Religion ghost? Concerning the shocking Gallup numbers about public trust in news media

A long, long time ago, I wrote my journalism graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign about -- I am sure this will be a shock -- why so many mainstream newsrooms tend to ignore (or mangle) the role that religion plays in local, national and global news. Click here for the condensed version of that project that ran as a cover story with The Quill.

When talking to newspaper editors back in academic year 1981-82, I heard two things over and over: (1) religion news is too boring and (2) religion news is too controversial.

As I have said many times, the world is just packed with boring, controversial religion stories. The only way to make sense out of those answers, I thought at the time, was that editors considered these stories "boring" and they could not understand why so many readers cared so deeply about religious events, issues and trends.

At one point in that project, I discussed research done for the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company late in the 1970s. Yes, that was long ago. However, I believe some of those survey results remain relevant today, as we consider the stunning numbers in a new Gallup Poll that indicate that consumer trust in the American news media has crashed to a new low.

We will come back to those numbers in a moment. The key question: Is the public attitude toward the press linked, in some way, to issues of media bias in coverage of moral, cultural and religious news, as well as the predictable levels of anger linked to coverage of the remarkably unpopular major-party candidates in this year's White House race.

So back to 1980 or so. The Connecticut Mutual Life study found, as I wrote for The Quill, that:

... (The) sector of the public that is the most religiously involved is also highly involved in the local news events that dominate daily newspapers. ... 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."

Thus, to no one's shock, the "most religious" members in typical American cities and towns were sure to be among the most dedicated consumers of news -- especially local news. They were among the most loyal subscribers to local newspapers and viewers of local news channels.

The faculty who reviewed my graduate project, including the dean, the late, great media and journalism scholar James W. Carey, immediately saw the connection between these results and my topic.

The bottom line: If news producers want to drive away loyal, dedicated, long-time consumers of their products -- especially in average American cities and towns -- then one of the quickest ways to do that is to ignore religion news, to make mistakes while covering religion and/or to show obvious bias on topics linked to religious faith.

Let me stress that I am not saying that messed-up religion coverage is the only cause, or even the major cause, of the bleak numbers released by Gallup. I am saying that something has happened that is costing the press loyal consumers. Here is the top of the release from Gallup:

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.
Gallup began asking this question in 1972, and on a yearly basis since 1997. Over the history of the entire trend, Americans' trust and confidence hit its highest point in 1976, at 72%, in the wake of widely lauded examples of investigative journalism regarding Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. After staying in the low to mid-50s through the late 1990s and into the early years of the new century, Americans' trust in the media has fallen slowly and steadily. It has consistently been below a majority level since 2007.
While it is clear Americans' trust in the media has been eroding over time, the election campaign may be the reason that it has fallen so sharply this year.

Age is a factor. Yes, this was the hook that made me think of that Connecticut Mutual Life study long ago.

Older Americans are more likely than younger Americans to say they trust the media, but trust has declined among both age groups this year. Currently, 26% of those aged 18 to 49 (down from 36% last year) and 38% of those aged 50 and older (down from 45%) say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.

No, the poll did not -- at least in the public results -- probe any role that religious beliefs and practice may have played in these numbers.

Thus, why discuss this Gallup headline here at GetReligion? Obi Wan (Richard) Ostling put it this way: "It just portrays the broad US media context within which religion coverage exists."

So let's open this topic up for discussion. Does anyone have any reactions to the Gallup numbers?

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