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“Mapping the Royal Road”: An Introduction to the Oxford Handbook on Religion and the American News Media

Abstract and Keywords

Focusing on four domains—religion, religious studies, journalism, and media studies—and mapping their feedback loops, this book explores how the news media shape and reflect what the public knows about religion. It complements existing research through a comparative and qualitative study of the themes, narratives, and frames employed by the American news media in their coverage of religions at home and abroad. It also examines the entangled history of religion and the news media in the United States from the colonial era to the present and includes articles on the religious press. By adding religion to the social history of American news media, the book builds on the work of scholars such as Michael Schudson, Gerald J. Baldasty, and Herbert Gans in studying the relationship between politics, the marketplace, and the press. Before detailing the book's structure and content, this introduction discusses the entangled history of religion and news in the United States, a working definition of religion and its impact on reporting, and the present state of research on religion coverage.

Keywords: United States, religion, journalism, news media, religious press, politics, reporting, history

Writing in the 1993 Nieman Reports special issue “God in the Newsroom,” theologian Harvey Cox offered two salient observations about religion and religious movements. First, religious movements can never be studied apart from the cultural and political milieu in which they arise, and second, “religion is the royal road to the heart of a civilization, the clearest indicator of its hopes and terrors, the surest index of how it is changing.”1 By arguing that religion is a reliable cultural barometer, Cox hoped to convince journalists to pay more attention to Pentecostalism. Its booming global growth, he said, signaled significant cultural and social changes, but the news media were missing the story.

Were Cox a media scholar, he might have thought differently. According to many academic studies, reporters are just as likely to skew, stop, or accelerate societal changes as they are to elucidate them. In fact, a close study of news writing often yields as much insight into the culture of journalism as it does into the cultures that journalists cover. That is exactly why reporting about religion matters: it not only reveals social arrangements and cultural trends but also illumines, as would reporting on any other subject, contemporary media practices and their underpinning assumptions. Media is to society, as some scholars have observed, what water is to (p. 4) fish: a taken-for-granted yet all-encompassing environment that shapes beliefs, behaviors, and social interactions.

In the current moment of mediatization, the process by which “media in the long run increasingly become relevant for the social construction of everyday life, society and culture as a whole,”2 journalistic representations of religion can assume a reality distinct from religions’ actual, in-the-world existence. The slippage between representation and reality can be relatively benign—apolitical fundamentalists bristling at portrayals of themselves as card-carrying members of the religious Right—or deeply problematic, as in the case of news consumers who “know” Islam as a religion that oppresses women and condones terrorism. What’s at stake for journalists, scholars, and an informed public is understanding how mediated representations come to be, what purpose they serve, and what can be learned from them. By querying four domains—religion, religious studies, journalism, and media studies—and mapping their feedback loops, the Oxford Handbook on Religion and the American News Media seeks to illuminate how the news media shape and reflect what the public knows about religion.

The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media falls in the purview of religion and media studies, an emerging field that encompasses research in religion, history, area studies, sociology, and communications, among other disciplines. Researchers in the field have examined topics ranging from audience reception of online religious gaming to the transatlantic circulation of nineteenth-century evangelical tracts to the semiotics of Hindu soap operas. Religion and the news media, a small subfield, has been dominated by communication scholars interested in studying framing, stereotyping, sourcing, frequency and placement of coverage, denominational biases in coverage, quantity and quality of coverage, the impact of religion in political coverage, and reporters’ religiosity. Historians of American journalism also study the intersection of religion and the news, the development of the religion beat, religious journalism, and the role of religion in news about sex scandals and sexual sensationalism.

The Handbook aims to complement existing research through a comparative and qualitative study of the themes, narratives, and frames that the American news media employ in their coverage of religions at home and abroad. It also examines the entangled history of religion and the news media in the United States from the colonial era to the present and includes chapters on the religious press. Most chapters are case studies that look at coverage over time and in different media outlets. They are intended not to be definitive, but rather to exemplify how coverage is structured and organized, the questions it addresses, and the messages it relates at particular times and in particular places. Moreover, by adding religion to the social history of American news media, the Handbook builds on the work of scholars such as Michael Schudson, Gerald J. Baldasty, and Herbert Gans in studying the relationship between politics, the marketplace, and the press.

The only resource of its kind, the Handbook is written for scholars and general readers; secularists and believers; students of religious studies, media studies, and American studies; and journalists. The volume’s case studies illuminate what Cox (p. 5) calls “the royal road to the heart of a civilization” by teasing out the hopes and fears, questions and concerns, and stated intentions and implicit agendas expressed in depictions of religion in the news media. (News media encompass both legacy media [pre-online print, radio, and television] and new media [digitized forms of communication].) In the background, though unaddressed in most chapters, are questions of agency and authority: How do reporters know what they know, decide what to write, and structure their stories? How does their work reflect, shape, and frame reality? What specific challenges does religion present to journalists? And, most crucially, what do these stories show about contemporary American society?

Before detailing the Handbook’s structure and content, several background areas must be addressed in this Introduction. These are the entangled history of religion and news in the United States, a working definition of religion and its impact on reporting, and the present state of research on religion coverage.

