Religion has been a subject of interest to the American news media ever since secular newspapers began to be published in the American colonies. The journalistic tradition of raising religious hackles is almost as old, dating from the early 1720s, when Boston's clerical establishment found itself under assault by the independent and iconoclastic New England Courant, published by James Franklin with the help of his younger brother Benjamin.
Although a comprehensive history of secular news coverage of religion has yet to be written, it is broadly the case that religion has been considered most newsworthy to the extent that it has played a role in public life in general and in politics in particular. For example, contention over the status of Connecticut's Congregational religious establishment elicited more coverage of religion in the Connecticut Courant between 1800 and 1818 than in the decades before or after.
It was James Gordon Bennett, the founding editor of the New York Herald, who in the 1830s led the American press into the promised land of religion coverage. Bennett, a Scotsman by birth and a liberal Roman Catholic by faith, was the first editor of a secular newspaper to devote space to the yearly meeting held in New York by denominational bodies and parachurch groups devoted to women's rights, temperance, and the abolition of slavery. He sent reporters out to report what the city's preachers were saying. Most notoriously, he happily assailed any religious activity or pronouncement that did not meet his standards—whether the Episcopalians' lavish Christmas decorations, the antiliberal pronouncements of the Vatican, or the histrionics of itinerant evangelists.
Urban revivals, notable public events that promised widespread moral and social reform, became a staple of religion reporting in the nineteenth century. Leading clergy began to write for the newspapers, sometimes via widely syndicated columns. The Sunday newspaper, though criticized as a desecration of the Lord's Day by some pastors, became a place for edifying religious prose. The Atlanta Journal, for instance, featured facing Sunday columns by the Methodist bishop of Georgia and the pastor of Atlanta's First Baptist Church.
Beginning in the twentieth century, major metropolitan dailies grew increasingly sensitive to the religious diversity of their increasingly diverse readership, and increasingly reluctant to involve themselves in religious controversy. Free listings of religious services gave way to paid advertising, resulting in the creation of the "church page," which typically included listings of church activities and friendly articles on ecclesiastical affairs. Although efforts were made to enhance the professionalism of religion editors and reporters, religion increasingly became a backwater—covered as a service for readers but hardly a priority for news executives. Stories with significant religious dimensions—the civil rights struggle, for example—typically fell outside the religion "beat."
The situation began to change in the early 1990s, for reasons at least in part commercial. The recession of the late 1980s jolted the American newspaper industry into an intense preoccupation with long-term declining circulation; one response was to beef up religion coverage in hopes of attracting new readers. Some editors strengthened their religion coverage as a species of public relations—to convince the large churchgoing public that the newspapers were not out of step with its values.
At the same time, journalists did not fail to recognize the growing public role of religion in the United States and around the world. After a quarter century, political Islam and the American Christian Religious Right proved to be phenomena of considerable staying power. Quite apart from "fundamentalist" politics, a heightened sense of the importance of "values" in society and an interest in the way religious institutions might contribute to social welfare led the American news media to turn greater attention to religious subject matter. Dozens of newspapers expanded their church and religion pages into freestanding "faith and values" sections. Religion was routinely featured on covers of American newsweeklies. Public Broadcasting had a weekly religion news show, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, airing on more than two hundred channels. By the end of the millennium, religion coverage was enjoying unprecedented popularity in the American news media.
To understand how the American news media treat religion, it is useful to think in terms of certain moral attitudes that govern how religion stories are formulated. These attitudes, called "topoi" (singular, "topos"), embody basic ideas about the nature of religion that derive from the Western religious tradition, resulting in religion stories that "make sense" in American culture. The following list of topoi is not meant to be exhaustive, but does mark out the basic territory within which most religion coverage takes place. Each topos should be understood as pointing, explicitly or implicitly, to one or another antitopos, moral opposites also capable of generating news stories.
