Pew study finds election coverage of religion was shallow

Gov. Sarah Palin / President-elect Barack Obama
Gov. Sarah Palin / President-elect Barack Obama


A joint study conducted the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has examined religion-focused election news coverage, finding that religion received as much coverage as race, but issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage received “minimal attention.”

After studying more than 7,500 campaign stories from June 1 (the end of the presidential primaries) to October 15 (the day of the last presidential debate), Pew found that a majority of election-related religion stories involved controversy or had an “unfavorable cast.”

About 53 percent of religion stories focused on the Democratic candidate Barack Obama, a mainline Protestant Christian. Thirty percent of election-related religion stories concentrated on false rumors that he is a Muslim.

Only nine percent of such stories focused on Republican candidate Sen. John McCain, while 19 percent focused on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Palin's family values, church background and related issues reportedly made up one-fourth of the news coverage of religion in the presidential campaign.

Sen. Joe Biden, who is the first Catholic elected as vice-president and whose pro-abortion rights views and comments were criticized by leading prelates, received only 0.7 percent of religion-focused campaign coverage, according to Pew.

Pew reports that controversial pastors associated with a candidate were part of a “clear narrative” in campaign coverage. Revs. Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger and John Hagee made up 11 percent of the religion-related stories studied.

The August 16 Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, moderated by megachurch pastor Rick Warren, accounted for another 11 percent of all religion-related election coverage.

“Culture war issues were not a driving narrative of this election cycle,” the Pew summary states. “The extent to which they were present, they emerged late in the campaign and were largely tied to the nomination of Palin. Together, social issues - including abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research—composed 9% of religion-focused campaign news but less than 1% of campaign news overall.”

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