Religion and the News in Colonial America

News is current and consequential information on matters that affect and interest its consumers. The defining features of American news are impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, bizarreness, conflict, and currency.3 Reported in various intervals and by an assortment of media, news can be received instantaneously through digital connections or delivered infrequently by print, broadcast, or online vehicles. A combination of factors determines the influence of news, including ubiquity (the number and distribution of outlets) and audience (quality and quantity). News can order political priorities, shape social concerns, strengthen loyalties, and foster a sense of belonging, as well as distract and entertain.

Religion performs similar functions of defining and ordering identities and worldviews, as well as providing distraction and entertainment. Benedict Anderson has argued that news superseded religion in the modern world,4 but at other times religion was the news; that is, events were newsworthy because they had teleological significance. Centuries before Christians adopted the term gospel, or good news, to describe Jesus’s message, men and women used oral, pictorial, and architectural media to share news about the seen and unseen worlds. These reports can still be “read” in places such as the Chauvet cave paintings, the Giza pyramid complex, and Stonehenge.

By the seventeenth century, European journals and newsletters, precursors to today’s newspapers, provided information on commerce and politics. But European settlers in the New World, especially the Puritans, found their news in God’s revelations, establishing a relationship between religion and American news that would (p. 6) be both mutually constitutive and markedly competitive. That relationship has waxed and waned over nearly four centuries, but several factors are constant. In America, religion has always been part of the news and its coverage has reflected and shaped Americans’ worldview.

When British colonists settled in what became the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they found the information they needed in the natural world. Indian raids, failed crops, and stillbirths signaled divine displeasure, while good weather and ample harvests meant that God was pleased with their holy commonwealth. Initially, colonists spread such “news” in sermons, almanacs, and broadsheets. But journals and newspapers that sprang up at the end of the seventeenth century gradually detached teleological significance from daily events. Today’s secular journalism notwithstanding, the why and how of Puritan reporting have echoed down the generations, influencing the style and substance of American reportage. According to journalism historian David Paul Nord, “characteristics of American news—its subject matter and its method of reporting—are deeply rooted in the religious culture of seventeenth century New England.” Specifically, says Nord, the press’s “current-event orientation, supported by reportorial empiricism and authoritative interpretation” is its Puritan legacy.5 These are evidenced in legacy journalism’s use of the omniscient narrator, as well as its commitments to balance over partisanship, objectivity rather than analysis, and breaking news rather than continuity.

By the 1730s, a thriving newspaper culture had spread throughout the colonies with weekly newssheets offering a mix of essays, fiction, and information. Religion was pervasive in the mix: religious activities were regularly noted, and hymns, sermons, prayers, and scripture were featured. Political stories had a religious dimension, and reports on laws and governmental decrees noted religious motivations. Religion was a fact of life covered by the press as well as the primary means for interpreting events, whether a rise in taxes or a series of freakish storms. But in 1739, religion became news in a way that was unprecedented in both scope and span. British evangelist George Whitefield arrived for a preaching tour of the colonies, and his ministry was soon enmeshed in controversy. Up and down the Eastern seaboard, colonists debated whether Whitefield was God’s man or a cunning huckster.

A provocative figure, Whitefield was a de facto newsmaker, but shrewd marketing made him a celebrity. Press reports reflected changes in colonial journalism: national coverage that transcended local borders and personality-driven coverage that created media stars. By the time Whitefield died in 1770, the content of coverage had changed, too; economics and politics predominated. The growing commercial sector had amplified economic concerns and oppressive taxation underscored the political toll of British rule. Newspapers still printed religious news and cited religion to show that events, including acts of rebellion, were part of God’s plan. But the normative understanding of news as religion and religion as news had waned.

(p. 7) Religion and News in the Nineteenth Century

After the Revolutionary War, newspapers played a key role in shaping the new nation. Many were organs of political parties; others specialized in commercial news aimed at a growing mercantile class. Catering to subscribers who paid a hefty price in advance, editors valued partisanship and debate over balance and objectivity. The formula worked: by 1825, the United States had 800-plus newspapers, more than any other country. New technology would soon transform content, delivery, and audiences. Innovations in printing and papermaking had reduced production costs, and enterprising publishers bet that workingmen would pay a penny for news that informed and entertained. The “Penny Press” re-envisioned news reporting, journalistic standards, and industry economics. It also altered coverage of religion.

The Penny Press won mass audiences by reporting sensational narratives. Most frequently, these were stories of crime and punishment that offered a secular teleology for an increasingly heterogeneous population. American institutions dispensed justice through the provision of law and order with lots of blood and gore along the way. Religion was just another beat in the news mix, but when James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, treated clerical improprieties, congregational scandals, and denominational crimes as fair game, he was roundly criticized. A lapsed Roman Catholic, Bennett supported religious liberty. But he also relished exposing religious hypocrisy. Envious competitors and outraged clergy tried shutting him down, but Bennett thrived, widening his scope to report on New England abolitionists, frontier revivals, and midwestern anti-Mormonism.

As newspapers grew more secular in tone and content, the religious press played an increasingly important role for churchgoers and other believers. Before the Penny Press, newspapers printed both religious and secular information. Moreover, most religious periodicals were nonsectarian to attract the greatest number of subscribers. But the same innovations that revolutionized secular publishing also affected religious journals, many of which pioneered mass production to better evangelize the continent. After 1830, individual denominations and missionary organizations launched their own distinctive publications. Some sought to reach coreligionists nationwide; others hoped to convert the unchurched. Still others, active in social reform, wanted to publicize their causes.

