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Religion on TV News:More Content, Less Context

Religion Coverage More Than Doubled

Evening News Stories

When the MRC first performed a religion news study ten years ago, covering the calendar year of 1993, the number of evening news stories on ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, and the NBC Nightly News was small: just 121 stories. That’s less than two stories a week on the three networks combined. In 2003, thanks to some major religion stories, from Iraq to Pope John Paul’s 25th anniversary to The Passion of the Christ, the number of evening news stories is up dramatically to 292. That led to an average of about two stories a week per network, a more regular and noticeable presence in newscasts.

This total includes both the longer, reporter-based story ranging from 90 seconds to a few minutes, as well as a small number of anchor-read news bites, often about 30 seconds in length. There was not great numerical disparity between the three evening news programs in their coverage of religion. (This is a slight difference from 1993, when ABC led with 46, while NBC had 44 and CBS lagged behind with 31.) In terms of overall numbers, CBS had the most stories with 103, compared to 95 for NBC and 94 for ABC. But in the study period, CBS also had a much higher number of anchor read stories with 40, while ABC had 23 and NBC aired 21. So in reporter-based stories, NBC led with 74, ABC had 71, and CBS had 63.

Morning News Coverage

For this study, the network morning shows are on a slightly uneven playing field. ABC’s Good Morning America airs for two hours Monday through Friday, but currently has no weekend programs. NBC’s Today airs seven days a week, three hours on weekdays, and generally two hours on Saturday and one hour on Sunday. CBS airs The Early Show for two hours from Monday to Saturday, and also airs the 90-minute show Sunday Morning.

chart0404_1The increase in morning news coverage was not as dramatic as the evening shows, from 197 stories in 1993 to 331 in the 2003-04 study period. But since the anchor-brief count is almost the same (110 in 1993, 117 in 2003-04), the number of reporter-based and interview segments shows a more significant climb, from 87 to 214.

With the inclusion of 12 Sunday Morning reports, CBS was first with 118 reports (76 stories/interviews, 42 anchor briefs). Due to its exclusive arrangements with the Vatican for the papal anniversary and with Mel Gibson and his cast for The Passion of the Christ, ABC was strongest on weekdays with 109 segments (76 stories or interviews, 33 anchor briefs). Despite an extra hour every weekday and both a Saturday and Sunday edition, NBC was third with 104 (62 stories/interviews, 42 anchor briefs).

ABC’s coverage waxed and waned heavily with their exclusives. They aired 25 stories or interviews during their Vatican period in October, and 13 stories or interviews in February, almost all of them on The Passion. In August, between Gene Robinson and Roy Moore, ABC filed another 13 full segments. (Other months were much leaner, with just 11 full segments in the five months from March through July.) As in the case of the evening shows, the larger number should be put in context – the networks are still averaging a little more than two morning segments a week.

Magazine/Interview Show Coverage

To complete the picture of network news coverage of religion, MRC analysts also reviewed prime-time magazine programs (ABC’s Primetime and 20/20, CBS’s 60 Minutes, 60 Minutes II, and 48 Hours, and NBC’s Dateline), ABC’s Nightline in late night, and the Sunday interview shows (ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS’s Face the Nation, and NBC’s Meet the Press). Since the segments are much longer than the average evening-news story and there are almost no anchor briefs, the magazine shows offer the most in-depth coverage of religion news and issues.

In 1993, a review of that year’s magazine, late-night, and Sunday interview shows found only 18 stories. ABC did 10 segments, with NBC (4) and CBS (3) lagging behind. In the 2003 study period, religious subjects have been much more prominent, with 82 segments. Nightline, Primetime, and Dateline devoted entire programs to religious topics. In those cases, segments were determined by commercial breaks. Hour-long shows counted as five segments, half-hour Nightline programs as three segments. ABC led with 43 segments, while NBC aired 31, and both networks featured some positive or inspirational coverage. CBS not only lagged behind with eight, but its segments were almost entirely critical in tone.

 chart0404_2Some programs favored religious topics more than others. Dateline (31) and Nightline (27) were the busiest. With an hour devoted to each The Passion of the Christ and the religious theories behind the novel The DaVinci Code, Primetime had 12 segments, but 20/20 only aired three. 60 Minutes had seven, with a single segment on 60 Minutes II. The 48 Hours shows aired nothing. On the Sunday morning interview shows, only ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos carried religious segments (one on the papal anniversary, one interview with gay bishop Gene Robinson).