DO America's TV networks shortchange religion?
More than 100 million people in the United States attend worship services every week, 40 million read the Bible every day, and nearly 9 of every 10 Americans profess an affinity for a particular religion.
Yet the major TV networks rarely deal with religious topics - and when they do, they are usually critical.
So says, the conservative Media Research Center (MRC). After a year-long study of network morning and evening news shows, it found that religion was the focus of only 1 percent of news programming.
In the entertainment area, prime-time programs seldom mentioned religion. But when they did, the laity, clergy, and church institutions were often portrayed either inaccurately or negatively. Some key findings of the study:
* News. After monitoring 18,000 news reports last year on the evening broadcasts of CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, and PBS, the MRC tallied only 212 that dealt with religious matters. Out of about 23,000 news reports on morning talks shows, only 197 dealt with religion.
* Entertainment. A survey of more than 1,000 hours of prime-time broadcasts on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox counted only 116 mentions of religion. Thomas Johnson and Sandra Crawford, who wrote the study, concluded that while entertainment shows are often negative toward religion, the overriding impression was that ``Hollywood ignores religion far more than it demeans it.''
Turning a blind eye toward religious values and the role that religion plays in the world may be a huge mistake at this moment in history, suggests Joel Carpenter, program director for religion at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia. Dr. Carpenter points out that in Bosnia, Africa, and the Middle East, it often is religious tensions that underlie major news developments. TV often fails to interpret that for its viewers, he says.
``You can't understand that whole complex of values and cultures without understanding the role religions play in it,'' he says.
Stephen Hess, a media specialist with the Brookings Institution, says: ``Religionists have a real complaint about the media'' coverage of events in the US. People of religion are ``the invisible part of American culture,'' Mr. Hess says. Contrary to some critics, however, Hess doesn't fault the media for bias.
``I don't think they're antireligion,'' he says. ``They are a totally secular institution consumed by matters of government, primarily. It's almost as if they take the separation of church and state one step beyond.''
Carpenter notes that within the US, failing to give weight to religious values can miss the underlying forces pushing big stories like the environment, economic and racial justice, and gender issues.
``Things that really go deep with people and that strike at their ultimate concerns often have religious dimensions to them,'' he says.
Despite the paltry coverage of religion and its influence, analysts note some favorable trends.
Two months ago, ABC-TV anchorman Peter Jennings prodded network officials into hiring Peggy Wehmeyer, a Dallas reporter who now has become the first religion correspondent for any major network.
A spokesman at ABC says Mr. Jennings had lobbied for a religion reporter for some time because ``he felt there were a great deal of stories with a spiritual dimension'' that needed coverage. The effect of religion is ``just everywhere,'' the spokesman says. ``It just permeates society,'' and Jennings wanted it reported, he says.
In Hollywood, entertainment programming also shows signs that it is awakening to religious values. The MRC report says:
``When it comes to prime time and religion, matters are more balanced than they were a few years ago.'' ``Thea'' (ABC), ``Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman'' (CBS), and ``Against the Grain'' (NBC) were all cited as new shows in 1993 that ``dealt fairly and respectfully with religion.''
Others series were singled out for ridiculing or distorting religious beliefs, however, such as ``Cafe Americain'' (NBC) and ``Picket Fences'' (CBS). The latter was criticized, for example, for what the report said were distortions of Roman Catholic teachings about birth control and some Mormon beliefs.
Discussing TV news, L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of MRC, says that in ``both quantitative and qualitative terms, the coverage [of religion] was offensive to religious people.''
He explains: ``Religion and religious leaders are portrayed as cold, intolerant, and oppressive. Worse yet, their enemies are given immediate credibility through media exposure, no matter how lacking the basis for their charges.''
Mr. Bozell points specifically to 25 network news reports citing accusations (later dropped) that Joseph Cardinal Bernardin had engaged in sexual abuse. Bozell says it wasn't the charge itself that caused the harm, but the instant credibility given to those ``heinous charges'' by the TV networks.