Thus, while the secular press plumbed human depravity, religious newspapers exhorted believers to work for the Second Coming, reflecting the postmillennial belief that Christians could help to herald Jesus’s arrival. They were expected not only to rescue lost souls but also to eradicate slavery, alcoholism, prostitution, and child labor, among other social ills. According to David Paul Nord, socially minded religious publications exemplified Alexis de Tocqueville’s vision of the American press. Tocqueville predicted that newspapers would promote a national culture of democratic pluralism.6 Readers would debate issues and plan actions over geographic (p. 8) distances. But this pluralistic and participatory model found little traction in the secular press, where instead, a commercial logic commodified news, selling sensationalism and entertainment for the profit of owners and advertisers.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the numbers of American newspapers continued to grow: in 1850, there were 3,000; in 1880, there were 7,000. Content also shifted. The Penny Press ushered in an era of easy reading that made newspapers a daily habit. But in 1851, when Henry Jarvis launched the New York Times, he hoped to introduce a level of sobriety to New York’s pell-mell press. A decade later, reporters nationwide followed suit, inaugurating a new era of responsible coverage during the Civil War. Religion was woven into battlefield stories and provided a strong narrative thread for reports to families back home. However, when the war ended, the constancy of religion news diminished. The press paid deference to established Protestant denominations, cited clergy as authoritative sources, and frequently published ministers’ opinions on the issues of the day. But religious activities rarely made the front pages, a coup reserved for the scandalous, the sensational, and the occasional religious miscreant.

During the 1870s, coverage of these three sometimes coincided. Newspapers, along with the rest of society, had been battered by the decade’s economic downturn. To boost sales, editors looked for religion stories that appealed to skeptics as well as believers. These stories made the front page, but holidays, church activities, and episcopal meetings were buried deep inside the paper. Even as significant an event as the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions could not muster many news columns.

Seeing their work as increasingly peripheral to the news, clergy lamented the press’s lack of social responsibility and moral leadership. They criticized sensational stories told in purple prose and condemned advertisements that hawked frivolous products. They argued that newspapers had a social and moral obligation to help improve society, which, to their thinking, meant inculcating a Christian worldview. Clergy understood that the power to sway public opinion had migrated from pulpit to press. The loss of cultural authority was bad enough, but they were doubly frustrated that newspapers bowed to Mammon instead of using moral suasion for social good.

Between 1870 and 1930, changes in the news industry, including the growing importance of advertising, the demise of political partisanship, and the rise of objectivity as a reportorial standard, doomed coverage of clergy opining on politics or standards for social behavior. Journalism professionals—editors, reporters, and educators—aligned themselves with the forces of progress and reason as opposed to religion and superstition. The law, medicine, and education had already cut their religious roots; now journalism would, too. Cast as priests and prophets of a new, secular age, reporters would provide authoritative guidance to society. Describing Joseph Pulitzer’s turn-of-the-century “mass journalism,” sociologist Michael Schudson calls it a response to readers torn between old, familiar ways and societal shifts in education, urbanization, and mobility. “They wanted the moral counsel of stories as much as any people did, but the tales of the Bible and the lives of the saints were not suited to the new cities. The new journalism was.”7

(p. 9) Religion and News in the Twentieth Century

In 1933, researcher Hornell Hart noted that a significant change in news coverage had been the “shift from Biblical authority and sanctions to scientific and factual authority and sanctions.” Not surprisingly, the number of religion stories fell during this period. Between 1905 and 1909, the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature listed 21.4 stories per year on religion. In 1931, the total was 10.7. Religious content suffered a similar declension; stories positively inclined to “traditional Christianity,” which had constituted 78 percent of coverage in 1905, fell by more than half to 33 percent in 1931.8

As newspapers reduced religion coverage, general interest magazines picked up the slack with in-depth, illustrated features. In the post–Civil War era, Harper’s, Munsey’s, and The Outlook covered subjects ranging from the Salvation Army’s open-air evangelism to the history of Unitarianism in New York. Of special note was McClure’s, a monthly magazine founded in 1893 by Samuel Sidney McClure. Raised in a pious Presbyterian home, McClure retained his childhood commitment to religious service. His goal as a publisher was to be God’s servant, spreading truth and inspiring readers.

McClure’s eponymous magazine was the era’s moral lodestar. His Progressive-era journalists exposed corruption in business and government. Dubbed “muckrakers” for their willingness to dig up the nation’s dirt, most of the group—which included Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, William Allen White, and Ray Stannard Baker—saw their work as akin to a religious vocation. They wanted better laws and governance, but they believed that real change required moral and spiritual regeneration. Even after World War I ended muckraking’s heyday, magazines continued to cover religion more expansively than newspapers. When Henry Luce, the son of Presbyterian ministers in China, launched a weekly newsmagazine, he mandated regular coverage of religion. Luce was sincerely interested in religion, but he also believed Christianity was a strategic defense against Communism. In its early decades, the newsmagazine ran updates of religion news as well as extensive feature pieces. When he acquired Life magazine in 1936, Luce made certain that the weekly’s photojournalism spreads featured country clergy, urban congregations, and worshipers worldwide.

