According to News Sources, Religion is…

Religion is monotheistic-centric, heavily associated with violence, and in a continuous battle with secularization…according to our news outlets. 

On September 17, 2014, I visited the websites of major American news outlets’ websites including CNN, FoxNews, msnbc, HuffingtonPost, and ABC with a simple objective: to analyze what was being disseminated as “religion,” discover what was newsworthy within the category of religion, and to understand the popular notion of religion.  As a method, I went to each website’s “religion” section, recorded the top 5-10 stories, and examined the stories for commonalities/differences. I fully acknowledge the limited data-set from which I drew conclusions, but here are a few of the reoccurring themes:

1. ABC News and Fox News are infatuated with Pope Francis.  Their top stories consist of:

  • “Pope Francis Rocks Rolling Stone Magazine Cover”
  • “Pope Blasts Selfishness and Corruption in Slum Visit”
  • “Who Wore It Best: Papal Edition”
  • “Can a Voting Cardinal Skip Papal Conclave?”
  • “Results of ‘Vatileaks’ Probe for “Pope’s Eyes Only’”

To be fair, a search for “religion” within the abcnews website yields other stories like: “Chinese Minority Scholar on Trial for Separatism,” “Man Drives Across US, Confesses to 1997 Homicide,” and “Why Nick Jonas is No Longer Wearing His Purity Ring.”

(For Themes 2-5, HuffingtonPost Religion is the exception.  I include a note regarding HuffingtonPost Religion in Theme 6).

2.  Religion is monotheistic-centric.  There is an implicit assumption within the news outlets that religion centers around a single god/deity.  Most of the stories tagged as “religion” are related to either Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.  To be more specific, approximately 95% of all the stories contained a reference to a subjective monotheism or just a broad reference to a monotheistic tradition.

3.  Humanism and interfaith were completely absent.  It appears that humanism is not conceptualized as faith, meaning-making construct, or anything associated with religion by these networks.  Further, if I relied on these sources for information, I might assume that collaboration between faith communities was completely nonexistent.

4.  What is permissible in the public sphere as it pertains to religion is in legal debate and of high interest to the news media.  Multiple news stories focused attention on the disputable legal limits of religiosity into the public arena.  Challenges to the birth control mandate, military oaths, and allowing religiously prescribed facial hair are a few of the specific examples provided by the reviewed media.  To be sure, many of these stories were highlighted by editorials with an obvious bias in the cases.  You can probably predict which networks situated themselves with secularism or religion. But by the information disseminated, there is no common ground to be found in this debate.

5.  Religion is inherently violent. ISIS, battles with secularized societies, and religious extremism are given more attention than other topics.  If there is conflict to be found, it seems to be categorically religious.

6.  HuffingtonPost Religion relays news about religion differently than all the other news sources.  (Parenthetical declaration: I do not work for HuffingtonPost Religion, and I am not affiliated with the this particular news source.)  The truth is HuffingtonPost religion acknowledges non-monotheistic and non-theistic faiths as religion by including stories of Sikhs, Interfaith movements, and Hindus.  Additionally, there was a focus on the positive contributions of religious people from across the globe.  Well done HuffingtonPost Religion!

These stories reveal much in the way of how religion is conceptualized and communicated within the media in the United States.  The stories evince how religion is recognized and categorized and also reveal much about us, our society, and our understanding of religion.  We, as a society, need to transition to a more nuanced and complex understanding of religion, faith, and meaning-making.

This activity of searching through online media outlets for religion content could be utilized as a heuristic device in interfaith education (and within broader pedagogic discourses.) A good interfaith community should wrestle with defining faith, religion, and values.  We have to have an understanding of how religious knowledge is being mass-produced within an online and television media driven society.  If the boundaries of religion and faith can be expanded categorically within our local communities, then the acceptance of interfaith collaborations as civic necessity and practice will be recognized.  The truth is the media is doing a poor job covering “religion.” The dominant media outlets are guilty of working from too narrow of a definition of religion and faith, repeatedly associating religion with violence, and focusing our attentions on negative examples of religiosity.  Interfaith groups have the difficult task of educating not only their constituents, but un-educating their communities from incorrect assumptions based on the most popular news sources.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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2 thoughts on “According to News Sources, Religion is…

  1. Terry, this is very insightful analysis that begs for much more attention. Those of us who engage religion as an academic discipline or who work in spaces where religious diversity is a norm take for granted that narrow perspectives on religion that most people are exposed to almost exclusively from their experiences of their own faith traditions and the framing of religion by the news media. It would be interesting to compare data on the religious makeup of the journalistic, editorial and managerial staff of these media to the type of religious stories and themes they regularly highlight and those they exclude.

    I appreciate spaces like HuffPost Religion (and State of Formation!) for being intentional about honoring religious diversity and publishing a range of religious voices; however, the reality is that these spaces generally attract readers who are already fairly well educated and sensitive to the need for religiously diverse engagement. The challenge is impacting those media outlets that reach the mass market. By definition as mass market outlets, their coverage mirrors the interests and perspectives of the wider public. These outlets are very rarely willing to expand coverage in ways that their market hasn’t expressed an appetite for or willingness to engage.

    On a positive note, President Obama’s reference to people of non-faith on one of his recent speeches generated a considerable amount of buzz in the media. (I have my own issues equating non-theism or standing outside of conventional religious identity with “non-faith”, but that’s another conversation…) The media reaction highlights the degree to which dialogue about our definitions of religion and the legal and social boundaries that result from these definitions is an important conversation. Perhaps it also signals hope for a growing appetite among the media and the public for such a conversation. One can hope!

  2. Ernest,

    Thanks for your comments and you bring up several good points. I agree that mainstream media needs to expand its definitions and coverage of religion. I am advocating that interfaith groups can work toward this materializing in the future.

    I am in the academic field of religious studies where there seems to be a continual conversation regarding the definition/essence/characteristics of religion. I understand that not everyone is concerned with these academic debates, but I truly think that there needs to be an on-the-ground discussion of what constitutes religion. This would be a healthy exercise for those that identify as religious, non-religious, or irreligious.

    Where are you working? What is the diversity like in your context?

    Thanks again for the comments.


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