This report is a special segment of A Year in the News, an analysis of the mainstream media in 2008 conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. This segment of the analysis was written in collaboration with the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The biggest single religion story of 2008 was compressed into about a week’s worth of coverage.

Attention to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States in April eclipsed even faith-related controversies surrounding the 2008 presidential election campaign, including candidates’ associations with controversial religious figures such as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

For the year overall, religion coverage represented only a small slice of a mainstream news agenda dominated by politics and the economy. Nevertheless, religion received about as much coverage as immigration, education, and race- and gender-focused stories. In 2008, religion coverage filled 1% of the newshole – the time or space available in an outlet for news content – studied by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. (See Methodology.)

Selected Media Topics in 2008*

Topic of Coverage % of Overall Newshole
Politics 29%
U.S. Economy 13%
Religion 1%
Immigration 1%
Education 1%
Race/Gender Issues 1%

* Note: In 2008, the Project for Excellence in Journalism studied some 69,942 stories from 48 different news outlets.

Beyond the pope’s visit and religion stories related to the presidential election, only a handful of other events had a significant religion focus: the release of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum (3% of the religion newshole); religion stories related to the 2008 holiday season (3%); a raid on a Texas compound associated with polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs (2%); the death of Mormon leader Gordon Hinckley (1%); and the Muslim terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India (1%).

Top Religion Stories in 2008

Story % of Religion Newshole
Pope’s U.S. Visit 37%
Presidential Election 21%
Pew Forum Survey 3%
Holiday Season 3%
Polygamist Compound Raid 2%
Gordon Hinckley’s Death 1%
Mumbai Terror Attacks 1%

But the biggest religion story of the year by far (making up 37% of the religion newshole) was Pope Benedict’s trip to the U.S during the week of April 14. The pope’s visit was the second-biggest news story in PEJ’s News Coverage Index during that week. (The presidential campaign topped the news agenda.) By the next week, however, the pope’s visit had practically disappeared from the headlines.

The pope’s trip was a highly anticipated event that included scheduled stops in Washington, D.C., and New York City, two major media markets. However, more than half (54%) of visit-related coverage focused on two sub-stories: the ongoing impact of the clergy sex-abuse scandal (37%) and the pope’s relationship with American Catholics (17%).

Pope Coverage by Story Focus

Media Coverage of April 2008 Visit
Figure A
Note: The “Straightforward Coverage of Events” story focus denotes straightforward coverage of events that had already occurred, most often papal appearances.

With the presidential campaign dominating all media coverage in 2008 (36% of the total newshole analyzed by PEJ for the year), one might expect that campaign-related religion stories would have eclipsed the pope’s visit. This was not the case, however. Much of the coverage of campaign-related events – including then-Sen. Barack Obama’s association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; the presidential candidates’ forum sponsored by evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren; and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s galvanization of “values” voters – focused on the “horse-race” aspects of the campaign rather than on the religion angles of the stories.

Religion Coverage in 2008 Over Time

Figure B
Two other religion stories that gained some traction in the press in 2008 were both tied to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: The death of Mormon leader Gordon Hinckley in January (1% of religion newshole) and the police raid on a Texas compound associated with fundamentalist sect leader Warren Jeffs (2%).

Religious conflict around the world received sporadic attention from the press (combined, these stories filled 3% of the religion newshole). Two of the biggest events – the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, and ongoing cultural unrest in Iraq – centered on religion-related violence. Religious conflict also was a storyline in coverage of religious freedom issues in Russia under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Were there any unifying themes to the mainstream press coverage of religious issues in 2008?

Throughout much of 2008, the media generally seemed to follow two patterns in its coverage of religion. First, religion reporting was often episodic, clustering intensely around big events such as the pope’s visit and religion stories related to the 2008 holiday season. Religion stories also faded quickly from the headlines.

Second, the angle of religion coverage frequently gravitated toward controversies, such as Barack Obama’s relationship with Jeremiah Wright and stories about the clergy sex-abuse scandal that surfaced during the pope’s visit. This was particularly problematic for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, who were inundated with questions concerning their faith.