Hitting a nerve: News, religion, class

When it comes to media-bias surveys, God is almost as big a story these days as the president of the United States.

It helps if researchers release their work as journalists prepare for trench warfare in an election year. God is more newsworthy when linked to life's crucial issues, which, in journalism, are always politics, sports, entertainment and then more politics.

Thus, news coverage of a study by the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism immediately focused on the fact that 34 percent of national-level journalists described themselves as "liberal," 54 percent as "moderate" and 7 percent as "conservative." The majority of national journalists considered their peers too soft on President George W. Bush. In a 1995 survey, the criticism was that President Bill Clinton was being treated too harshly.

"These political questions always attract attention," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the project. But this time around, the questions that offered the best insights into tensions between journalists and their readers were the "ones we included about religion and social issues. That may be the biggest issue of all."

One of the nation's top reporters on media news quickly connected the dots, jumping from abstract statistics to a hot story -- same-sex marriage.

"The survey confirmed that national journalists are to the left of the public on social issues," wrote Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. "Nine in 10 say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral (40 percent of the public thinks this way). As might have been inferred from the upbeat coverage of gay marriage in Massachusetts, 88 percent of national journalists say society should accept homosexuality; only about half the public agrees."

There's more. Only 31 percent of national journalists still have confidence in the public's election choices, as compared with 52 percent under Clinton. For Kurtz, the implication was clear that "many media people feel superior to their customers."

Once again, the Pew survey has raised a divisive question about media bias: Is the wide gap between journalists and their readers on social issues the result of (a) politics, (b) social class, (c) religious practice or (d) all of the above?

Rosenstiel said journalists are used to having their political beliefs criticized and most -- on left and right -- believe they can achieve accurate, balanced coverage. But this is where survey questions about religion and morality are important. For most journalists, these highly personal issues may be hidden in the blind spots of their professional training.

"If you are truly trying to be fair, it's probably easier to overcome your most obvious political biases. You're used to thinking about them," he said. "But the cultural and religious values that we hold are much harder to recognize. They are just a part of us. They are part of how we view the world and we may have trouble seeing that."

Nevertheless, Rosenstiel stressed that readers must not be hasty when interpreting the Pew question that asked if "belief in God ... is necessary to be moral." The 91 percent of the national press (and 78 percent of local journalists) who answered "no," may include many religious believers who admire the skills and convictions of their secular colleagues.

It would be unfair, he said, to use this question "as a proxy" for a specific question that asked how many reporters and editors believe in God.

Yes, this survey did hit a nerve in tense newsrooms.

One conservative scribe stressed that if researchers are truly concerned about the future of journalism, they must keep asking these faith-based questions. But some of the most delicate questions are actually linked to culture and class in elite news organizations, according to John Leo, writing in U.S. News & World Report.

"When I was at the New York Times, the leadership was full of people who had gone to the wrong schools and fought their way up with brains and talent," he said. "Two desks away from mine was McCandlish Phillips, a born-again Christian who read the Bible during every break. ... Phillips was a legendary reporter, rightly treated with awe by the staff, but I doubt he would be hired by most news organizations today. He prayed a lot and had no college degree."