Religion in America and on the Network News

On February 25 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a new study examining the religious landscape of America.  Data was collected from 35,000 people.  According to a press release from Pew, the organization itself thought the most interesting finding in the study was that a large number of people have changed their religious affiliation since childhood.

What did major broadcast news outlets find most interesting?

CBS Evening News reporter Wyatt Andrews introduced his story with: “This unprecedented survey of religion answers many of the concerns about a secular, morally void America. To the surprise of many experts, Americans are still deeply religious with 84 percent of adults claiming a religious affiliation.  Wyatt didn't include any “experts” who seemed surprised, but did bring on Fr. Thomas Williams, a Catholic priest and CBS religion commentator who said, “In the developed world, this is really the most religious country. 84 percent practicing or affiliated formally with a religion is a very, very high figure.”

NBC Nightly News reporter Chris Jansing led her piece with the major Pew finding, that “more and more of us no longer practice the faith of our fathers.” The rest of the story reported the findings like a competition between faiths, rather than recognizing that the overwhelmingly America remains a country that believes in God.

While both CBS and NBC chose to give the study a couple of minutes of air time, ABC World News anchor Charles Gibson practically glossed over it with an anchor brief in which he only said, “A fascinating study released today about religion in America.  Almost half of adults have left the religion of their childhood, or in the case of Protestants, switched denominations. Overall the country still has a Protestant majority, just barely. More results of this study at ABC”

Of the broadcast networks, CBS gave the story the most context and depth, including the mention that Evangelical Christianity was the largest faith group represented in the survey even though “the political clout of evangelicals has splintered in this election year.” CBS also noted the impact immigration is having on the religious complexion of America, especially with regard to the Catholic Church.  While 23 million Catholics have left the faith, according to Pew, the majority of Hispanic immigrants to the United States are Catholic, which offsets the loss. Andrews also uniquely noted that the vast majority of immigrants to the U.S. are Christian while in Europe the vast majority of immigrants are Muslim.


Andrews also reported on the percentages of other faiths represented in the America, with Jews at 1.7 percent and Muslims at 0.6 percent.

In contrast NBC's Jansing seemed more taken with the idea of a “volatile” landscape and competition among the faiths noting that Protestants “could soon lose their status,” many Catholics “have left the church” and the “fastest growing” group is unaffiliated. 

Jansing spent the most time exploring the idea that people are looking for “programs that meet their needs” rather than specific teachings and used a twice-divorced Christian convert from Buddhism to make the point.  She closed her story with the observation, “Religion as competition in the increasingly diverse and dynamic world of worship.”

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.