Media Coverage of the Catholic Church: Executive Summary


The public image of social groups and the institutions depends heavily on their portrayal in the news media. Given the long history of anti-Catholic prejudice in American society, it is especially important that the media present a fair and balanced portrayal of the Catholic Church. To provide an independent assessment of the media's performance, a scientific study of news coverage was conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Here is a summary of their findings.

The public image of social groups and the institutions depends heavily on their portrayal in the news media. Given the long history of anti-Catholic prejudice in American society, it is especially important that the media present a fair and balanced portrayal of the Catholic Church. Most journalists approach the Church from an outsiders' perspective. A survey of national media outlets indicated that only one to two percent were practicing Catholics. But this need not prevent them from providing fair and balanced coverage of the Church. To address this issue, it is necessary to analyze the style and substance of actual news stories.

To provide an independent assessment of the media's performance, the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights commissioned a scientific study of news coverage by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The study examined a sample of nationally influential media outlets (The New York Times and The Washington Post, Time magazine and the CBS Evening News), during three 5-year time blocs: 1964-68, 1974-78, and 1984-1988. The study focused on both news and editorial material that dealt with the Catholic Church primarily in the United States.

The analysis relied on the social-science method of content analysis. This technique allows researchers to classify the news objectively and systematically, to produce valid measures of news content. The difference between content analysis and casual monitoring is akin to the difference between scientific polling and man-on-the-street interviews.


On most controversies involving Catholic teachings, the Church came out on the losing side of the issue debate reported in the media. Although the opinion breakdown varied from one issue to another, sources supporting the Church were in the minority on the broad range of debates involving sexual morality and Church authority that dominated the coverage. These included heated controversies over birth control, clerical celibacy, the role of women and minorities in the Church, and its response to internal dissent and issues involving freedom of expression.

The major exception to this pattern involved ecumenical efforts, which the media treated as a kind of "motherhood and apple pie" issue, supported by all people of good will. Even on this dimension, however, opinion was split over whether the Church was helping or hindering efforts to promote inter-religious unity. Similarly, opinion was about evenly divided on the Church's involvement in political affairs. But most of the praise was for Church pronouncements condemning war. On domestic disputes over church-state relations, most sources opposed the Church's positions or activities.

Controversial issues were frequently presented as conflicts between the Church hierarchy, on one side, and lower-level clergy, lay Catholics, and non-Catholics on the other. Journalists frequently approached this subject matter from a secular perspective, structuring their coverage of theological issues along the familiar lines of political reportage.

The result was a long-running media drama that pitted a hidebound institutional hierarchy against reformers from within and without. This portrayal was reinforced by the language used to describe to Church in media accounts. The descriptive terms most frequently applied to the Church emphasized its conservative theology, authoritarian forms of control, and anachronistic approach to contemporary society.

Moreover, long-term trends in the coverage have been unfavorable to the Church. Over time, official Church teachings were reported less frequently and were challenged more often when they did appear.

Among the four media outlets in the study, CBS focused most heavily on the papacy and least heavily on social conflicts involving the Church. By contrast, Time magazine paid the most attention to dissidents and focused most heavily on conflict, featured the most frequent use of judgmental language, and printed a majority of opinions opposed to the Church on every issue except ecumenism


Discussions of sex were the leading topic of controversy in every time period and almost every outlet in the study. At the Washington Post, the debate over sexual morals took second place to discussions of power relations within the Church.

Among all statements that clearly expressed their agreement or disagreement with Church teachings on these issues, about 4 out of 7 disagreed with the Church. Church teachings on sexual morality were endorsed almost exclusively by members of the hierarchy; members of the laity and non-Catholics were overwhelmingly opposed. The overall effect was to present the debate over sexual morality as a split between the Church hierarchy and everyone else.

When discussing Catholic teaching on birth control, 53% of sources disagreed with the Church stand against artificial contraception. As more and more polls indicated that American Catholics were not following the teaching, the subject was relegated to debate within the Church and news stories rarely quoted opinions from secular sources.

Priestly celibacy was one of the few areas of contention on which opinions did not change much over time, possibly because it was presented entirely as an internal debate among priests and their superiors.

