WASHINGTON -- The late, great religion writer George Cornell knew a big story when he saw one -- especially when people kept underlining it.
It was in April 1982, that he wrote his Associated Press story about research by S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman into the moral and religious views of journalists in America's top newsrooms. One statistic jumped out of the report and into pulpits nationwide. Half of these journalists, when faced with the "religious affiliation" blank, wrote "none."
Cornell dug deeper and learned that many had also underlined the word "none."
"A lot of journalists, grew up in a tradition where religion -- at least the substance of religion -- was out of the ballpark as far as newspapering is concerned," Cornell told me, when I was doing graduate research at the University of Illinois. "I think that idea has carried over. ... They hesitate to cover religion because they see it as a private matter and they don't want it in the newspaper. Of course, this attitude could also be due to their ignorance of religion."
That was then. According to a new 30-year study by Lichter and the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the amount of religion news in America's elite media doubled from the 1980s to the '90s. The percentage of elite journalists who claimed they had no religious affiliation has fallen from that 50 percent level in 1980 to 22 percent. In 1980, 14 percent of those surveyed said they attended religious services at least once a month. It was 30 percent in the new report.
Nevertheless, Lichter's team found that the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, ABC, NBC and CBS combined produced only 116 religion news stories a year during the '90s, or just above two a week. Also, journalists embraced certain kinds of stories, while shunning others.
"It's true that there is more religion in the news, today," said Lichter. "But what you tend to get is the religion of the journalists -- which is politics."
Thus, religious groups usually made news when engaged in public policy debates or internal power struggles, especially if the clashes were about sex. Church-state conflicts produced one out of every eight stories about religion in the '90s. Journalists love to dissect the Religious Right.
Meanwhile, 93 percent of the religion news reports contained no references to theology or the spiritual content of a group or person's faith. This "spiritual dimension" appeared in only 5 percent of stories about Catholicism or Protestantism, but graced 26 percent of those about Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism and 19 percent of those about Islam.
One explanation for this is that journalists may presume readers already know the "theological rationales behind mainstream religious opinions," said Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward, during a forum on the survey at the Ethics & Public Policy Center. Then again, reporters may simply be theologically ignorant or operating with a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to the role of faith in the news, he said.
In the years since the original "media elites" study, its critics have attacked the claim that major newsrooms are havens of secularism. The Freedom Forum's 1993 "Bridging the Gap" report noted that 72 percent of 266 editors surveyed nationwide said that religion is "important in their lives," while only 9 percent claimed no religious affiliation.
But Lichter remains fascinated that 70 percent of elite journalists continue to attend religious services once a year, or less, or never. Also, journalists remain paragons of progressive virtues on hot moral issues. In 1980, 90 percent were pro-abortion rights. It's 97 percent in the new report. Support for gay rights was 76 percent in 1980 and has slipped by a statistically insignificant amount, to 73 percent.
A logical way to read this, said Lichter, is to say that elite newsrooms contain just as many cultural and political liberals, but that some journalists now attend "socially and culturally liberal congregations." Newsrooms may be fertile mission fields for oldline Protestant churches.
Or perhaps, quipped Woodward, "baby boomer journalists now have adolescent kids and that will drive almost anyone to church."