Blogging Religiously

From a New York point of view

Are the media biased against liberal religious voices?

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Uncategorized on May 29, 2007

The media, we have all heard, are supposed to be liberal. And biased (in a liberal way).

Today, a self-described progressive research group released “a study”: that finds that the media give much more attention to conservative religious voices than to liberal or progressive religious voices.

The study — cleverly titled “Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media” — found that conservative religious leaders were “quoted, mentioned, or interviewed” 2.8 times as often as liberal leaders in major newspapers and on national television.

David Brock, president and CEO of Media Matters, which did the study, said this:

For religious progressives, this report won’t come as a surprise—they know firsthand that when it comes to a media discussion of religious issues, they rarely have a seat at the table. If the public is to have confidence in the media, the views of the vast majority of religious Americans must be represented. As our report details, those who get their news from leading press outlets could only assume that a right-wing conservative voice and a religious voice are one in the same—that is clearly not the case.

Personally, I think there’s much truth to what the study claims. But why?

Some progressive religious leaders have told me one theory: that media people are anti-religion, so they trot out angry, self-righteous, conservative voices who make all religion look bad.

That’s one theory. Might have some truth to it.

But here’s the thing: Journalists (and we’re talking about journalists if we’re talking about newspapers and TV) are drawn to black-and-white debates, to conflict and controversy, to direct statements and plans for action. More often than not, conservative religious leaders provide this kind of stuff.

If conservatives want states to pass pro-marriage (and anti-gay rights) laws, that’s a story. Cut and dry. No doubt about it.

Liberal and moderate religious voices tend to allow for shades of gray. They hedge. They generalize. They leave room for doubt. They’re okay with exceptions.

They also tend to take positions — on fighting poverty, for example — that do not provide for as much conflict. Everyone agrees, more or less, that poverty is a bad thing (even if some folks aren’t as concerned as others with doing something about it).

And another thing: Journalists probably view the “moral” issues that conservatives focus on as somehow more religious than the social issues that liberals worry about.

Are liberal/moderate/progressive religious leaders getting short shrift from the national media? Yeah, probably. Journalists can learn to inject more religious diversity into their stories if they take the time to find out what liberal folks believe and why.

But liberal leaders can also do a much better job of explaining what they believe. Get to the point. Make your case. Quote from Scripture like conservatives do. Be passionate. Make the media pay attention.

I can’t help wondering what conservatives will make of this study. They’ll probably toss it off without much problem. After all, Media Matters describes itself this way: “a progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.”

How hard will it be for conservatives to dismiss this study as another example of liberal bias?



4 Responses to “Are the media biased against liberal religious voices?”

  1. Andrea Useem

    That’s an interesting study—I’m reading about it here for the first time. In the case of journalists covering Islam in America, I think it’s very true that conservative voices get the most attention. For one thing, this has to do with sources: if journalists want to find Muslims, they go to mosques, and mosques are where the most conservative Muslims hang out. Also, when it comes to visuals, what story on Islam is not complete without a picture of a woman in a headscarf? The challenge is for journalists to dig a little deeper—to find sources from ALL backgrounds that can provide the interesting, provocative material we need as journalists.

  2. Allen Cross

    I always think it curious that political labels get transposed onto Christian religious folk. Conservative and liberal don’t make as much sense historically as descriptions of people of faith as do terms like fundamentalist or literalist. A century ago Harry Emerson Fosdick fought against the demand for adherence to fundamental tenets and was a spokesperson for liberal Christianity but that use of the word liberal was not a political label at all.

    Perhaps we owe the political labelling of the faithful to Jerry Falwell, the Christian Coalition, and their hiers who replaced the required tenets of Fosdick’s day, like virgin birth, with ones like the anti-abortion stance or cuts in welfare funding.

    These politically conservative Christians are far better organized and united than the politically liberal Christians, but that doesn’t mean they are right. Scratch the surface of the conservative Christian movement and you still find dispensationalism, narrow Biblical understanding, and Nehemiah-like religious exclusivity.

    So in the face of black and white literalism in religion and in politics, how do politically liberal Christians get heard? It can only happen when they extract themselves from the political label, claim the moral highground based on theology and scripture, and expose the false premise of conservative religious politics.

    What’s the premise? It’s that conservative politics are automatically moral politics and are automatically right doctrine. They are not.

    Now, let’s see the media cover that debate.

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