Over time, positions on the Church's opposition to abortion shifted. During the 1970s most published statements supported by the Church. This was due to the reiteration of the Catholic teaching by members of the hierarchy in response to the Roe v. Wade decision. By the 1980s, the amount of debate had nearly doubled; opinion was now slightly opposed to the Church. This can largely be attributed to secular groups stepping up their campaign for abortion rights and to a group of dissenting nuns and priests who made headlines with a New York Times ad requesting a change in Church policy. This prompted the Church to reassert its traditional teaching more frequently.


The media gave heavy coverage to issues of power and authority within the Church. Opinions in news stories consistently favored decentralizing power. Support for change was almost twice as frequent as defense of the status quo. Defenders of the status quo were concentrated among the hierarchy. Once again the laity and the clergy below the level of bishop lined up on the other side. Among non-Catholics opposition was almost unanimous, by 91% to 9%.

The Church's traditions came under attack with regard to both its treatment of constituent groups and its handling of dissent. Two out of three sources condemned its handling of dissenters in its ranks, and 3 out of 4 criticized its response to issues involving freedom of expression (such as academic freedom at Catholic universities). The only recurrent voices cited in defense of the status quo were again those of the Church hierarchy.

The 1970s saw a dramatic change in this arena of debate. Women's rights and status became the major point of contention. As racism and sexism became a larger point of debate, the Church was often attacked by secular sources.

The most dramatic rise in discussion during the 1980s came in the area of free expression. This was largely due to discussions of academic freedom and dissent connected to such high-profile figures as Father Charles Curran and Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, along with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's push for greater theological orthodoxy. In this area Church decisions were rejected or criticized in 63% of all opinions.


Overall, 7 out of 10 sources supported Church efforts to build unity and improve relations with other world religions. Even so, when debate arose over the Church's position on this widely approved goal, half the sources criticized the Church as an obstacle to greater unity.

Discussions of the Catholic Church's relations with various levels of government in the United States received the least coverage of any dimension in this study. Opinion was about evenly split, with 51% supporting the Church in its relations with government and 49% expressing some criticism. Over the course of time, however, opinion clearly turned against the Church. By the 1980s, those who supported the Church had dropped to a minority of only 40%.

Support for the Church's relations with the political world was bolstered by the Church's anti-war stance. On domestic concerns, by contrast--concerns such as public funding for private schools, the politics of abortion legislation, and perceived threats to the separation of church and state--few sources supported Church involvement in political affairs.

Church involvement in politics was always seen as an inappropriate threat to the separation of church and state. The margin of criticism increased in recent years. In the 1970s critics outnumbered supporters by a 2-1 margin, and in the 1980s the margin widened to 3-1.


The media's depiction of the Church involves not only its presentation of policy issues, but also the tone of news accounts, which is strongly influenced by the use of descriptive language. A majority of stories employing descriptive language stressed by the Church's conservatism increased during the 1970s. In addition, the Church was overwhelmingly portrayed as an oppressive or authoritarian institution. Over the course of time the Church was increasingly portrayed in this light. An institution that was usually described as conservative and oppressive was also presented more often than not as irrelevant. The Church's lack of relevance was emphasized more heavily in recent years. In sum, the linguistic tone of news coverage has been generally (and increasingly) unfavorable to the Church. At every outlet, and during every time period, it was usually portrayed as an oppressive or authoritarian institution with little relevance for the contemporary world.

Ultimately, journalists are less fact-collectors than story-tellers. And the stories they tell about the Catholic Church rely on politics as much as religion for their dramatic appeal. Increasingly, the story line revolves around a beleaguered authority struggling to enforce its traditions and decrees on a reluctant constituency.


S. Robert Lichter, Daniel Amundson, and Linda S. Lichter. "Media Coverage of the Catholic Church: Executive Summary." Center for Media & Public Affairs, 1991.

Media Coverage of the Catholic Church 93 pages, softcover, $15.00 (Center for Media & Public Affairs, The Knights of Columbus, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, 1991).

Reprinted with permission of the Center for Media & Public Affairs.


S. Robert Lichter is President of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., which conducts scientific studies of the news and entertainment media. Linda Lichter, a sociologist specializing in public opinion/mass media and political sociology , is Vice President of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Daniel Amundson has been the Research Director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs since 1987.

Copyright 1991 Center for Media & Public Affairs

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.