“Liberal Media”? Not when it Comes to Religion

June 4th, 2007



When I hear complaints about the “liberal media”, the additional adjective “secular” is usually a part of the phrase or not far behind. For example, last summer at the so-called “Values Voter Summit” in Washington, DC, speaker after speaker referred to how the “secular liberal media” has neglected religion and distorted coverage of religion and conservative values. A new study by Media Matters, however, documents two key findings that debunk this tired mantra: 1) since 2004, coverage of religion by the media has increased significantly; and 2) this coverage has actually been biased in favor of conservative religious leaders by a factor of nearly 3 to 1.

The new Media Matters for America report – Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media – demonstrates that the clear conservative bias in coverage of religion since 2004:

  • Combining newspapers and television, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders.
  • On television news – the three major television networks, the three major cable news channels, and PBS – conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed almost 3.8 times as often as progressive leaders.
  • In major newspapers, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed 2.7 times as often as progressive leaders.

(You can check out the highlights of the Media Matters press conference here.)

What are progressives to make of this? One response would be to concede the religious ground to the conservatives and simply lament the increased coverage of religion, which seems to bring in its wake increased coverage of conservative viewpoints. But one of the most exciting things happening in progressive politics today is that political progressives are remembering (even if the media are still coming around) that “religious” and “conservative”, “Christian” and “Republican” are not synonyms. Progressives are awakening from their short-term amnesia to remember that the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the abolitionist movement—in fact virtually all major progressive political movements in American history—have had influential progressive religious voices helping to lead the charge.

Progressives are also realizing that the American religious landscape is much more diverse than the skewed media coverage leads the public to believe. Just a glimpse of some findings from the American Values Survey conducted in 2006 by the Center for American Values in Public Life illuminates our real religious diversity:

  • The vast majority (9 in 10) Americans consider themselves religious, and most (50%) Americans are Religious Centrists.
  • Religious Traditionalists—the voices overrepresented by the media—only represent 18% of Americans.
  • Progressive Religious Modernists weigh in at 15% of the population, nearly matching the size of Traditionalists that too many assume are the whole of religion.
  • Even among conservative religious groups such as white Evangelicals, only 44% said that conservative religious leaders like Pat Robertson and James Dobson represented their views.
  • Despite the insistence by conservative religious leaders that religious Americans cared mostly about hot-button cultural issues, AVS found that more than 8 in 10 Americans agree that too many religious leaders use religion to talk about abortion and gay rights and don’t talk enough about more important things like loving your neighbor and caring for the poor.

So, progressives need not lament the increased coverage of religion—an important and influential part of American life—but the Media Matters study demonstrates that we need to demand better, balanced coverage that fairly portrays the voices that are both religious and progressive. Fortunately, there progressive religious leaders have been organizing and working to educate the media through efforts like Red Letter Christians, Faith and Public Life’s Voicing Faith Media Bureau, and Catholic Alliance for the Common Good’s “Voices for the Common Good Speaker’s Bureau”“http://www.catholicsinalliance.org/catholic-

Progressives should encourage a more informed media that will not only paint a more accurate portrait of religion in America but it will also give the American public a more accurate understanding of what religious Americans care about—a broader religious agenda that goes beyond conservative values and hot-button issues to include progressive values and other moral issues like the budget, poverty, the war, and health care.

Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., a religion scholar and consultant on Third Way’s Culture Project. Dr. Jones was principal researcher on The American Values Survey and is currently working on a book on progressive religion entitled Progressive AND Religious: The New Face of Religion in American Public Life (Rowman & Littlefield, June 2008).