During the interwar years, reporters filed on “kooks and spooks,” the newspaper terms for religious oddballs and eccentrics. Coverage of the conflict between fundamentalists and liberals, the subtext of several well-publicized heresy trials in earlier decades, faded after the 1925 Scopes verdict. Fundamentalists won the court case, but newspapers had so caricatured their cause that secular elites no longer took them seriously. Reporters still found stories on religious scandals and spiritual outliers irresistible, but they also profiled religious leaders. Headline makers might, like Reinhold Niebuhr, confront powerful politicians; or, like Sister Aimee, court scandal; or, like Gandhi, rally thousands. But two of the century’s biggest religion (p. 10) stories were lost in the shuffle of events, deadlines, and news judgment. Neither the destruction of European Jewry nor the militarization of atomic power was well reported. Some news managers may have felt that wartime readers were uninterested in the fate of a far-away, non-Christian community, while others calculated that their staffs were already stretched thin covering the conflict. Nor did the press choose to write much about the debate over the morality of using the atomic bomb, an apt topic for religious leaders. The attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki were evaluated solely within the context of ending the war, and several years passed before related ethical concerns became a topic of public conversation.

Maybe as a result of these cataclysmic events or perhaps because of a postwar desire for a simpler time, religion surged in the 1950s. American leaders hailed it as a bulwark against Communism, and a religious revival swept the country. Billy Graham softened Fundamentalism’s hard edge; the National Council of Churches convened for ecumenical cooperation; Bishop Fulton Sheen utilized the new medium of television to launch a national ministry; and Conservative Jews went on a suburban building spree, erecting synagogues and community centers. Religion already was a staple of many newsmagazines; now newspapers paid attention, too. Some even elevated their coverage to a distinct beat assigned to a designated religion writer. Reporting reflected the era’s mores. Stories on white Protestants predominated. Outsiders—whether Hindus, Buddhists, or African American Christians—were covered either as peculiar or problematic.

Popular memory conjures the 1950s as a respite between the world war just concluded and the domestic strife that was to come. Religion, rediscovered as a social, familial, and personal good during the 1950s, careened into an activist, sometimes disruptive force in the 1960s. The era began with the election of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, and continued with additional challenges to the white Protestant establishment. The civil rights movement, germinating for decades, assumed urgency when college students organized sit-ins to integrate lunch counters (1960) and Freedom Riders challenged segregated transportation (1961). Clergy had long been visible in the movement’s leadership, but the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s biblically based message became increasingly compelling in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” (1963) and “I Have a Dream” sermon (1964). In 1962 and 1963, respectively, the Supreme Court ended school prayer and Bible reading in public schools. When the court overturned a Connecticut state law prohibiting the sale of contraceptives to married couples (1965), the ruling was not widely perceived as a shift in the religious status quo. But it set the precedent for later cases that legalized birth control (1972) and abortion (1973)—both upending received assumptions about marriage, family, and reproduction. Also in 1965, a new immigration law ended quotas for nonwhite immigrants, which, in subsequent decades, would increase the numbers of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim citizens. Yet even before the numbers rose, Eastern gurus attracted thousands of American youth to alternative spiritualities. Not long after Time asked “Is God Dead?” (1966), teens and young people turned to swamis and New Age cults for answers.

(p. 11) Religion in the 1960s spilled off the church page, changing its focus from denominations and institutional leaders, which tended to be white and Protestant, to encompass a wide swath of people and practices. Writing about religion became part of the politics, education, and court beats. It was central to stories about the nascent youth culture and relevant to coverage of the Great Society and the Vietnam War, both of which stirred strong feelings among people of faith. The 1970s saw the continuation of many of the same trends—especially shifts in median age, mobility, and education, as well as economic restructuring and a redefinition of the family—that affected religious involvement and affiliation. People found religion could help them accept, resist, or transcend change. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the politicization of white conservative Christians. Newsweek’s declaration that 1976 was “the year of the evangelical” presaged this seemingly “new” group’s prominence in the quarter century that followed.

The emergence of white religious conservatives as political players, following two decades of mainline Protestant and black Christian political leadership, echoed earlier evangelical attempts to perfect society through abolition and temperance. Concerned now with social and cultural challenges to the family, a structure that they considered the backbone of American democracy, as well as integral to God’s plan, evangelicals organized on many fronts. They stood as candidates for local office and campaigned in national elections; they challenged rulings against school prayer and fought to gain equal access for religious groups on public school property. They picketed birth control clinics and wrote manuals promoting recreational sex within marriage. Religion coverage expanded by necessity, and news—both implicitly and explicitly—explored the mash-up of religion, culture, and politics. Reporting on religiously infused politics, the secular press affirmed two of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations about its role in a democratic society: first, its coverage legitimated and strengthened the work of local associations, including religious ones, in the political process, and second, it cast religion over and against politics as a touchstone for American democratic ideals.

