Religion in the News: Islam and Politics Dominate Religion Coverage in 2011

Pew Research Forum / Project for Excellence in Journalism
Joint Release – 23 February 2012


The biggest religion stories of 2011 involved tensions over Islam and questions about faith in presidential politics, especially Mormonism, according to an annual review of religion in the news by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Events and controversies related to Islam also dominated U.S. press coverage of religion in 2010. However, coverage of some stories faded in the past year, notably coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, which received much more media attention in 2010.

Compared with topics such as politics and the economy, religion does not typically receive a lot of attention from the mainstream news media, and 2011 was no exception. When religion did make news, it was often because of accusations about extremism or intolerance. For instance, among the biggest individual stories of 2011 were a controversial congressional hearing about the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism and the fallout after a Florida pastor staged a Koran burning. And one of the top religion and politics stories of the year centered on an incident in which a Texas minister called the Mormon faith a “cult.”

The discussion of religion in social media in 2011 was quite different than the coverage in the traditional press. None of the top religion-related subjects among bloggers in 2011 was a top story in traditional media outlets. While the presidential campaign and political incidents involving Islam captured the attention of the traditional press, bloggers focused on such topics as the Rapture predictions of a Christian radio host and science and religion. Bloggers also tended to cover religion in a less sustained way than the mainstream media.

These are among the findings of a new study that examines news coverage in a broad range of mainstream media sources, as well as in blogs and on Twitter, from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2011.

Among the key findings of the study: 

  • Religion accounted for 0.7% of all mainstream media coverage studied in 2011, down from 2.0% in 2010. In the 52 news outlets monitored throughout the year, including the evening TV news programs, newspaper front pages, top cable news programs, top news websites and top radio programs, religion received about as much coverage as race/gender/gay issues (0.8%) and immigration (0.7%).
  • Islam has become a bigger part of the media’s focus on religion in recent years. Six of the top 10 religion stories in 2011 were about Islam. This continues a trend first seen in 2010, when four of the top five religion stories involved controversies related to Islam. In 2007-2009, by contrast, Islam-focused stories generally accounted for a much smaller share of the coverage.
  • Viewed from another angle – the specific religious faiths on which media coverage focused – Islam again ranked at the top. It was the subject of nearly a third (31.3%) of the religion “newshole” – the amount of space and time devoted to religion news online, in print, on television and on the radio – in 2011. This was nearly three times the amount that focused on Catholicism (11.3%) and more than three times the amount that focused on Mormonism (9.6%).
  • While a variety of stories about Islam collectively accounted for the biggest share of media coverage about religion in 2011, the largest single storyline involving religion was the presidential election campaign. The campaign accounted for 13.1% of all religion coverage studied. But while it ranked first for the year, coverage of religion in the presidential election was down considerably from four years earlier, in the run-up to the 2008 election, when campaign news made up 23.8% of 2007 religion coverage. 
  • An analysis of the past five years of religion coverage suggests that interest in religion tends to be heavily event-driven, at least at the top of the media agenda. In 2008, for instance, Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States accounted for about 37% of all religion coverage during that year, though the visit itself lasted for only six days in April. And 82.3% of the stories about the visit were published or broadcast within that six-day window. 
  • Users of another social media platform, Twitter, gave less prominence to religion in 2011 than they had the previous year. Only during one week in 2011 did a religion-focused story appear among the top five stories discussed on the micro-blogging tool. (Interest was triggered by a BBC report on a group of scientists who predicted that religion was headed for extinction in certain parts of the world.)

This examination of religion coverage in the media is built from two separate areas of research. The study of traditional news sources analyzed nearly 46,000 stories from newspaper front pages, home pages of major news websites, the first half-hour of network and cable television news programs and the first half-hour of radio news and talk shows. (For details, see the methodology.) The content of new media was analyzed separately by aggregating and coding a sample of blogs, tweets and other sources monitored by Tweetmeme, Technorati, Icerocket and Twitteruly, which track millions of blogs and social media entries. (For details, see the New Media Index methodology.)  

To view the results of the study online, see the website of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, or download the report by clicking the link below.