Consumers of the world’s media want more and better coverage of faith and its role in modern life, according to a new global survey released Tuesday.
In the survey conducted for the Faith and Media Initiative (FAMI), journalists said fears of “getting it wrong” and newsroom economics put a damper on expanded faith coverage.
And journalists and believers both said faith groups need to offer more and better spokespersons to answer media questions and provide context.
The FAMI survey, which polled 9,498 people in 18 nations, is believed to be the largest of its kind, to date. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63%) said high-quality content on faith and religion is needed in their respective countries, 53% said the media “actively ignores” faith issues and 56% said there should be more nuanced coverage of complex religious topics.
“The data reveals that faith and religion are a core element of personal identity globally, with 82% of respondents viewing themselves as faithful, religious or spiritual,” said Dritan Nesho, CEO of HarrisX, the global research firm that conducted the FAMI survey.
“Ultimately, the research points to a clear global deficit in coverage, treatment and quality of understanding of faith and religion in modern media,” Mr. Nesho said.
Journalists said there is a problem with religious stereotyping, which also was noted by 61% of media consumers. While 53% of consumers said those stereotypes need to get the same level of attention as other issues of stereotyping in the media, journalists said a lack of varied media sources and spokespersons perpetuates the problem.
Media participants cited as issues anxiety about misreporting faith topics, a lack of diversity in newsrooms with regard to faith and a perception that religion is covered mainly when it generates “clicks for controversy.” However, consumers said their understanding of “high-quality content” goes beyond sensationalism.
“The media is a place where a variety of viewpoints, perspectives and personalities should be featured. You should see yourself reflected, both in people like yourself and in others who might not share your identifiers, but who share your values and priorities,” said FAMI exploratory task force member Aaron Sherinian, senior vice president of global reach for Deseret Management Corp.
In an interview, Mr. Sherinian, a veteran of global diplomatic and development efforts at the State Department and the United Nations Foundation, among other groups, said FAMI is “trying to facilitate a better way for us to talk about the greatest story of our time,” namely faith and how it is expressed.
“There was an early indication from people that there’s something missing, not in society, but in our newsfeeds,” he said. People “show up in society and in faith, but faith isn’t always showing up in their newsfeeds.”
FAMI strives to bring “faith leaders and media members together around shared interests and mutual goals,” according to the nonprofit advocacy group’s website.
Mr. Sherinian said media outlets are missing a chance to gain more consumers by covering faith responsibly.
“Not only are we leaving a story, and a human story, off of our pages, but we’re leaving a business opportunity on the table,” he said. “And that’s what’s remarkable here is that from any aspect, if it’s about inclusivity, if it’s about championing a faith filled world, or even if it’s about making sure that you have a prosperous media business, this data is speaking to you.”
David W. Miller, director of Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative, said the potential for increased media traffic should appeal to executives.
“If someone were to say, ‘Well, here’s a way I can increase my readership, viewership, whatever,’ that would get my attention,” Mr. Miller said. “Even if, let’s say, the media outlet is comprised largely of people who are secularists and don’t, in their personal identity, have a faith tradition, they do understand how they want to make money and how they want to distribute their products.”
What’s more, a religious expert said media misperceptions of religious communities and bad reporting about faith can have real-world impacts.
“Many of our conversations about the representation or lack of representation … [have] a real impact on how people see themselves and how we see one another,” said Sikh author Simran Jeet Singh, who heads the Religion & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.
“What I’ve experienced as a Sikh in this country, is that for some in our society, the difference of being known and not being known can be the difference between life and death,” Mr. Singh added.
He cited the survey results as a way to start conversations about better faith coverage.
“We live in a data-driven society. And so often, people are unable or unwilling to accept the problems that are staring us in the face until you have clear research that backs it up. And so now we have this research, this area of concern is clear,” he said.
Organizers said online surveys of media consumers were conducted between Aug. 26 and Sept. 9, with localizations in English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French and Arabic. The sampling error was plus or minus 1 percentage point.