The first goal fell squarely within the press’s mission, although some journalists would not have recognized their work as legitimating groups like Christian Voice or Moral Majority, but the second was problematic. How could religion trump journalism in the defense of American democracy? Many late-twentieth-century news executives kept faith with the Journalist’s Creed, the 1906 statement that asserted, “the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.”9 Ever since Walter Lippmann said the press was essential to democracy, journalists defined public service as guaranteeing a free and accountable government. The press accomplished this through its legitimating and authoritative functions, judging and providing the information that Americans needed to be good citizens. Tocqueville’s contention that religion was the ultimate arbiter for democracy by applying a higher standard to temporal power challenged journalism’s raison d’être, especially since the religion currently in question, conservative Christianity, upheld values that were diametrically opposed to science and secular rationalism.

(p. 12) The disjuncture was reflected in journalism’s subsequent subversion of evangelical legitimacy and authority. It was apparent in 1976 when NBC anchor John Chancellor told millions of viewers, “We’ve checked this out. Being born again is not a bizarre mountaintop experience.”10 And in 1993 when a front-page Washington Post story described followers of the Christian Right as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.”11 And again in 2011 when an article on The Atlantic website about possible presidential contender Mike Huckabee noted, “People are sometimes caught off guard by Huckabee’s intellectual competence because of his rural Arkansas habits (he and his wife lived in a trailer while the governor’s mansion was being renovated) and his outspoken evangelical views.”12 It also was clear in the news media’s cyclical rediscovery of evangelicals between 1976 and 2000. Despite the election of two Southern Baptists (evangelicals by definition) to the presidency and two others who assiduously courted religious conservatives, political reporters seemed routinely surprised that evangelicals were part of the political mix. Only after George W. Bush’s election did journalists seem to acknowledge that evangelicals were a mainstay of American politics and that their agenda had become mainstream.

Both journalists and academics agreed that religion coverage improved after the 1980s.13 More news outlets, including television and radio, assigned reporters to the beat. Large papers often had several journalists covering religion, and some even revitalized religion sections, expanding church news into reporting on faith, values, and spirituality.14 Religion was covered instrumentally, as a subset of politics, rather than substantively, as a spiritual experience,15 but there was a growing apprehension that news consumers wanted more on spirituality, the aspect of religion that was experiential rather than institutional, transcendent instead of political, individual more than social.

Coinciding with this interest in religion as an individual, spiritual experience, the migration of news and information online revolutionized religion coverage. Independent reporting and writing broke free from the constraints of objectivity and newsworthiness. By the early 1990s, The Well, one of the earliest virtual communities, functioned for many as a spiritual hub. By the end of the decade, spiritual seekers could share news and information through hundreds of blogs and forums. More traditional kinds of religion news could be found online at denominational sites, news aggregate sites, online ’zines, forums, and legacy news sites. There were sites that found news in the affinities between the visible and the invisible worlds and those that debunked religion. Some sites used religion news to entertain, others offered in-depth coverage of world religions, and still others prophesized. Faced with the sudden proliferation of voices and alternate viewpoints, legacy news outlets asserted the value of expert, objective news gathering and reportage, even as they developed their own blogs and commentaries, such as the Washington Post’s “On Faith” feature or the Boston Globe’s “Articles of Faith.”

Despite stressing the primacy of their role, legacy media lost their monolithic control of the news agenda. Citizen reporting on the 2007 Burmese Saffron Revolution pushed the story from newspapers’ back pages to the top of the day’s (p. 13) headlines. Likewise, tweets, Facebook updates, and cell phone data expanded real-time information on events including the 2010 Gaza flotilla and the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Competition between legacy journalism and new media, conducted as a war of both information and ideology, reenacted an old debate between John Dewey and Walter Lippmann. Whereas Lippmann argued for a journalism elite that filtered news for a largely ignorant and self-absorbed citizenry, Dewey believed empowered publics could use and generate news to invigorate democracy. Both positions are embodied in the strengths and weaknesses of legacy versus new media.

Among the earliest examples of these differences was the coverage of the World Trade Center cataclysm on September 11, 2001. Even before traditional news outlets could report the story, victims and witnesses used cell phones to capture fateful decisions and tragic choices. The immediacy of loved ones’ last words and the horrific images of their deaths made the catastrophe visceral for millions. In the weeks following, legacy media deployed resources to document and investigate events. Religion was central to subsequent reporting on the hijackers’ theological motivations, the last minutes of those trapped on the uppermost floors, the heroic efforts of rescuers, and the shattered lives of both the dead and their surviving families.16 September 11 also exemplified the impact of mediatization, specifically its impact on news as an experiential, as well as an informational, product. The Internet provided ways to encounter and to memorialize victims, as well as to ensure their virtual immortality. Websites about religion also flourished in the tragedy’s aftermath. Some sought to explain Islam; others vilified it; still others seized a seemingly opportune moment to reach the unchurched. Online forums, games, and virtual habitats (such as Second Life) also offered ways to know, experience, and come to terms with 9/11 and its religious implications.

Defining, Mediating, and Covering Religion

Just as religion has influenced the definition and production of news, journalism has had an impact on religion in America. In the heyday of the legacy media, the “who, what, why, where, when, and how” of news gathering shaped how religious groups constructed a public presence, since press coverage could make or break them. (Of course, when reporters discovered discrepancies between a religion’s public face and private misdeeds, there was little religious groups could do about subsequent stories.) Yet playing the news game also could distort religious teachings. Groups that received good coverage in one instance could not count on similar treatment other times, and even if they had been treated fairly, their message might not be explained as fully as they would want.

