Pope Benedict XVI and the Obama administration generated the most religion-related coverage in the U.S. press in 2009.

The pope, though he made no visits to the United States last year, was the subject of two of the top 10 religion stories, while the Obama administration accounted for three of the top 10 religion-focused storylines during the year.

No single event dominated religion news coverage in 2009 the way the pope’s visit to the U.S. did in 2008. Instead, when religion made the news, it was often just one element of a larger story, such as the debate over abortion funding and health care reform, the impact of the recession on religious institutions, or the actions of President Barack Obama’s administration, including its continuation of the “faith-based initiative.”

These are some of the findings of a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life that examined news stories from January through December 2009.

Among other key findings:

  • The overall amount of religion coverage remained fairly steady, at 0.8% (compared with 1% in 2008) of the newshole – the total space or time available for news content in newspapers, on television and in other media.
  • About two-thirds of religion coverage in 2009 focused on stories that took place in the United States. About a third of the content focused on stories outside the U.S., down from 42.3% in 2008.
  • Religion-related issues drew more attention in new media than in traditional press outlets. In a separate analysis of blogs throughout 2009, religion-related news made a list of top stories in 11 out of the 45 weeks studied. The topics that showed up in new media ranged from a Swiss ban on construction of minarets to a French trial of a group of Scientologists to the debate about same-sex marriage.
  • The importance of new media platforms as a place for news and discussion about religion may grow as the number of religion writers in traditional news outlets decreases. According to the Religion Newswriters Association, at least 16 major print news outlets have reduced or abandoned their religion beats since 2007.

The study of traditional news sources analyzed more than 68,700 stories from newspapers, the internet, network and cable television, and the radio (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).

Religion accounted for 0.8% of the mainstream media’s newshole in 2009.1 This level of attention was on par with press attention to several other specialty areas, such as education and immigration.

While some news topics received much more attention in 2009 than they had a year earlier, religion coverage remained fairly steady. Health news coverage, for example, nearly quadrupled to 11% of the overall newshole, an indication of media interest in the debate about health care reform. Religion coverage saw a slight dip, dropping from 1.0% of overall news coverage in 2008 to 0.8% in 2009.

The bulk of the religion coverage in American media outlets in 2009 (67.0%) focused on stories that took place in the United States. About a third of the content (32.8%) focused on stories outside the U.S., primarily on coverage of Benedict’s travels and activities in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Attention to events on foreign soil was down from 2008, when 42.3% of religion-related coverage dealt with events abroad.

The pope’s visit to the Middle East from May 8-15 accounted for 4.5% of all religion news last year, making it the No. 2 religion news story of 2009. The only storyline to receive more attention was the role of religion in the Obama administration, but this narrative ebbed and flowed for several months, following a number of different actions taken by the new administration. Obama and Benedict also dominated many of the other top religion stories of 2009, such as the president’s speech to the Turkish parliament in April and the papal pardon of a controversial bishop.

Taken together, the various actions of the pope accounted for 7.3% of religion coverage for the year. Religion storylines related to the Obama administration made up 9.6% of all religion-related news.

Press coverage of the pope’s activities focused on his diplomatic efforts as well as several controversies.

Benedict’s trip to the Middle East was the biggest of these storylines, at 4.5% of the religion newshole. Some news reports picked up on the pontiff’s efforts to build bridges both to Jews and to Muslims in the region. On May 11, for example, NBC’s Today Show reported on the pope’s visit to Bethlehem, where he honored Holocaust victims and called for a Palestinian homeland.

But some other reports painted a picture of an embattled pope. For example, a segment on the May 12 broadcast of ABC’s World News Tonight described the pontiff’s attempt to promote peace, but it also focused on the politics that continued to prevent peace in the Middle East. As ABC News Middle East correspondent Simon McGregor-Wood noted, “Pope Benedict XVI came to Jerusalem today as a pilgrim of peace, but this is a place of conflict.” And a BBC News Web story on the same day referenced Benedict’s involvement in Hitler Youth during World War II. “The chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Directorate, Avner Shalev, said he was disappointed that the pope did not more strongly condemn the Nazis,” reported the BBC.

The pope also made news in January for lifting the excommunication of a group of bishops who had been ordained 20 years earlier without the Vatican’s approval. The pardons drew criticism from European leaders when it turned out that one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, recently had questioned whether 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust and claimed that none were killed in Nazi gas chambers (2.3% of all religion coverage). The pardon was a home page story on ABCNews.com on Feb. 3.

