WASHINGTON (ABP)—A new study by two Washington-based groups asserts that the mainstream media, derided by some as liberally biased, actually overemphasizes the importance of religious conservatives.
Media Matters for America and Faith in Public Life released the report, titled “Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in the Major News Media.” It found that between the 2004 elections and the end of 2006, prominent conservative religious leaders were interviewed, quoted or mentioned in 2.8 times as many stories as were prominent moderate or liberal religious leaders.
In television news, the numbers were even more lopsided. For every story that mentioned or quoted a religious “progressive,” 3.8 stories mentioned or quoted conservatives. The difference was less dramatic in newspaper stories, but conservatives still outweighed progressives by a factor of 2.7-to-1.
“Despite the fact most religious Americans are moderate or progressive, in the news media it is overwhelmingly conservative leaders who are presented as the voice of religion,” the report's authors asserted. “This represents a particularly meaningful distortion, since progressive religious leaders tend to focus on different issues and offer an entirely different perspective than their conservative counterparts.”
For years, conservatives have accused the mainstream media of widespread bias in favor of liberals and liberal causes. But the study's numbers suggest that when it comes to religion-related coverage, conservatives get far more attention than liberals and moderates.
To come up with its figures, the study counted media appearances or mentions by 10 religious conservatives and 10 religious progressives. The conservatives were Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Christian activist and former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson, former National Association of Evangelicals president Ted Haggard, Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America, Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, Ohio pastor Rod Parsley and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
The progressives were Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, San Francisco rabbi Michael Lerner, National Council of Churches head Bob Edgar, Baptist sociologist and author Tony Campolo, David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, nun and National Catholic Reporter columnist Joan Chittister, Louisiana Baptist pastor and Interfaith Alliance head Welton Gaddy, John Thomas of the United Church of Christ, “emerging church” leader Brian McLaren of Maryland and James Forbes of the Riverside Church in New York.
At least one conservative journalism watchdog group dismissed the study, saying its sponsorship and methodology compromised it.
Media Research Council spokesman Robert Knight said the study left out important liberal religious leaders who often are quoted or appear on newscasts. The list of moderate and liberal leaders whose appearances were tallied “is missing some key people, who, if included, would eclipse any perceived advantage in coverage garnered by conservatives,” he said, according to CNSNews.com, the Media Research Council's news arm.
In particular, Knight cited the absence of Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Gene Robinson, the gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire.
The study set aside several religious “celebrities” who receive frequent media attention but who themselves often are newsmakers rather than commentators—Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell.
“They become active participants in events rather than simply commenting on them. … In other words, these five are more political actors than political commentators,” the report said.
Katie Barge, spokesperson for Faith in Public Life, said the 20 leaders whose statistics form the study present a truer picture of how the media provides a “religious” perspective that over-represents conservative points of view.
“These are truly the ones that the media seeks out for a religious perspective on news of the day. That is not really the case with those five people,” she said. “The media is not calling them to give a perspective on the religious matters of the day.”