It’s a Sunday in September, and for many Americans that means football.
NBC Sunday night football was the #1 prime time show for the last 11 years, and tonight about 15 million of us will be tuning in tonight for a fairly mundane game between the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers. Tens of millions more will watch at least one NFL game this week. Football is undisputed king in the United States, and the media know it. About 5,000 reporters cover the Super Bowl in person each year, according to the Launderer’s report, and many, many more cover the sport itself. Every aspect of a team is covered. Every story in the game is explored.
And yet, in some ways, football still lags behind faith.
While religious affiliation rates have plummeted in the United States in recent decades, nearly half of us still belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, according to the Pew Research Center. That would be over 150 million people. Almost half of us pray every day, and 41% of us say that religion is “very” important in our lives. We collectively donate around $50 billion of our money to churches and religious nonprofit organizations each year (according to nonprofitssource.com). And if we look at the world as a whole, 82% of us identify with a religious group. There are more than 2.4 billion Christians in the world, compared to approximately 400 million American football fans.
And while the outcome of a football game can impact how you feel on Monday morning, people who adhere to religion will tell you that it can change your life: it makes a difference in what you think, how you feel, how you vote, what you buy. . Yes, religious affiliation is decreasing. But it’s hard to think of a force in society that shapes us more than faith.
So why is the coverage of religion so bad?
According to a new survey by Faith and Media Initiative and HarrisX, around 63% of respondents worldwide say that high-quality reporting on faith and religion is needed in the country where they live. Yet more than half of respondents (53%) say the media “actively ignores religion as an aspect of today’s society and culture.” Even more interesting: more than six in 10 respondents believe that religious coverage perpetuates religious stereotypes.
It is a problem. Because in a time when we’re all so fractured and polarized anyway, stereotypes don’t do any of us a favor.
Before I started reviewing movies for a living, I was the religious writer for The Gazette, the Colorado Springs daily – covering the city when it was known as the “evangelical Vatican” to some. The city came with its own stereotypes: it was seen by most as deeply conservative, deeply religious, and almost uniform in its spirituality.
But in my four years of coverage, I’ve covered a very different city.
Despite its reputation, Colorado Springs was actually less church than many East Coast cities with a more liberal outlook (Boston and Philadelphia, for example). It was home to vibrant Muslim, Buddhist and Wiccan communities. Even when you delved into our evangelical community, the diversity there was breathtaking.
At the time, I was one of about 570 people who belonged to the Religious Newswriters Association – a small but important group of specialist journalists who were really working on trying to understand the religious communities we cover. But alas, religious journalists – like most media specialists – are on the decline. Fewer and fewer media outlets are hiring religious journalists, and it shows in their coverage.
According to the study, called the Faith and Media Indexa number of factors contribute to this shortage of quality religious journalism.
Clearly, newsrooms around the world are under severe financial pressure. They reduce (if not completely) and specialized journalists are often the first to go. Better to hire people who can cover a variety of topics than just one, right? And when it comes to religion, which was not seen (according to the study) as a driver of reader engagement, all the more reason to cut back.
But when you push a mainstream reporter to cover something as complicated and nuanced as religion, that reporter is going to worry about being wrong. (And trust me, if you’re wrong about someone’s faith, you’ll hear about it.) So religious stories are often ignored. When they can not ignored, mainstream journalists – not knowing who to turn to as a source – will often gravitate towards the loudest, most dogmatic and extreme spokespersons on the issue. And when you mostly read or hear extremist religious voices in your religious coverage, stereotypes will be fostered and reinforced.
The result: One of the world’s most powerful forces is undercover and misunderstood. And this not only affects those of us who are religious, but also those who are not. This leads to marginalization and polarization in an already garish and fractured culture.
I write about movies and TV shows these days: I don’t talk about religion. And yet, even in my field of work, you can see the disheartening impact of our lack of religious understanding. Most screen stories completely ignore faith. And when you see a religious character, that character is often stereotyped and sometimes demonized. Ms. Marvel seems like a rare show that seeks to present a three-dimensional view of the impact of faith on someone’s life and relationships. But for an equally nuanced vision of evangelical Christianity? A current of faith which, on the low end, covers 90 million people? Still waiting.
Society deserves better and more nuanced religious coverage. Frankly, he needs it. I also like football. But when the media devotes multiple full-time employees to covering the hometown NFL team and asks an inexperienced reporter to tackle something as delicate as faith, it does us all a disservice.
You can view the full Faith & Media Index study here.