February 24, 2011

Islam Was No. 1 Topic in 2010

Events and controversies related to Islam dominated U.S. press coverage of religion in 2010, bumping the Catholic Church from the top spot, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Much of the coverage focused on the plan to build a mosque and Islamic center near ground zero in New York City, a Florida pastor’s threat to organize a public burning of the Koran and commemorations of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Stories related to these three events collectively accounted for more than 40% of all religion-related coverage studied in mainstream U.S. media (broadcast and cable television, newspapers, radio and major news websites).

Mainstream media devoted more attention to religion in 2010 than in any year since the Pew Research Center began measuring coverage of religion and other subjects in 2007. The amount of space or time media devoted to religion doubled between 2009 and 2010, going from about 1% of total coverage to 2%. And for the first time since tracking began in 2007, neither the Catholic Church nor religion’s role in American politics were the No. 1 topic of religion coverage in major news outlets.

These are some of the findings of a new study that examined news stories from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2010.

Among other key findings:

  • Although the volume of religion coverage in the mainstream media increased more than two-fold from a year earlier, it was still small compared with coverage of some other topics, especially elections and politics.
  • The Tea Party replaced the religious right as the most-talked-about element of the Republican Party’s grassroots support in coverage of the 2010 midterm elections. Religious individuals, groups or institutions were mentioned in only about 1% of all mainstream media coverage of the elections. By contrast, the Tea Party movement was mentioned in nearly one-in-six midterm election stories (14.1%).
  • In 2010, religion appeared as a major topic more often in the blogosphere than it did in traditional media.  Religion was among the most-discussed topics on blogs in 12 of the 48 weeks studied by PEJ and the Pew Forum. In three of those weeks, the plan to build a mosque and Islamic center near ground zero was among the top subjects.
  • Analysis of social media, produced with technology from Crimson Hexagon, indicates that people who were active on social media sites were deeply divided about the proposed New York City mosque. About a quarter of the comments about the mosque and Islamic center posted on blogs, Twitter and online forums were neutral in character; the remaining comments were roughly evenly divided between those ardently for and those ardently against construction of the proposed mosque and Islamic center, now known as Park51, for its location at 51 Park Place in Lower Manhattan.

The study of traditional news sources analyzed 50,508 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 full methodology.) The new media content was analyzed separately by aggregating and coding a sample of blogs, tweets and other sources monitored by Technorati and Icerocket, which track millions of blogs and social media entries. (For details, see the full New Media Index methodology.) In addition, PEJ and the Pew Forum used software provided by Crimson Hexagon to analyze a broader range of social media conversations about the New York City mosque controversy during the period when the debate was most intense, Aug. 16-Sept. 13, 2010. That analysis monitored the tone of the conversations on blogs, Twitter and public forums. (For details, see Crimson Hexagon’s full methodology.)

Read the complete report