November 20, 2008

How the News Media Covered Religion in the 2008 General Election

Rick Warren’s Civil Forum

On Aug. 16, Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor and bestselling author of The Purpose-Driven Life, hosted a presidential forum at his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. The forum occupied 11% of the religion coverage in the general election newshole.

In part because the event was heavily publicized in advance, national media had plenty of time to speculate on what it would bring. An Aug. 15 broadcast of Good Morning America summarized the challenges each candidate faced with religious voters. Obama’s challenges included “false rumors he’s a Muslim, his controversial former pastor and his liberal views on abortion and other issues.” The broadcast went on to report that McCain “has not always seemed comfortable talking about his faith.”

Although the candidates were asked questions about a host of issues, it was their answers to a question about the origin of life that took hold in the media analysis the next day. When asked for his perspective on when life begins, Obama responded that discerning the answer to that question with specificity was “above my pay grade.” McCain, by contrast, unequivocally said embryos have human rights “at the moment of conception,” an answer that seemed to appeal to the conservative evangelicals for whom the issue of abortion is crucial.

Although press analysis of the candidates’ respective abortion policies represented only 5% of the event coverage, it was the only major policy issue that was substantially covered. Two days after the forum, an Aug. 18 front-page story in the Los Angeles Times led with “Trying to navigate abortion politics.”

Although the event provided an opening for the media to offer the public a narrow window into the moral compass of each candidate – as well as an opportunity to examine the strategic and political implications of the candidates’ performances – much of the coverage devolved into a tangential debate over whether McCain or Obama performed the best. The general reaction among the pundits was that McCain had “won.” The day after the forum, Fox News’ Hannity concluded that McCain had “trounced” Obama on “issue after issue.” Correspondent Jessica Yellin of CNN’s The Situation Room also analyzed the candidates’ performances, saying that “Barack Obama treated the forum almost like a conversation. John McCain treated it more like a campaign event.”