firm works with foundations and nonprofit organizations, and we recently conducted a media analysis _ the third in a series _ to determine how the American media covered religious topics and contributed to shaping public perceptions of religion.

With the growing religious pluralism in the country, we were also interested in capturing the multiplicity and diversity of voices being represented _ or left unrepresented _ in the media. Is Islam still being reported within the context of terrorism? Does Christianity continue to dominate the headlines? Who is being quoted in these stories?

Here are findings that surprised us:

_ The absence of religion is a big news story. Atheism garnered considerable media attention as a growing movement in the U.S. and Western Europe. In response to Muslim and Christian fundamentalism, non-believers are becoming vocal on the convergence of faith and politics.

_ The female face of religion is still largely hidden. Men overwhelmingly dominate the coverage of religion. Of reporters covering religion, approximately 62 percent are male; about 75 percent of spokespeople quoted in stories about religion are male. Often women are relegated to covering “soft” news stories about holidays or interfaith gatherings.

_ Public officials and advocates were quoted most in news stories on religion _ 25 percent and 18 percent, respectively. A correlation could be drawn between this and an increase in international coverage of the Iraq war, where Sunni and Shia Muslims battle on the streets. Subsequently, there has been a decrease in clergy being quoted (down from 28 percent in 2005 to 13 percent in 2007).

_ Principle religions are Christianity (mentioned in 60 percent of stories,mostly domestic) and Islam (mentioned in 56 percent of stories, mostly international). Focusing only on these two religions reinforces the false notion that America is a “Christian nation.” In fact, this is the most religiously diverse country in the world.

_ Islam is portrayed almost exclusively as militant and radical; few stories offer a more progressive voice. There is a crucial need for scholars of Islam to dispel the myth of it being anachronistic and unable to meet the changing needs of modern society.

_ Religion is part of the explosion of online communications. Twenty percent of the country’s 8 million blogs address religion. Using the Internet to produce new, unconventional approaches to reporting will increase opportunities for a cross-section of voices to be heard, seen and read.

_ Coverage of gay marriage and gay rights in a religious context has declined 40 percent since 2005. The political potency of same-sex marriage as a wedge issue may have momentarily peaked after the 2004 elections, but may come roaring back in the divisive climate of the 2008 general election campaign.

Though the journalistic landscape continues to change in dynamic and unexpected ways, the media should take into account the diversity of the American news audience. This audience seeks reporting that reflects their multiple realities and identities.

Media institutions should consider changes not only to the methods and approaches of reportage, but also to the makeup of the newsroom. A newsroom that better reflects the religious, ethnic and gender diversity of the U.S. will enrich and balance reporting.

(Douglas Gould is president of Douglas Gould and Company, a New York-based communications firm)

DSB/LF END GOULD