MediaWatch: April 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 4

Still Not Enough Time For Religion News

For the last four years, the Media Research Center has conducted an annual survey of the quantity and quality of religion news coverage by the networks. The landscape remains surprisingly unchanged: year after year, the networks continue to fail to significantly break the one-percent barrier of total news content, neglecting religion in their everyday reporting.

In the last four years, from 1993 through 1996, the networks have aired an estimated 72,000 evening news stories, and an estimated 104,000 morning show segments. But only 955 of those 72,000 evening news stories were devoted to religion; and only 830 of those 104,000 morning news segments covered news of religion.

Evening Coverage. Of the thousands of segments last year on the five network programs evaluated (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's The World Today, NBC Nightly News, and The News-Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS) the networks devoted only 269 stories to religion in 1996, a slight increase (eight percent) from 1995. But only 130 of these were full stories (compared to 131 anchor briefs), a decrease of 13 stories from 1995's full story total.

ABC's World News Tonight again aired the highest number of religion stories with 76, up 11 stories from 1995. ABC was trailed by CNN's The World Today with 64, one less than in 1995. NBC followed with 53 stories, up ten from 1995. CBS aired 49 stories, down one story from 1995. For the fourth straight year, The News-Hour lagged far behind the others with 27 stories, one more than 1995.

Morning Coverage. Despite a full two hours daily for news and interviews, adding up to more than 26,000 segments in 1996, the major network morning shows (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today) devoted 258 morning show stories to religion in 1996, an increase of 34 segments (15 percent). Unlike last year, the networks were not roughly equal in their amount of coverage. NBC led again with 112 segments, up from 80 in 1995 and 52 in 1994; and ABC aired 97 segments, up from 70 segments in 1995 and 50 in 1994. CBS, however, dropped from 74 stories in 1995 to 49 in 1996, and only 17 of those were full reports or interviews. (In late July, CBS went to a slimmed-down This Morning, offering more of its first hour to local affiliates.)

Magazine/Interview Coverage. The blind spot to religious news remains especially noticeable on Sunday morning interview shows and prime-time magazine programs. Analysts reviewed the Sunday shows (ABC's This Week, CBS's Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press) as well as the prime-time magazine lineup (ABC's Prime Time Live and 20/20; CBS's 48 Hours, and 60 Minutes; and NBC's three-night, even in some weeks, four-night Dateline format). Out of roughly 400 shows, the number of religion stories rose to 19. That's up from 15 in 1995. Out of roughly 150 shows between the three networks, not a single Sunday morning interview program focused on religion.

Stories Missed. The relative dearth of TV religion coverage did not result from a lack of interesting religion news events and feature ideas in 1996. Religion reporters at the nation's print outlets unearthed a number of stories that network producers could have developed for their own broadcasts. For example:

  • The Templeton Prize. First awarded in 1972, the annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion is the world's largest monetary award, with the winner receiving $1.2 million, more than the better-recognized Nobel Prizes. Network coverage: zero.

  • The Evolving Evolution Debate. Two academics challenged the orthodoxy of Darwinian theories of evolution in 1996. Lehigh University biology professor Michael Behe wrote the book Darwin's Black Box, which argues the human body is a machine of "irreducible complexity" that would have had difficulty evolving into a cohesive whole. David Berlinski, author of the book A Tour of the Calculus, wrote a cover story in the June issue of the journal Commentary noting facts in favor of Darwinian theory "have been rather less forthcoming than evolutionary biologists might have hoped." Network coverage? Zero.

  • Religious Liberty Abroad. In response to pressure from human rights activists and religious leaders, the State Department appointed a panel of 20 religious leaders and scholars to monitor the oppression of religious believers abroad. TV coverage? Zero.

  • Military Chaplains. The networks didn't consider the angle of military chaplains and their role in ministering to soldiers in trying times. The networks also ignored a lawsuit in 1996 demanding the Department of Defense allow chaplains the freedom to be politically active, stemming from an Air Force ban on chaplains organizing a postcard campaign against partial-birth abortions.

  • The Role of Faith-Based Charity. As the political debate centered around social problems like welfare reform or abortion, the networks failed to ask where faith-based charities can help solve problems. This year, the debate over the explicit federal support for religious charities in the Watts-Talent bill before the House of Representatives has yet to be explored. The role of crisis pregnancy centers in saving babies from abortion is a largely faith-based movement that is almost as large as the network of abortion providers, but the networks have paid no attention to them.

    One of the reasons religion is undercovered by the networks may be the lack of a religion specialist to learn about and report on what's going on in religion. ABC hired Peggy Wehmeyer early in 1994, and she remains the only explicitly assigned religion reporter at the networks. Wehmeyer reported 15 stories in 1996. CBS, CNN, NBC, and PBS have yet to hire even a part-time religion correspondent who could match the quantity of Wehmeyer's coverage.

    Not all the news was bad: ABC's World News Tonight devoted three of its weekly Friday "Person of the Week" segments to religious figures in 1996. But the networks have yet to demonstrate that religion will ever break out of its ongoing ghetto of disinterest.