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COMMENTARY : Clergy Believe News Coverage Is Often Biased

September 04, 1993|JOHN DART | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Dart, who has covered religion news since 1967 for The Times and now writes a religion column for the Valley Edition, was a visiting professional scholar during the 1992-93 school year at the Freedom Forum 1st Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

If any bitter feelings linger among the hundreds of thousands of Catholics who saw Pope John Paul II preside over World Youth Day in Colorado, they were probably adverse reactions to the news media coverage of the event.

As John Paul II made his third visit to the United States, the press reported surveys showing that many adults and young people who call themselves Catholic still differ with the Vatican on bedroom issues, divorce and women's ordination. "This is hardly news," noted one Catholic newspaper editorial. And Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles accused TV broadcasters of unimaginatively hammering away at a limited number of issues.

Catholic leaders, and not just conservatives, have been very unhappy with news coverage of their church for years, just as Muslims, mainline Protestants and evangelical/fundamentalist Christians have grumbled when the news spotlight points their way.

The mutual disdain between the so-called Religious Right and the so-called media elite has been so acrimonious that former Watergate conspirator Charles Colson, now a leading evangelical figure, told a National Press Club audience last March that the antagonists must make peace.

"So long as we see one another as mortal enemies, we will make little contribution to public harmony," Colson said.

Those differences are sharper than most journalists realize. On a recent nine-month fellowship with the Freedom Forum 1st Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, I had the opportunity to research and write a study pointing to misunderstandings that exacerbate strife between religion and news reporting.

Our national survey of clergy in six denominations last winter showed that, in overwhelming numbers, they believe the news media's reporting of religion is biased, unfairly negative and too sensational. Religion news reporters and a national sample of newspaper editors in the same survey overwhelmingly denied those allegations.

Not only did 91% of evangelical clergy and 70% of Catholic priests perceive an anti-religious bias, but even the moderate mainline clergy (Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians) said by a 3-1 ratio that an anti-religious bias is at work in religion news coverage. Only 18% of the journalists said that news coverage of religion was biased.

My colleague in the study, the Rev. Jimmy L. Allen, onetime Southern Baptist Convention president and founder of the ACTS religion cable network, and I concluded that religion news coverage is often inadequate and careless, but more from ignorance than bias.

Religion news has never found a niche on television, not only due to time constraints but also because TV producers tend to think of the subject as either too boring or too divisive to bother with except for papal pageantry or sectarian violence.

Respected television journalist Bill Moyers told us that his colleagues are afraid of most religion news because they fear making mistakes in trying to decipher a faith's arcane language and incredible number of varieties. From interviews, we found the same apprehension inhibits the printed media's editors and general assignment reporters.

Unfortunately, a widespread myth in church circles blames poor religion news coverage on the idea that journalists are a bunch of unbelievers. That notion originates from a 1980 survey of New York- and Washington-based journalists at major media that found 50% claiming no religion and 86% saying they seldom or never attended religious services.

But the 1st Amendment Center survey found that 72% of newspaper editors across the country said that religion was either very important or somewhat important in their lives. In a separate 1992 survey sponsored by the Freedom Forum, a similar question asked nationally of the full range of print and broadcast journalists yielded nearly identical results.

The public is more religious when that question is asked, but news people are hardly hardened atheists. Asked about religious identification in our survey, only 9% of the editors said "none," which parallels roughly the percentage in public opinion polls.

Cardinal Mahony has suggested, in a column for the Los Angeles archdiocesan newspaper, that one way to improve religious news coverage is "to involve our many Catholics in the media to help the church get its life-giving message out to the world."

However, Catholics in journalism roughly approximate their percentage in the country----23% of the editors we surveyed said they were Catholics as did 21% of the nation's religion writers. For instance, Catholics Kenneth Woodward and Peter Steinfels are religion editors at Newsweek and the New York Times, respectively. Perhaps what conservative religious leaders are saying is that they want doctrinally loyal members of their faith in news positions.

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