Doing good is a basic characteristic of religion as it is understood in Western religion. Religion coverage has always been replete with stories of religious people and institutions helping the poor, ministering to the sick, and offering relief to those who have suffered natural disasters. Although there are important American Christian traditions—notably within evangelical Protestantism—that have emphasized saving souls over good works, the news media tend to embrace an attitude more associated with the Social Gospel. Antitopoi of good works may be religiously inspired evildoing, hypocrisy (see below), false prophecy (see below), or simply doing nothing for the least among us.
Legal and political issues involving the First Amendment's ban on religious establishments and protection of religious free exercise are too varied and complex to be handled journalistically simply within the context of "separation of church and state." Instead, church-state issues tend to be handled in terms of the topoi of tolerance and intolerance. Tolerance is always good and intolerance bad; opposition to political candidates because of their religious faith is always frowned upon. The debate is likely to be over who is truly tolerant/intolerant. Conservative Christian activists may be portrayed as religiously intolerant, yet they seek to have themselves portrayed as objects of secularist intolerance.
The American news media warmly embrace the special antagonism shown by the Western prophetic tradition toward those who fail to practice what they preach. The televangelist scandals of the late 1980s, and cases of pedophilia by Catholic priests prompted an extraordinary amount of news coverage. In the pedophile cases, the violations of law were generally serious, but such was not the case when it came to the activities of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. The latter should serve as a reminder that hypocrisy is not in itself a crime, but rather a moral defect the news media feel impelled to expose as a matter cultural tradition.
If the topos of hypocrisy points to those who fail to adhere to the moral standards they profess, the topos of false prophecy concerns those whose professed norms are themselves considered wrong. News coverage of the Mormons in the nineteenth century was preoccupied with the issue of polygamy and the importance of showing its evils. Similarly, much coverage of new religious movements, or cults, in the latter part of the twentieth century has gone forth under the topos of false prophecy. True prophecy, the antitopos, governs coverage of exemplary religious leaders like the evangelist Billy Graham, the Catholic nun Mother Teresa (cf. good works), and the Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
Inclusion is a topos related to tolerance but specifically concerned with the recognition of unfamiliar or previously disfavored religious groups. The Mormons, first subjected to "false prophecy" treatment, in due course were deemed to merit coverage as a worthy religious group meriting full acceptance in American society. Since inclusion is primarily a topos of domestic applicability, complications may occur when the religious group in question includes significant numbers of coreligionists abroad. For example, because "inclusion" does not govern coverage of Islam outside the United States, Muslims in America have taken offense at how their religion is characterized in foreign reporting. In response, the American news media have taken special pains to provide "positive" (i.e., inclusive) coverage of Muslim communities in the United States when there are "negative" (i.e., exclusionary) stories of violence perpetrated by Muslims abroad.
It is often asserted that the news media have a difficult time with religion because journalism is about proving facts, and religion is about faith that is beyond proof. This is especially likely to be the case when the religious subject matter at hand has to do with the miraculous or the supernatural. Yet religious traditions are far from uninterested in empirical demonstration—witness the Roman Catholic Church's insistence on proof of miracles to canonize a saint. And journalism often seeks not demonstrable evidence but sources prepared to assert that something happened. For this reason, the topos that governs coverage of supernatural events is the faith of the believers; belief is the story, whether it has to do with a miraculous healing or an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The contrary topos is justified disbelief—showing the alleged miracle to be a fraud or a delusion. The latter, however, generally requires a good deal of careful investigation and so is far rarer.
The decline of religion has been a theme in Western religion since Moses found the Golden Calf, and in America almost since the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock. New (or allegedly new) religious phenomena, whether cults or megachurches or New Age practices or religion "shopping," are commonly seen as evidence of spiritual decline from an earlier age of traditional ("old-time") faith and practice. To be sure, the opposite topos, of religious revival, periodically comes to the fore. The prevailing cultural inclination, however, is to see decline.
Hoover, Stewart. Religion in the News: FaithandJournalism in American Public Discourse. 1998.
Olasky, Marvin. Prodigal Press: The Anti-ChristianBiasofthe American News Media 1988.
Silk, Mark. Unsecular Media: Making News of ReligioninAmerica. 1995.