(p. 14) Before the Internet, the legacy press was the main avenue for religions to reach beyond their pews. New media enable faith communities to target constituencies with stories that reflect alternate news standards, worldviews, and values. For example, religious groups are more open to reporting change over time and less concerned with impact, prominence, proximity, and conflict. Many take the long view, appreciating small changes, modest gains, and win-win outcomes. Religious news outlets promote in-group norms, focusing on their own leaders, activities, and practices. This translates into articles about mission projects that enact the group’s values, profiles of exemplary clergy, and news about ordinary laypeople doing extraordinary work. In addition to embodying collective core beliefs, these stories also promote American civic values as foundational to democracy and, therefore, integral to religion.

Secular journalism likewise encodes civic values, though its estimation of religion’s relationship to those values is more equivocal. As in other beats, secular news coverage of religion focuses on the high and mighty, powerful institutions, and important people. That means congregations, denominations, and parachurch associations (these terms are inclusive of non-Christian religions) receive more attention than ad hoc groups, and that larger bodies, such as the Roman Catholic Church, are more newsworthy than smaller ones, such as the Presbyterian Church USA. If minor religions are bizarre, controversial, or engaged in conflict, they can become headline fodder, as seen in the coverage of Raelians, Scientologists, and polygamous Mormons. Likewise, reporting on religious individuals leans to world leaders such as the pope or the Dalai Lama, celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Madonna, or controversial figures including Jerry Falwell, Jim Jones, and David Koresh. Occasionally, unsung heroes are profiled, as are average believers.

News outlets define religion in conventional, institutional terms. Judaism is a religion; extreme surfing is not, despite their shared aspects of community, ritual, and transcendence. Focusing on large institutions and powerful people marginalizes what some adherents and religion scholars say are the most intriguing and dynamic aspects of belief and believing. From an adherent’s point of view, the institutional perspective often overlooks facts on the ground. Clergy sex abuse and denominational debates over gay ordination fit the definition of newsworthiness, but they don’t illuminate the mystery of prayer or the impact of small group fellowship. Even more marginalized are beliefs and practices that fall outside traditional faiths: Buddhists who find a meditation community on Second Life; a Muslim and Jewish college dorm; evangelical feminists. The growing number of Americans who seek spiritual connection and community through online forums, Facebook, and affinity groups is essentially ignored.

The very practice of news gathering affects what may be known about religion. Decisions about sourcing, reporting, and framing stories do more than simply convey information; they mainstream certain issues, ideas, and personalities while marginalizing others. Other constituencies, whether union members, hedge fund managers, or athletes, make similar complaints, but religious groups, deservedly or not, cite their singularity, straddling the sacred and the secular. How does a reporter (p. 15) interview God or fact check a miracle? Covering the supernatural is an impossibility and mastering a religion’s context—history, theology, creeds, dogma, and doctrine—is daunting. Decisions about newsworthiness, in conjunction with issues of time, space, and resources, can skew public perceptions about fundamental religious tenets. In the case of jihad, the Islamic word for struggle, particularly one’s internal efforts to know God, a multilayered theological term has become a synonym for holy war and terrorism.

In recent years, scholars have enlarged their definition of what constitutes religion to encompass a wide variety of phenomena that display elements of supernaturalism, meaning making, and the search for identity and purpose. Some see religion in popular culture; others find it in practices that provide structure and significance. Some scholars have argued that “religion” is a historically constructed category that served as a classification tool for Western colonialism. Others have subjected religion to economic, psychoanalytic, and anthropological analysis. Yet few of the insights derived from recent scholarship have migrated to coverage of religion. Rather, in spite of evolving perspectives on what, why, and how people believe and therefore behave, most twenty-first-century legacy news outlets still till the same religious ground—scandal, sensation, and conflict—as their nineteenth-century counterparts.

Likewise, media scholars cling to conventional definitions of religion when studying coverage. Not surprisingly, their work often corroborates professional norms, such as the prevalence of conflict narratives and the predominance of “newsworthy” religion stories. But it also reveals the structural dynamics that inform journalistic choices and point to journalism’s role in setting social agendas and maintaining cultural hegemony. For example, a survey of Time magazine from 1947 to 1976 revealed that Catholics, Jews, and Episcopalians accounted for 60 percent of its religion coverage. Implicit in the newsmagazine’s story selection and content was the depiction of religion as “a frenetic contest waged by certain male prelates on the east coast of the United States, a xenophobic personality clash about matters of today.” Time’s coverage, concluded the researchers, reflects the world of its writers (mostly successful white men in New York City), as well as a rhetorical strategy that produces messages “which grow out of, and are aligned to, certain generic (or class-bound) rules. These generic rules not only constrain how one should express one’s thoughts; they also dictate what thoughts one might profitably think.”17 Accordingly, coverage of religion was not unlike sports or politics; all of the newsmagazine’s reporting emphasized “action, conflict and personality.”18 Implicit, though not stated, was the ways in which the subjects and presentation of coverage reinforce the status quo.

