TV vs. Traditional Faith

Everyone now and then, people on TV dramas or sitcoms quote scripture, kneel before crosses, mention Jesus by name or perform other acts that symbolize religious devotion.

What happens next is rather predictable, according to the Media Research Center's third annual "Faith In A Box" study of television entertainment and news. A commercial or two later, these true believers usually rob, rape, seduce or shoot someone, or at the very least act like bigots.

"It appears to be OK for characters to say that they have a kind of nebulous faith in some higher power," said Thomas Johnson, who wrote the study's entertainment report. "But the warning sign is when people do something that shows that religion is the most important thing in their lives. That means they're strange ... and they almost always turn out to be intolerant, violent wackos."

In news reports, the Media Research Center is almost always identified as a "conservative media watch group," which means that many media insiders scoff at its findings. However, the "Faith In A Box" reports are getting harder to ignore.

During 1995, the center's researchers studied virtually all prime-time programs -- almost 1,800 hours of content -- on major and minor broadcast networks. The number of portrayals of religion rose slightly to 287, from 253 in 1994. Still, this meant fewer than one depiction for every six hours of programming.

The report noted that negative portrayals of "devout laity and of the clergy" rose sharply, from 35 percent in 1994 to 64 percent in 1995. Positive portrayals of devout laity slid from 44 percent in 1994 to 11 percent in 1995. Twenty percent of 1995 clergy references were positive in, an 8 percent drop in a year.

In other words, while "spirituality" may be making a slight comeback, most Hollywood artists continue to blast religious traditionalists. This is especially true in programs that focus on sex and social issues.

"One of the harshest things you can say about someone in the entertainment business is that they're judgmental. That's a curse," said Johnson. "So when characters say that what they believe is absolutely true, or say that a particular act is sinful, then that means they're judgmental. Obviously, they're bad guys."

The news wasn't much better in network newsrooms. Out of 18,000-plus evening-news reports, religion drew 249. Out of more than 26,000 items in morning-news programs, religion drew 224. "Networks continue to neglect people and issues of faith in their everyday reporting," said the report. "When religion is covered, hostility toward traditional religious positions on social issues remains overt and sometimes unrebutted."

In one case study, "60 Minutes" superstar Mike Wallace devoted an entire segment to Call to Action, a Catholic group that opposes church teachings on birth control, the ordination of women, priestly celibacy, abortion and other social issues. The report featured 25 Call to Action sound bites, without including a single traditional Catholic voice. Later, Wallace told the Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor that quotations from conservative Catholics just didn't blend with Call To Action footage.

As in Hollywood, social issues cause problems. Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz, appearing on conservative Cal Thomas' CNBC talk show, conceded that a "cultural bias" exists on subjects such as religion, abortion and homosexuality. "I think a lot of it is unconscious, but I think on those kinds of subjects, most reporters are probably to the left of the American public," he said.

Media Research Center analysts did find some signs of improvement, especially at ABC News, the only network newsroom with a religion specialist. Also, the faith-friendly CBS drama "Touched By An Angel" is drawing a loyal audience. Acknowledging that religion plays a positive role in millions of lives might be a savvy move in an era when complaints are up and ratings down.

Nevertheless, "old habits don't change easily," the report concluded. "The silver lining ... is that the failure of the broadcast networks' yuppie-centered fall offerings and the continued decline in their share of the audience makes a return to traditional programming a more attractive prospect now."