Are the media biased against liberal religious voices?

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?

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.