A survey of New York Times and Washington Post religion reporting in 1977 similarly found that Catholics, Jews, and Episcopalians received the most attention. The distribution made sense for Catholicism, the largest religious group in the country. But why the overrepresentation of Jews and Episcopalians as opposed to a significantly larger group, such as Baptists? The research ascribed the imbalance to news criteria. “The major issues of these three denominations paralleled (p. 16) those of other established organizations. Political relations (church and state), intra-organizational (church services and liturgy) and inter-organizational (unity), and women’s rights are easily associated with most community groups. But the Baptists, the only primarily evangelical group of the four, do not fit in well with the establishment, hence the bias against the denomination.”19

The ensuing politicization of American evangelicals between 1980 and 2000 underscored the study’s argument. Within the next decade, conservative Christians’ embrace of political causes drove increased coverage of their leaders and institutions. Most did not welcome the attention. Evangelicals doubted that the press corps could fairly represent their concerns, especially after a 1986 survey found the “media elite” tended to be secular cosmopolitans who were less churchgoing than average Americans.20 Subsequent studies challenged this hypothesis, finding that as many as 72 percent of journalists said religion was important to them and that many “apply religious values to their jobs.”21 The substance of conservatives’ charges also was refuted in studies that found newspaper coverage of fundamentalists was balanced, “slightly cool” but not “cold,” and steadily growing.22 Researchers predicted coverage would continue to increase as the group became more politically active, a finding that corroborated earlier studies and anticipated a 2003 survey of television coverage of fundamentalists.23 This subsequent investigation found that broadcast journalists covered religious conservatives less frequently than their print colleagues, but that their work dovetailed in two significant ways: the characterizations of fundamentalists were slightly negative and most stories were about politics.

After 9/11, Islam experienced a rise in coverage as its news trajectory intersected with domestic and international politics. In the rush to explain and understand the tragedy, as well as the role Islam played, print and broadcast outlets provided news, features, commentaries, profiles, and analyses of Muslims in the United States and abroad. Scores of articles and several books followed, seeking to understand the press’s role in fostering, combating, and changing stereotypes. Similarly, when other religions become newsworthy—usually when their concerns entwine with politics or community events such as papal trips, the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—studies plumb the amount, types, and reasons for heightened coverage.

In addition to studying spiking interest in particular faiths or the role of news values in determining religion coverage, media researchers have looked at narratives and frames as part of a reflexive shaping of social norms. Journalists work within societal frames to build narrative frames for their stories. These narrative frames are constructed by reporters’ choice of expert sources, quotes, details, and information. Such choices can never be neutral; they are subjective decisions based on the interplay between what smells like a good story and what a reporter assumes his or her editor and audience find important. Moreover, choices are a mix of self-serving motives, professional standards, and altruistic aims. Various motivations, then, inform the journalist’s decision on how to organize and source his or her story. The frame, emphasizing “specific values, facts and other considerations, endowing them with greater relevance to the issue than they might appear (p. 17) to have under an alternate frame,”24 is the result. According to media scholar Peter Kerr, “Frames are thus the context that is communicated with the text, which can shape the way the text is received. Frames typically diagnose, evaluate and prescribe. Because of this, they are capable of exerting great social power.”25

Kerr does not elucidate what this social power is, but other researchers do. Analyzing journalistic discourse of Mormons during the 2002 Olympics, Chiung Hwang Chen found a persistent framing of the group as a “model minority,” a designation that serves to “other” outsiders.26 Mormons are industrious, patriotic, and family oriented. But they also are rigid, conformist, and insular. Whether journalists focus on their teetotaling, polygamous past, or odd undergarments, the cumulative effect deploys religion to demonstrate that Mormons are them and not us.

Religion scholar Sean McCloud documents a similar effect in his study of the coverage of religious movements between the 1950s and the 1990s. McCloud explores the changing construction of the religious fringe, a journalistic frame that connoted “high levels of religious zeal, dogma, and emotion,” as opposed to mainstream norms of religious decorum, laxity, and rationalism. Between the 1950s and mid-’60s, journalists portrayed blacks and lower-class whites as religious outsiders devoted to odd and demanding faiths such as Pentecostalism and the Nation of Islam. Articles implied that their religious enthusiasms left them ill equipped to be good citizens. By the late 1970s the fringe shifted, encompassing “cults” that attracted the young and the rebellious. These groups were “un-American” in their emphasis on communalism and spirituality. McCloud notes “the largest news and general interest magazines often labeled religious groups fringe or mainstream in ways that symbolically reproduced and legitimized inequalities of race and class in postwar America…. [W]riters and editors in periodicals like Time, Newsweek and Life frequently offered, under the guise of objective reporting, a spiritual apologetics for a dominant social order.”27

An Answer to the “So What” Question

If, as Harvey Cox suggests, “religion is the royal road to the heart of a civilization,” then news media—in all their forms—are the vehicles that traverse the road, and frames are the maps they follow. Frames situate media in a specific time and place, as well as provide orientation for a particular civilization. Frames, like maps, keep media on the known road rather than veering into unfamiliar territory. Religion, in its ecstatic, transgressive, and subversive forms, seeks those strange and unfamiliar regions, which is why certain kinds of religious practice and experience never make it on the map.

