Political Pundit Criticizes Media Coverage of Religion

Nov. 18, 1997

WACO, Texas - Political analyst and news editor Fred Barnes criticized the mainstream media for biases against Christianity and the religious right movement during "Religion and the Media" conference held Nov. 14 at Baylor University.

Barnes, a regular panelist for the McLaughlin Group and editor of the newsmagazine The Standard , said the media shuns the influence of religious beliefs in society.

"I am highly critical of the mainline media's treatment of religion," Barnes said. "I think Buddhism gets fairer treatment." He said the media does not take a hostile position towards religion, but does not educate itself about the subject.

Barnes said that before he personally committed his life to Jesus Christ in the late 1970s, he held biases against Christian beliefs. He said representing the field of journalism as a non-Christian and now as a Christian helps give him a balanced perspective on the issue.

He supported his claims of journalistic bias by citing a 1980 research report known as the Rothman-Lichter study that concluded that 86 percent of journalists did not attend church. A critic of the study, John Dart, also spoke at the conference. Dart, religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, co-authored another media and religion study that challenges the representativeness of the Lichter study. Dart said the media conscientiously covers religion.

"There is a reservoir of goodwill toward religion in the newsroom," Dart said. "Throughout the country there is a desire to do good religion stories." Dart co-authored the study titled "Bridging the Gap" with former Southern Baptist Convention president Jimmy Allen. The study found a higher percentage of religious participants in newsrooms across the country than the Lichter study. Barnes said the media shows bias in accepting liberal philosophies and rejecting the ideas of the religious right in news stories.

"The stories about the political right suggest that they are strange and weird and an improper intrusion into political life," Barnes said. He used the 1994 congressional elections as an example. In that year, the Republican Party experienced success in winning a majority of congressional seats. Barnes said the religious right may have played a helpful role in strengthening the Republican ticket. However, he said the media portrayed the group as weakening the party. Barnes admitted that some right-wing politicians often cause their own negative coverage.

Barnes encouraged Christian students in the audience of religion writers, editors and journalism faculty from around the country to pursue careers in the secular media.

"I am a believer in young (Christian) journalists going into secular journalism," he said. "I am not talking about proselytizing. You can bring a lot of breadth to the mainstream media. You are needed to make the media better."

Dr. Pam Schaeffer, writer and editor for the National Catholic Reporter, challenged the traditional view that the media reports only negative news about the Catholic Church.

"Every time a negative story is done, the press is accused of being anti-Catholic, as if the press should not cover these types of stories," Schaeffer said. "I learned that I could respect, even love people who held different values from mine." Schaeffer agreed with Dart that the media does not hold a hostile attitude toward religion, but she said the media could do a better job of covering the subject if journalists would educate themselves about matters of faith.

"Editors are a little afraid of religion," Schaeffer said. "If they make a mistake, people get mad." Schaeffer spent 13 years as a religion writer and editor at the St. Louis Post Dispatch while earning a doctorate in theology.

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