The third major papal storyline was the pontiff’s trip to Africa in March, which garnered 0.5% of religion coverage for the year. Once again, controversy followed Benedict. On March 27, National Public Radio broadcast a BBC story about a British medical journal’s denunciation of the pope’s stance against the use of condoms in Africa. “The pope, who will shortly celebrate his 82nd birthday, has been involved in a series of public relations gaffes,” reported the BBC’s David Willey. “The Vatican has so far shown no sign of any willingness to modify its doctrinal views on the necessity of changing peoples’ sexual conduct rather than relying on condoms.”

The pope also was featured prominently in many stories during the Christmas holiday season. Holiday stories accounted for 4.2% of religion coverage and about half of these were about a papal Mass at which Benedict was attacked and dragged down by a female assailant, who was quickly subdued; the pope was not injured in the incident. A Dec. 25 CNN.com report described the scene: “The pope was quickly helped to his feet by his aides—prompting cheers from the crowd—and the service resumed.”

Three of the top religion stories of the year revolved around the ideology, policies and rhetoric of President Obama. Together, these stories made up 9.6% of the religion newshole in 2009.

One storyline, which accounted for 5.8% of all religion coverage, centered on the role of religion in the new administration. Early in the year, the media covered the administration’s choices for the presidential inauguration festivities, where both evangelical pastor Rick Warren and an openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson, delivered prayers. CNN’s Campbell Brown, in her prime-time program on Jan. 12, delved into the political implications of these choices, recalling that “it was only a few weeks ago that gay rights groups were pretty outraged when Obama picked Pastor Rick Warren, who, of course, campaigned against gay marriage in California, to say the prayer at the inauguration. Is this a way of placating everybody?”

Other news reports from early in the president’s first year raised questions about Obama’s religious ideology. For instance, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, in his program’s opening segment, “Talking Points Memo,” stated that “the president is a secular guy.” O’Reilly proceeded to describe some incidents he felt were indicative of Obama’s approach to religion in the public sphere: when Obama spoke at Georgetown University, a religious symbol behind him was covered; he did not choose a home church once in office; and he did not attend National Day of Prayer events. Other news outlets picked up on the latter observation. CNN’s Situation Room aired a story on May 6 describing how the new president had upset certain Christians by not participating in the National Day of Prayer in May. CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry noted, however, that “many past presidents marked the occasion by just signing a proclamation.”

Additionally, a number of media accounts focused on Obama’s continuation and expansion of former President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative (see the report by the Roundtable on Religion & Social Welfare Policy) and the creation of a faith-based advisory council (see the Pew Forum’s report on Obama’s advisory council). On Feb. 6, Barbara Bradley Hagerty of National Public Radio interviewed Jim Towey, who ran the office under Bush for five years. Towey’s advice to Obama was that “he’d better pray, every day, because you really need the wisdom to navigate a very treacherous landscape between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.”

Two other media storylines focused on speeches by the president. His April address to the Turkish parliament and a related news conference received 2.1% of religion coverage in 2009. While in Turkey, Obama stressed the positive impact of Islam on the United States and the world, which generated some backlash from conservative talk show hosts. Radio broadcaster Michael Savage argued on his April 6 program that Obama was wrongfully defending Islam during the visit. “Obama said that ‘Islam has made contributions that have shaped or shaken the world, including my own country.’…so I said I couldn’t think of one contemporary Islamic contribution to America other than Obama … Barack Hussein Obama, their mouth piece.”

In May, the topic of abortion and Catholicism appeared in the news when Obama delivered the University of Notre Dame’s commencement address. Some bishops took issue with the university’s selection of Obama because the Democratic president’s views on abortion made him, in their view, an inappropriate choice for a Catholic university. Coverage of the event made up 1.7% of the religion newshole for the year. Fox News’ Sean Hannity interviewed anti-abortion activist Randall Terry, the founder of stopobamanotredame.com, on his May 15 program, where Terry said, “Human life is being snuffed out because of President Obama. And they’re honoring him.”

