Is Atheism Getting a Free Pass?

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Does broadcast and print media give atheism the same degree of scrutiny as Christianity and other religious faiths?

The Media Research Center's Culture and Media Institute says no.

For more on what this study reveals, watch Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Media Institute.

The Institute examined the apparent "rise in atheism," subject covered in broadcast news programs, three leading weekly news magazines, and four programs on taxpayer-funded National Public Radio, all shown during 2007.

Gospel of Godlessness

Although only eight percent of Americans call themselves atheists, the report found that not only is the news media hostile toward religion, particularly Christianity, but the media may be spreading a "Gospel of Godlessness" on the American public.

"Whether deliberately or not, the news media did not subject atheism or atheists to the same skepticism to which they subject Christians and Christianity," the report said. "Journalists who look at America's majority religion through a skeptical prism should equally apply their critical faculties to atheism."

In their report, CMI details their discovery of imbalances in the media's coverage of the religion. Among the findings:

- Eighty percent of feature stories about atheism or atheists had a positive tone, 20 percent were neutral. No feature stories were negative.

- Atheists were used to challenge religious viewpoints more than journalists used religious viewpoints to challenge atheism. Fifty-four percent of atheist-themed stories included a religious counterpoint, but 71 percent of the Christian-themed stories included atheist counterpoints or were written from an atheistic perspective.

Double Standard

"By airing unchallenged interviews and reporting predominantly positive-toned features, the news organizations in this study effectively promoted atheism and held it in higher regard than other religions," the report said. "While the media are not obligated to treat all religions and belief systems equally, their failure to subject atheism to the levels of skepticism directed at Christianity and other religions suggests a deplorable double standard.

The study also found that atheism stories or commentaries by atheists were present in 51 percent of the issues of Newsweek, and 35 percent of the issues of Time. This included features, mentions in stories on other issues, and groupings of letters to the editor from atheists. In contrast, only one issue of U.S. News and World Report referred to atheism.

Of all of the broadcast networks, the Institute found that ABC provided the most enthusiastic television network coverage of atheism. The network ran features on an atheist Web site called Blasphemy Challenge and an atheist convention held in Baltimore, Md.

ABC addressed atheism 24 times in five of its six news programs, whereas CBS and NBC only addressed it 16 and 11 times, respectively. In addition to airing more stories on the subject than CBS and NBC, ABC's Nightline devoted an entire program to a live debate between atheists and Christians.

Even the presidential race has been touched by atheism. Six out of seven news organizations considered in this study addressed the concerns and interests of atheists in the upcoming presidential election. Yet, only Republican candidates were asked how they would treat atheists.

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