Pew is out with a content analysis of news (and opinion) coverage of religion in the primary portion of the presidential campaign. It’s worth a perusal, even though most of the findings will surprise no one who has been paying even a modest amount of attention to, well, the campaign. For example, big chunks of said coverage were devoted to Mitt Romney’s religion speech last December and to the Jeremiah Wright affair. One of the problems with this kind of analysis, in fact, is that the aggregate results tend to be skewed by the big events. The Romney speech is a perfect example of this. Coverage of it constituted 35 percent of all religion coverage of the former Massachusetts governor, and fully two-thirds of all religion coverage of him as a candidate took place in that month.
How much religion coverage is enough? And what’s the right kind? Pew always likes to assume a just-the-facts-ma’am stance, shunning explicit positions on evaluative questions like these; but the language of the report makes clear that Pew’s answers are: There can’t really be too much, and it should focus on the faith of the candidates. For example:
A close look at the coverage, though, suggests that the press was still shy about tackling questions of faith and putting them in the front of the campaign coverage.
Although Obama received the majority of the religion-related coverage in the first part of 2008, the bulk of his overall press coverage was not about religion. When the study broke down the data and looked at each candidate individually, it found that religion made up only about 2% of Obama’s stories in early 2008, while the bulk of his coverage was focused on strategy and the horse race, as well as policy issues and other personal topics. This was more than any other candidate still in the race but just a sliver of what the media covered overall.
Just a sliver? One of the problems with formal content analysis is that, by its nature, it privileges quantitative over qualitative answers, regarding each “story” as equal. A long article exploring Obama’s faith, say, gets no more weight than a tiny one on a visit to a church. The candidate’s faith may be important but it is not news as such. How many stories can or should a single news outlet devote to a candidate’s faith?
To Pew’s credit, it does devote separate sections of the report to some of the major religion stories of the campaign, and some major stories that received inadequate coverage. But these discussions often reveal a lack of awareness, willful or otherwise, of the situation at hand. For example, the report notes with disapproval the absence of attention to John McCain’s problems with the evangelical base of the Republican Party; but that inattention can in considerable measure be attributed to the fact that for much of the primary season, McCain seemed to be an also-ran, and wasn’t getting a lot of coverage of any sort. (Now that he’s the presumptive nominee, that story has been covered to a fare-thee-well.) Similarly, Pew makes clear that the religious beliefs of Mike Huckabee should have received more attention, but the fact is that Huckabee not only did his best to avoid talking about them, but successfully contrived to suppress all evidence of the sermons he gave when he was a Baptist pastor. Hanna Rosin did her level best to exhume the latter, but failed almost entirely. Bill Lindsey’s article, “Huckabee’s Baptism,” in the last issue of Religion in the News, represents the only effort I know to understand Huck’s somewhat unconventional (for a conservative evangelical) beliefs on the basis of his upbringing as a Missionary Baptist, not a Southern Baptist, in Arkansas. But that was a story that required a very intimate knowledge of Arkansas church history.
I quite agree that the press ought to have given more attention to both McCain’s close encounter with Pastor John Hagee and to Hillary Clinton’s religious connections. In the case of the former, there was some easy reporting to be done on Hagee’s church and its history of anti-Catholicism that, so far as I know, only appeared on this blog. Clinton’s connections with The Family, the organization responsible for the National Prayer Breakfast and more, were deserving of a good deal more coverage than they got; unfortunately Jeff Sharlet’s book on the subject appeared just as Clinton’s candidacy was sinking into oblivion.
The most peculiar feature of the Pew report is its account of the coverage of Romney’s Mormon Problem. What made this a central issue in the GOP primary campaign was the problem that evangelicals have with Mormonism. The early news coverage, led by Amy Sullivan’s piece, “Mitt Romney’s Evangelical Problem,” in the September 2005 issue of Washington Monthly, put that issue on the table, and indeed it proved to be a critical problem for Romney’s campaign and the main theme of news coverage of the religious dimension of Romney’s candidacy. (For a whole panel discussion on this, including an account of the trajectory of news coverage from me, see the video of “Mitt, Mormonism and the Media” from a conference at Princeton last November.) And yet there’s not a peep about this in the Pew account. It’s as if concerns about Romney’s religion were generic, shared in an undifferentiated way by the American public as a whole. You’d almost think that Pew has an aversion to saying bad things about evangelicals.
One final consideration. Too often studies like this proceed on the assumption that journalists determine the news, rather than news determining the journalism. Sure, journalistic prejudices and oversights are important to explore. But to criticize coverage for following the main action because you think the main action ought to be somewhere else is often no more than blaming the messenger. For example, the media might have tried to pay more attention to strictly religious dimensions of Jeremiah Wright’s ministry, but the story was about his social and political views, as expressed in the YouTube clips that were viewed by millions independent of journalistic mediation.
The bottom line with this, like most other formal content analyses of religion coverage–and I’ve looked at a lot of them over the years–is that the results aren’t worth all the effort in the absence of a truly informed qualitative understanding of the subject. Without that, conclusions are driven by unarticulated assumptions about what what is good, what is bad, what should have been, and what ought never have seen the light of day.