Press coverage of Obama’s speech at Cairo University in June focused almost entirely on the diplomatic angle of the event. Although Obama addressed matters of faith explicitly, even quoting the Koran, the vast majority of the mainstream coverage emphasized the broader international relations aspect. “Most notable in the hourlong address was Mr. Obama’s reiteration of his support of a state for Palestine, and his rejection of continued construction by Israel of new settlements on disputed land,” reported the Wall Street Journal on June 4. Only about halfway down did the article briefly touch on Obama’s references to Islamic traditions and beliefs, noting that Obama “quoted from the Quran and recited Muslim contributions to the world and to America.”

Attempts to change the U.S. health care system and the struggling economy were two stories that generated a great deal of coverage in 2009. These two issues also generated some religion-related coverage.

Faith groups’ activism around health care reform made up 3.0% of the religion newshole in 2009, sometimes providing a window into how religious groups take different stances on the same issue. An Aug. 11 CNN story published on Google News described the efforts of religious groups in favor of health care reform. The story quoted a Baptist minister and a Jewish rabbi who argued that access to health care is a moral issue. But some reports examined religious coalitions that opposed an overhaul of the health care system. A front-page New York Times story on Aug. 28 described a group of Catholic bishops opposed to the proposed health care legislation, having “concluded that Democrats’ efforts to carve out abortion coverage are so inadequate that lawmakers should block the entire effort.”

Religion narratives tied to the economic recession accounted for 2.2% of all religion-related coverage. These stories mostly examined how houses of worship were faring under financial duress, as well as the growing demands on religious charities and social service providers. A few stories went deeper, such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s front-page account on July 8 of the pope’s encyclical about the moral aspects of economic responsibility. Reporter Ann Rodgers noted where the pope spoke to Wall Street in “Caritas in Veritate.” “The pope criticized economic decisions made solely for the short-term interest of investors, particularly when jobs are lost,” Rodgers wrote.

The perennial debate over abortion rights also made the news in 2009, accounting for 1.7% of religion-related coverage during the year. Most of the coverage focused on tensions between the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and Catholics who question or depart from the church’s teachings, particularly on abortion. For example, Yahoo News carried an Associated Press story in November that reported that Providence, R.I., Bishop Thomas Tobin had asked Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy to refrain from receiving Communion in light of his stance on abortion.

Two other religion-related stories received notable coverage in 2009. One of these was the shooting at Fort Hood, which filled 2.0% of the religion newshole. When Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting spree at the Texas military base in November, the media focused on whether and how the Muslim psychiatrist had been radicalized.

Worried about a backlash, leaders of the American Muslim community were eager to convey their own message through the media. NPR’s Nov. 6 broadcast of Morning Edition contained a statement by Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). He insisted that “this is just something that … should not be used to somehow paint Muslim military personnel or the American Muslim community as somehow unpatriotic or anti-military.” The cable news channels were another venue where Islamic leaders spoke freely. On MSNBC’s Nov. 6 edition of Hardball, host Chris Matthews spoke with Nihad Awad, also of CAIR. Awad told Matthews, “Sincerely, I offer condolences for the families who lost their loved ones and I pray sincerely for God to give a speedy recovery for those who were injured in this attack. But also I remember the thousands of Muslims continuing to serve in the U.S. military and also the many headstones in Arlington National Cemetery that have crescents on them.”On the same day, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow interviewed Suhail Khan, an expert on Muslim-Christian relations, who also stressed that thousands of Muslims serve with honor in the U.S. military.

Another storyline involved Republican Sen. John Ensign, who admitted to having an affair with the wife of one of his aides. Stories on this topic, which accounted for 1.6% of religion-related coverage for the year, addressed Ensign’s conservative Christian positions on social issues and his ties to The Fellowship (also known as The Family), an evangelical Christian group that includes members of Congress and other public officials.

Each sector of the media devoted about the same amount of coverage to religion during the year. Across network and cable television news, radio broadcasts, newspapers and websites of traditional news organizations, about 1% of the total newshole focused on religion.

But there were differences in the type of religion stories that were featured most prominently. On cable TV, religion-related stories that had a political component received the most attention. For example, the top religion-related storyline on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC was the policies and ideology of the new Obama administration (15.2% of cable’s religion coverage) followed by faith groups’ involvement in the health care debate (6.7%). Cable also devoted a significant portion of its religion coverage (6.5%) to Ensign’s affair.

Broadcast networks, including NBC, CBS and ABC, focused more on the pope; the networks’ top two religion stories included Benedict’s travels to the Middle East (9.5% of the networks’ religion coverage) and his pardon of the bishop who had once denied the Holocaust (8.3%).

