The Separation of Church and Journalism

Last Tuesday, The New York Times ran an article headlined “Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans.” In the opening paragraph, it said,

Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.

That’s far from your average first line in a newspaper article. The statement was based on information gathered in an independent poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that asked questions regarding religious doctrine, history, and geography. According to the article,

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Perhaps one of the reasons for such misperceptions is that journalism doesn’t do much explanatory or exploratory work about religion. As Gal Beckerman wrote in the May/June 2004 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, in an article called “Across the Great Divide: A Tenuous Bridge to Believers,”

However central belief and faith might be to the American populace, our news media seldom puncture the surface in their reporting on religion.

Even when religion makes the news, he suggested, the spiritual specifics are often given cursory mention in a narrative framed by secular considerations. Beckerman wrote:

If it isn’t piggybacking on a larger story, religion has almost no shot at all of making it into the news.

Maybe there’s a connection between the way spiritual issues are reported and analyzed—or not reported and analyzed—and the results of the Pew survey.

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Dylan DePice is a former CJR intern.