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American Public says religious news too polarizing, journalists disagree

Pope Benedict XVI, holding a tall, lit, white candle, enters a hushed and darkened St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican Saturday, April 7, 2012, to begin the Vatican's Easter vigil service.
Pope Benedict XVI, holding a tall, lit, white candle, enters a hushed and darkened St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican Saturday, April 7, 2012, to begin the Vatican's Easter vigil service.
Pier Paolo Cito, Associated Press

A majority of the American public says religious news coverage is too sensationalized, while less than 30 percent of journalists agree according to a survey released Thursday.

The survey released jointly by the Knight Program in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron also found that only 18.9 percent of journalists were "very knowledgeable" about religion, with most reporters in that minority admitting to be familiar with their own religious traditions and not a wide array of faiths.

Diane Winston, Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, says the focus on the evolving nature of journalism is causing the disconnect between readers and reporters, according to the school's press release.

"News organizations are rightly worried about creating smart business plans and developing cutting-edge technology," Winston said. "But they're overlooking their most basic resource: knowledgeable reporters."

John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics managed the study and says reporters' dependence on their own personal experiences for knowledge is a gap in the journalistic education of reporters.

"Formal education on the subject of religion was reported by only a few of the reporters," Green said. "So what we see here are people who are writing on the subject of religion but who have a fairly limited background on the subject, based on their own personal experience. That's not all bad, but it means they may not have a broad understanding of the religious diversity of the United States."

The survey also pointed out that more than two-thirds of Americans would like reporters to avoid polarizing, personality-driven religious news, and would rather reporters write on religious experience and spiritual practice.

"News consumers want more reporting on authentic religious experience and a lot less on polarizing religious politics," Winston said. "But reporters can't do that if all they know about religion is what they hear in church or—ironically—what they read in the news."

However, despite the survey's findings that Americans want less polarizing religious politics, the American public at large sees religion in a polarizing manner. Nearly half, or 43.6 percent of Americans believes religion to be a source of conflict in the world while 52.6 percent sees it as a positive influence.

On the other hand 56.1 percent of reporters see religion as a mixed bag of good and bad, while only 3.8 percent of the American public agrees with this viewpoint.

Although this disparity leads many journalists to believe the public wants polarizing religious news, Jennifer Garza of the Sacramento Bee says the desire for the more complex religious coverage is out there.

"There is a hunger for those type of stories," said Garza, who covered religion for the Bee for 10 years. "People want the straight news and want to know what's going on, but they also definitely have a hunger for the more in-depth stories."

Green points out the religious coverage the public sees in the media may be a product of the amount of information that is now available with the limited resources journalists have to cover it all. Garza agrees and says the more polarizing and sensational stories get the priority.

"Unfortunately because religion plays such a volatile role in so many issues, like here in California with Prop. 8 a few years ago, we don't have the time to do the longer pieces people would like and that we would like to do too," Garza said. "We're just so pressed by deadlines."

Sixty-two percent of the public still follow religious coverage, while a growing one-third of the religiously unaffiliated show no interest in it. Broadcast TV also ranked the lowest in religious coverage by both the public and reporters, with 28.1 percent of the public and 8 percent of reporters responding that the medium provided "good" religious news.