US: New Survey of religious journalism – 52% reporters admit lack of knowledge of religion

A new study looking at religious journalism has been produced by the Knight Program in Media and Religion at USC and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

You can view the entire report here in PDF format.

Obvioulsy, as this is US based we can’t extrapolate for the UK, but I’ll highlight some interesting findings from the report summary:

One-quarter of the public is very interested in religion coverage.

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One-sixth of reporters say religion coverage is central to their job and one-fifth say it comes up frequently in their work.

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The impact of religion is a central feature in the coverage of religion, and at root, the American public and reporters have different perspectives on the topic. The public is sharply polarized on this issue: one-half (52.6%) says religion is on balance a force for good in the world, and about two-fifths (43.6%) say that religion is on balance a source of conflict in the world.

Reporters are also fairly evenly divided between those who see religion more as a source of good (24.6%) or a source of conflict (19.3%). But more than one-half (56.1%) of reporters have a mixed view of the impact of religion, compared to less than one-twentieth of the public who say that religion is a mix of good and conflict (3.8%). In sum, the public has a starker perspective on the impact of religion, and reporters a more nuanced perspective.

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The public and reporters also have different perceptions about what makes for good religion coverage. More than two-thirds (69.7%) of the public says that they prefer coverage that emphasizes religious experiences, spirituality, practices, and beliefs. In contrast, more than three-fifths (62.9%) of reporters say that the audiences they serve prefer religion coverage that emphasizes religious institutions, activities, events, and personalities.

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The public and reporters also have different views on the quality of religion coverage. For example, two-thirds (66.5%) of the public agrees that there is too much sensationalism in religion coverage—a view held by less than one-third of reporters (29.8%). The differences are less stark on other questions: one-quarter (27.2%) of the public says that religion coverage is “accurate and fair” compared to two-fifths of reporters (40.0%), and almost two-fifths (37.1%) of the public agrees that the “news media is hostile to religion and religious people,” while just one-quarter (24.6%) of reporters agree.

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However, there are points of agreement between the public and reporters. A majority of both groups agree that “the news media does a poor job of explaining religion in society (57.1% and 51.8%, respectively). Similarly, less than one-third (30.3%) of the public agrees that “overall, media covers religion well,” a view held by about as many reporters (27.7%). And very few consumers (14.3%) or reporters (6.7%) agree that “there is far too much coverage of religion by the news media.”

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Interestingly, the public rates online news websites/blogs less favorably than reporters (31.4% to 42.0% “good” ratings), with reporters giving the highest quality ratings to online media—with the exception of their own organizations (58.3% “good” quality rating).

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One-half (50.2%) of all reporters say a major challenge to covering religion is a lack of knowledge of religion. Two-fifths say that a lack of time for reporting religion stories and inadequate space for such stories are major challenges (40.9% and 40.2%, respectively). About one-third (35.2%) say that a lack of interest in religion is a major challenge to coverage, and about as many reporters (31.3%) say that a major challenge is they “Don’t know the sources” for covering religion.

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In keeping with the lack of knowledge as a challenge to covering religion, about one-fifth (18.9%) of reporters say they are as “very knowledgeable” about religion and one–third (31.5%) say they are “knowledgeable.” Another 39.8% said they were “somewhat knowledgeable” and 9.8% said they are not knowledgeable about religion.

When asked the major sources of their knowledge of religion, three-fifths mention their own religious practice and self-study of religion (59.8% and 59.4%, respectively). In addition, one-half (52.7%) list their family background as a child and two-fifths (43.4%) their current religious denomination or congregation. About one-half (46.3%) of reporters mention their experience covering religion. Formal education ranked last as a source of knowledge about religion, including higher education (40.4%) and primary/secondary education (34.7%).

I’ll stop there as the much of the rest of the report goes on to analyse ‘consumers’ of religious coverage, which you can read from page 15 onwards.

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