Newspapers devoted significant space (5.8% of their religion coverage) to religion and the economic downturn. They were the only news outlet to devote much attention to that issue.

And on the Web and radio news programs, no particular type of news story dominated religion-related news coverage.

In 2009, religion attracted significantly more attention in new media sources than in the mainstream media. An analysis of nearly a year’s worth of commentary in a sample drawn from millions of blogs and social media finds that religion was a top story in nearly a quarter of the weeks studied (11 out of 45 weeks).2 (For details, see the complete methodology of PEJ’s New Media Index.)

The specific religion-related topics covered by new media were broad in scope. Some reappeared throughout the year, while others surfaced quickly and faded abruptly. For instance, the debate over same-sex marriage was the top theme in five of the 45 weeks studied.


Week Topic* Percent of Links
Feb. 9-13 Catholic Indulgences (#3 story that week) 7%
Feb. 16-20 Founder of Islamic TV Station Charged with Beheading Wife (#4 story) 8%
Mar. 9-13 Decline of Organized Religion (#1 story) 30%
Mar. 16-20 Culture Wars (#4 story) 5%
Apr. 6-10 Same-Sex Marriage (#1 story) 26%
Apr. 20-24 Same-Sex Marriage (#2 story) 16%
May 4-8 Same-Sex Marriage (#1 story) 14%
May 25-29 Same-Sex Marriage (#1 story) 35%
Jun. 15-19 Same-Sex Marriage (#2 story) 6%
Oct. 26-30 Scientology (#4 story) 11%
Nov. 30-
Dec. 4
Swiss Ban on Minarets (#1 story) 17%



*Topics included in this table appeared among the top five overall topics for that particular week.

Between April and June, the debate over same-sex marriage appeared frequently in the blogosphere, stemming mostly from state legislation. On April 7, for example, Vermont legislators voted to allow same-sex couples to marry and the City Council in Washington, D.C., voted to recognize gay nuptials that had been performed elsewhere. Most bloggers who linked to news reports applauded the developments. “It’s been an amazing last few days for gay rights in America,” declared blogger Collin Kelley. “The Vermont legislature approved same-sex marriage, so I guess that means the Christian right-wing crazies and their Republican cohorts will have to find someone else to blame besides ‘activist judges.'”

But a minority of bloggers were critical of the developments. “While we Christians should abhor the events that have taken place in Vermont,” warned blogger Nathaniel Darnell, “more concerning to us than the legalization of sodomy should be the Church’s failure to proclaim the Law of God and the failure of fathers to train their sons in manliness.”

This is an illustration of a new media trait that emerged throughout the course of the year – its ability to quickly amass a passionate community of commentators around any particular subject (for more on the character of new media audience engagement, see the 2010 State of the News Media report). This was the case for same-sex marriage as well as for other religion topics that sometimes generated intense debate.

Some religion-related topics that did not get much attention from the mainstream media received more coverage in new media. During the week of Feb. 9, for example, the subject of Catholic indulgences was widely debated in new media sources. It was sparked by a New York Times story that chronicled the return at some Catholic churches of plenary indulgences – a practice that allows for the mitigation of punishment for sins. During the week of Oct. 26, Scientology was the topic of conversation in the blogosphere after a French court found six members of the Church of Scientology guilty of organized fraud and fined each as much as 400,000 euros. And from Nov. 30-Dec. 4, 17% of the links in blogs were about a Swiss referendum banning the construction of minarets.

The blogosphere and other social media tools have grown over the past few years. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 51% of internet users post online content that they have created themselves. Eleven percent of all adults use blogs. The use of Twitter has tripled since 2008.

At the same time, the number of reporters assigned to the religion beat in the mainstream media has been shrinking. According to Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, at least 16 major print news outlets have reduced or abandoned their religion beats since 2007. At the same time, she says, online newspapers such as The Huffington Post and Politics Daily have increased their religion staff. “We’re in the midst of growth of the [religion] beat online,” Mason says, “but newspapers haven’t kept up with the trend and have instead let religion coverage languish.”

1 Percent of newshole is calculated using an algorithm that accounts for total space or time devoted to news content in newspapers, television, audio and Web sources.

2 For the sake of authenticity, misspellings and grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from blog postings have not been altered.

Photo credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images