Pod people: Have many Americans tuned out the press?

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, I wrote two relatively quiet pieces that attempted to focus on specific journalistic issues linked to this significant victory for the cultural, moral and religious left. One post asked if the mainstream press would ponder and investigate the degree to which the Defense of Marriage Act decision reflected a split among Catholics inside the court. I referred to the four Supreme Court justices who are known to be rather traditional, Mass attending Catholics -- the four-vote minority in this better 5-4 split decision -- and the two members of the court, including the author of the majority decision, who in previous media accounts have been shown to be both doctrinally progressive and "cultural" Catholics who are not highly active at the parish and sacramental levels.

Is there a religion hook there? A ghost?

The other post asked why The Baltimore Sun, in it's package covering the decisions, did not address two major Maryland-specific elements of the story. No. 1: The voices of African-American churchgoers, a key constituency in all of the state's debates about same-sex marriage. No. 2: The fact that Baltimore Archbishop William Lori is the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops' committee on religious liberty and, thus, one of the most important Catholic voices on issues linked to the potential impact of the same-sex marriage rulings on the lives of traditional religious believers and institutions.

Alas, each of these questions -- so far -- must be answered with the a simple "no."

Truth be told, I have been surprised, so far, with how few readers on the left or the right have left any comments on why it is either good or bad for many mainstream news organizations to use a one-sided, advocacy approach (Yes, hello Bill Keller of The New York Times) when covering such an important story. I didn't expect balanced coverage. I did assume some basic questions and issues would be addressed on both sides of the story.

The bottom line: Is this the new professional "normal" when covering hot-button issues linked to religion?

All of this entered into my discussions this week with Todd Wilken as we taped this week's episode of "Crossroads," the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen to that.

The lack of comments on these posts left me rather depressed. The implication is that that many GetReligion readers have simply given up and no longer believe that many, perhaps most, elite journalists are committed to focusing accurate, balanced coverage of the views and beliefs of "stakeholders" (there's that Poynter.org term again) on both sides of these debates.

Bummer. And the more I pondered this, the more I thought about another recent story linked to public views of the press.

Did you happen to see the recent reporting on this national poll?

Only 23 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup.

Continuing a decades-long downward trend, fewer than one-fourth of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The percentage of Americans saying they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers dropped to 23 percent this year from 25 percent last year, according to a report on the poll, which was released Monday.

American confidence in newspapers reached its peak at 51 percent in 1979, and a low of 22 percent in 2008.

Now, that 23 percent figure is quite close -- too close for comfort -- to the growing army of Americans (.pdf here) who are either religiously unaffiliated or openly atheist/agnostic. Am I saying that this fact explains this anti-media trend? No way. But it could be a sign that the large mass of Americans who no longer trust the press, who no longer believe the mainstream press can fairly and accurately cover divisive issues, includes an unusually high number of religious believers, especially those who are active in local congregations.

Yes, there is a "political" angle to this:

Much of the confidence can also be measured by political orientation. Conservatives remain the most critical of newspapers and television news, while liberals are the most supportive. Confidence in newspapers by party also mirrors their ideologies. Democrats are most confident, at 33 percent, while Republicans, at 16 percent, are least confident.

Of course, some of these negative numbers could be explained in terms of moral and social issues that do not completely sort out according to party affiliations (and, as always, I say that as a pro-life Democrat). Doctrinal religious beliefs do not equal political beliefs.

One more thing. Decades ago, when I was doing my mass communications graduate work at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I came across some research that ended up playing a key role in my thesis (and in The Quill cover story that was drawn from that research in 1983). Here is a key chunk of that:

... (A)nother survey shows the sector of the public that is the most religiously involved is also highly involved in the local news events that dominate daily newspapers. The survey, entitled “The Impact of Belief: On American Values in the ’80s,” was conducted by Research and Forecasts, Inc., and was commissioned by the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company. About 20 percent of all Americans, a group the survey calls the “most religious,” are the people most likely to be involved in, and interested in local news. The survey shows:

* The most religious are far more likely to believe the vote is the main thing that determines how the country is run.

* The most religious are highly inclined to believe that solutions to major national problems can be found through politics.

* The most religious are far more likely to do volunteer work for a local organization or political figure.

* The most religious are much more likely to attend neighborhood or community meetings.

* Finally, those who are most committed to religion are more likely to feel they “belong to a community.”

Oh, and the people who are most involved in their local communities -- a high percentage of them drawn from the "most religious" sector -- were also the people who are most likely to purchase and read their local newspapers.

That was 1980. Is that still true today? If not, what has changed in the years since then?

Please ponder these questions. I think they are important questions, especially to those of us who are concerned about the future of mainstream journalism and public discourse in American life.

Sobering stuff. Nevertheless, try to enjoy the podcast.

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