Faith-Based Nonprofits: Study Says Reporters Don’t Understand Religion, Get Tips to Build Connections

By on Monday, April 9, 2012

Faith-based nonprofit organizations who want to share their stories in the media definitely have their work cut out for them – a new report reveals that less than one-fifth of journalists view themselves as very knowledgable about religion. Study findings:

A majority of both the public and reporters sampled believe that the media do a bad job when it comes to reporting on religion. More than half of the reporters surveyed (51.8%) and the public (57.1%) agreed that the “media does a poor job explaining the importance of religion in society.”

Reporters overall, don’t feel they understand religion well. One-half of reporters say the biggest challenge to covering religion is a lack of knowledge about the subject. Only a fifth of reporters say they are “very knowledgeable” about religion, and most of these are mainly familiar with their own religious traditions, not the wider array of faiths and practices. Yet, one-sixth of reporters say religion coverage is central to their job and one-fifth say it comes up frequently in their work.

– Reasons vary as to why reporters feel religion doesn’t get as much coverage as it could. One-half (50.2%) of all reporters say a major challenge to covering religion is a lack of knowledge of religion. Two-fifths say that a lack of time for reporting religion stories and inadequate space for such stories are major challenges (40.9% and 40.2%, respectively). About one-third (35.2%) say
that a lack of interest in religion is a major challenge to coverage, and about as many reporters (31.3%) say that a major challenge is they “Don’t know the sources” for covering religion.

The public and reporters are interested in similar topics when it comes to religion. For the public, the top three areas of interest are spirituality; religion and American politics; and local church or denomination news. For reporters, the top two interests are in religion and American and international politics, with spirituality ranking third.

TV news is not viewed as good at providing religion coverage -whether you talk to the public or reporters. And much of religious coverage is overly sensationalized, according to the public. Compared to other media formats, both the public and reporters rate TV news as the lowest in quality and quantity of religion coverage. The public and reporters rated news magazines most favorably (35.8% for the public; 41.6% for reporters), followed by newspapers (34.3% of the public; 32.0% of reporters), and then radio news (33.7% and 16.7%, respectively). Reporters were also asked to evaluate news agencies/wire services, and 24.9% offered a “good” rating. Interestingly, the public rates online news websites/blogs less favorably than reporters (31.4% to 42.0% “good” ratings), with reporters giving the highest quality ratings to online media.

– Some people – both the public and reporters themselves – believe journalists are hostile to religion. Almost two-fifths (37.1%) of the public agrees that the “news media is hostile to religion and religious people,” while one-quarter (24.6%) of reporters agree.

The public thinks religion news is too sensationalized. Two-thirds (66.5%) of the public believes there is too much sensationalism in religion coverage – a view held by less than one-third of reporters (29.8%).

A sizeable part of the public wants religion coverage. Sixty-two percent of the public say religious coverage is somewhat or very important to them. One-quarter of the public is very interested in religion coverage.

So what can faith-based nonprofits, who want to share the religious underpinnings of their activities, take from this survey?

First, don’t be disheartened, a lot of people want to know what you are doing. The survey found that 62% of the public say religious coverage is somewhat or very important to them.

Second, pitch visual and relateable stories that show community impact when you approach journalists. Visuals convey stories and numbers talk.  If you are doing an event, invite the media to come and allow them to film or photograph the event (people doing an engaging activity is always better than people attending a meeting). If your organization is doing something to address a community problem, be able to cite statistics, not just your motivation to fix something. If your faith-based organization has a ministry or works on large problems facing society (e.g. homelessness, drug recovery, low-income housing affordability, alcoholism recovery, hunger issues, divorce recovery, affordable childcare, afterschool programming, etc.) offer localized statistics that show the problem in your community if you can find them (or national statistics), and outline what your organization is doing to address the problem.

Third, think about how you can provide background information and be available to help reporters cover matters of faith in your community. Send out an email message to reporters offering your expertise on faith-based topics that you are qualified to talk about. Offer to meet one-on-one with the reporter to talk about faith-based matters. Offer to connect reporters with an area ministerial association or networking group so they can build a base of contacts in the faith-based community. Offer to meet with reporters in advance of a major event or holiday. Give them tip sheets before major holidays or events. Put together an FAQ that includes basic information about your faith as a one-pager (which you can also post on your website). When talking to reporters, don’t speak in religious jargon. Talk plainly and offer to explain unfamiliar terms.

For the study, researchers conducted a phone survey of 2,000 Americans and a parallel online survey of a representative cross-section of 800 reporters. The report was produced by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the University of Akron Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. You can see the study online. I had trouble downloading it, but was able to just change the file name to .pdf and got it to open.

Thanks to Get Religion for the image.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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