The essays in this volume illumine contemporary America by studying the road, the vehicle, and the map. What do the news media’s depictions of religion in the news say about American “hopes and terrors”? What insights on political norms, (p. 18) economic assumptions, and social hierarchies can be gleaned from reading about Catholicism or Wicca? How does coverage of religion in South America further American cultural hegemony?

In Section One: History, contributors examine the entangled past, present, and future of American news and religion. Most journalism histories either neglect or minimize the connection between the two, but these six chapters describe a long-standing and complex relationship. Authors in Section Two: The Media explore how print, television, radio, and online journalists have represented various religions in their reporting. In addition to asking how particular media shape religious content, the essays look at how religion figures into media history and what conditions lead to or inhibit exemplary media coverage of religion. The focus of Section Three: Religions is the narratives that drive coverage of particular religious groups. Contributors consider how framing affects perceptions of particular faiths and use case studies to demonstrate how social agendas may affect reporting on religion. Likewise, Section Four: Issues and Beats takes a close look at how religion intersects with eight subject areas, interrogating how narratives enforce, challenge, and shift social norms. Section Five: International Coverage examines the impact of American religion and politics on the coverage of religion globally. Section Six: The Religious Press provides an implicit contrast to analyses of secular coverage by looking at faith-based news outlets. What do denominational presses consider newsworthy? Do faith commitments shape coverage, and how much does reporting reflect a group’s socioeconomic position, where members are, and where they aspire to be?

Read together, the chapters offer insight into how stereotypes are set, norms are assumed, and power relationships are communicated. Moreover, they reflect the dynamism between religion and media at a particular historic juncture, shedding light on the hopes and fears, dreams and demons of contemporary Americans. Religion is often flattened into a subset of politics, frames are deployed circumscribing what we know, and a wide range of beliefs and practices are reduced to a handful of themes, stories, and sources. But religion, politics, media, and culture are separate categories of human existence only in an abstract sense. In the living reality, they overlap, shape, and influence one another in ways that journalists should be well positioned to describe, scholars eager to analyze, and news consumers keen to understand.


Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities. London: Verso.Find this resource:

    Lundby, Knut, ed. 2009. Mediatization: Concepts, Changes, Consequences. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.Find this resource:

      McCloud, Scott. 2004. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives and Journalists, 1955–1993. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.Find this resource:

        Nord, David Paul. 2001. Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

          Schudson, Michael. 1978. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:


            (1) . Harvey Cox, “Why God Didn’t Die,” Nieman Reports XLVII (Summer 1993): 49.

            (2) . Friedrich Krotz, “Mediatization: A Concept With Which to Grasp Media and Social Change,” in Mediatization: Concepts, Changes, Consequences, ed. Knut Lundby (New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2009), 24.

            (4) . Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983), 35.

            (5) . David Paul Nord, Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 31.

            (6) . Ibid., 92–107.

            (7) . Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 106.

            (8) . Richard W. Flory, “Promoting a Secular Standard: Secularization and Modern Journalism, 1870–1930,” in The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests and Conflicts in the Secularization of American Public Life, ed. Christian Smith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 398.

            (10) . William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1996), 150.

            (11) . Howard Kurtz, “Evangelical Outrage Hundreds Protest Description in Post Story,” Washington Post, February 6, 1993.

            (12) . Nicole Allan, “Mike Huckabee, Comeback Kid?” The Atlantic, June 21, 2010,

            (13) . John Dart and Jimmy Allen, “Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media,” First Amendment Center, Freedom Forum, 2000,

            (14) . Susan K. Willey, “The Founding of the Dallas Morning News’ Religion Section,” Journalism History 33, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 194–204.

            (16) . Christopher Vecsey, Following 9/11: Religion Coverage in the New York Times (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011).

            (17) . Roderick P. Hart, Kathleen J. Turner, and Ralph E. Knupp, “Religion and the Rhetoric of Mass Media,” Review of Religious Research 21, no. 3 (Summer 1980): 263.

            (18) . Ibid., 273.

            (19) . John P. Ferre, “Denominational Biases in the American Press,” Review of Religious Research 21, no. 3 (Summer 1980): 282.

            (20) . S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, and Linda S. Lichter, The Media Elite: America’s New Power-brokers (Bethesda, MD: Adler and Adler, 1986).

            (21) . Doug Underwood and Keith Stamm, “Are Journalists Really Irreligious: A Multidimensional Analysis,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 4 (Winter 2001): 778.

            (22) . Peter A. Kerr and Patricia Moy, “Newspaper Coverage of Fundamentalists, 1980–2000,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 79, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 63–64.

            (23) . Peter A. Kerr, “The Framing of Fundamentalist Christians: Network Television News, 1980–2000,” Journal of Media and Religion 2, no. 4 (2003): 203–35.

            (24) . Thomas E. Nelson, Rosalee A. Clawson, and Zoe M. Oxley, “Media Framing of as Civil Liberties Conflict and Its Effect on Tolerance,” American Political Science Review 91: 569.

            (25) . Kerr, “Framing of Fundamentalist Christians,” 212.

            (26) . Chiung Hwang Chen, “‘Molympics?’ Journalistic Discourse of Mormons in Relation to the 2002 Winter Olympic Games,” Journal of Media and Religion 2, no. 1 (2003): 29–47.

            (27) . Scott McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives and Journalists, 1955–1993 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4.