How the News Media Covered Religion in the 2008 General Election
Obama Gets Most Coverage, Much of It on False Rumor He Is a Muslim
Religion played a much more significant role in the media coverage of President-elect Barack Obama than it did in the press treatment of Republican nominee John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign, but much of the coverage related to false yet persistent rumors that Obama is a Muslim.
Meanwhile, there was little attempt by the news media during the campaign to comprehensively examine the role of faith in the political values and policies of the candidates, save for those of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
And when religion-focused campaign stories were covered by the mainstream press, often the context was negative, controversial or focused on a perceived political problem.
In all, religion was a significant but not overriding storyline in the media coverage of the 2008 campaign. But in a campaign in which an Obama victory would give the U.S. its first black president, religion received as much coverage in the media as race.
These are some of the findings of a new study of the coverage of religion in the campaign conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The study examined religion-focused election coverage in 48 different news outlets between June 1 and Oct. 15, 2008. (Report methodology [anchor link] is included at the bottom of the report.)
The “culture war” issues that have been prominent in past elections, such as abortion and gay marriage, received minimal attention in 2008. The coverage they did receive tended to come in the form of reaction to statements by the candidates and quickly receded without generating any sustained narrative. When Palin was introduced to the nation as McCain’s running mate, her parenting choices raised the issue of abortion, but only momentarily. In one of the more episodic narratives – evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s presidential forum held at his church – the candidates’ answers on a question about abortion gained attention in the press the week of the event.
But the religious electorate – including evangelical voters – received relatively scant attention from the press during the general election, despite the Obama campaign’s aggressive outreach efforts and the subsequent gains made among these religious groups on Election Day.
Among the key findings:
- Press narratives tied to religion accounted for 4% of the general election campaign’s “newshole”– the time or space available in an outlet for news content. While this was less than coverage of the Iraq war (6%) or the economic crisis (9%), it was more prominent than coverage of energy issues (2%) and the environment (less than 1%), and equal to coverage of the Republican National Convention (4%). During the general election, storylines related to religion received as much attention by the press as those that focused on race (4%).
- Far more of the religion storylines involved Obama, and most of these involved controversy or had an unfavorable cast. In all, Obama was the lead newsmaker in more than half (53%) of the religion-focused campaign stories. By contrast, McCain was the focus of just 9%. Palin (19%) was more tied to religion than her running mate, though less so than Obama. Examination of Palin’s family values, church background and related issues made up one-fourth of the newshole devoted to religion in the campaign.
- The single biggest religion storyline in the general election phase of the campaign centered on rumors that the Democratic nominee, who is a mainline Protestant Christian, is a Muslim (30%). An additional 5% of the religion-focused coverage dealt with evangelical broadcaster James Dobson’s criticism of Obama’s positions. But despite the largely negative focus of the Obama religion coverage, a Pew Forum analysis of exit polls shows nearly every religious group measured supported him in greater numbers than they supported Democratic nominee John Kerry four years ago.
- The notion of “pastor problems,” or candidates’ associations with controversial religious figures, was a clear narrative in campaign coverage. All four candidates faced coverage focusing on religious figures. Attention to clerics Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger and John Hagee alone made up 11% of religion coverage in the general election. A feature of much of this coverage was replaying of the inflammatory recorded words and video images of these ministers. Circulated on cable news, talk radio and the Internet, these recordings were used to scrutinize the candidates’ judgment in associating with such figures.
- The Aug. 16 Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, moderated by Warren at his California megachurch, drew brief but intense media coverage. It made up 10% of all campaign coverage the week it occurred but quickly dropped to 5% the following week. By the end of August, it was no longer a major press topic at all. Still, that was enough to have that one event account for 11% of religion-focused campaign coverage in the general election.
Culture war issues were not a driving narrative of this election cycle. 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. Abortion was by far the biggest of these, again, largely focused on Palin.
The study examined 7,592 campaign stories from 48 news outlets during the general election, from June 1, 2008, the week that the primaries ended and Hillary Clinton suspended her campaign, to Oct. 15, 2008, the day of the last presidential debate. The 283 stories in which religion played a significant role were analyzed in greater depth. This study builds on an earlier one jointly conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum that examined media coverage of religion in the primary campaign (see methodology [anchor link]).That earlier study is in some cases referred to here for comparison. The projects are both funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.