The media has improved its coverage in recent years. An increasing number of networks and newspapers have religion reporters or advisers. However, since its main drivers (market share and maximization of profits) are media coverage, it is "predestined" to be unbalanced or biased.
The emphasis on "headline events" often means a predominant focus on the negative, sensational, violent. The "dark side" of religion predominates over coverage of religions more transcendent and transformative aspects. This is reflected across the religious spectrum. Mainstream evangelicals are eclipsed by the preferential coverage given to more militant and strident evangelicals like Pat Robertson who can be counted on for provocative sound bites. Warith Deen Muhammad, leader of the majority of African American Muslims has often been eclipsed by the more combative Louis Farrakhan. Much needed coverage of the pedophilia problems of the Catholic Church were rarely complimented by stories that also show the faith that informs the lives of most Catholics.
Most glaringly in recent years, Islam and Muslims have come to be viewed primarily through the lens of religious extremism and terrorism. Media tend to focus disproportionately on this dangerous and deadly minority who threaten global security and offer minimal coverage of the faith and lives of the mainstream majority of Muslims. Prominent media commentators use Islamophobic (anti-Muslim) language and make outrageous unsubstantiated charges that responsible editors allow regarding Judaism and Christianity. There is a growing propensity in the media in the name of balanced coverage of Islam and Muslims to have a "counter voice" on virtually any story. Especially favored are ex-Muslims, those who publicly repudiate Islam and like some prominent non-Muslim ideologues do not distinguish (as they would when talking about other faiths) between mainstream Islam and religious extremism but rather see the religion of Islam itself as inherently flawed and dangerous.
"Balance" has come to mean that any discussion of Islam and Muslims include someone who is a "militant critic." Yet, we don't expect that every discussion of religion include an atheist, that every discussion of the meaning of Passover or Easter include someone who will deny the historicity or relevance of these beliefs and rituals, that every panel on some aspect of Jewish or Christian faith and belief include "critics" with preference given to those who have rejected the faith and are often not experts as much as "professional critics," that is, make a career of slamming their former faith. While criticism and dissent are important and must be heard, they are not necessary or relevant to every story or report.
Notably absent in the mainstream media is coverage of Islam and Muslims is coverage of the erosion of civil liberties. While stories on global terrorism and domestic threats are important to us all, at the same time how many stories have gone one step further and focused on the thousands of Muslims indiscriminately arrested, detained, monitored and interviewed and not found guilt or released for lack of evidence; the number of Islamic charities shut down but despite the passage of years not successfully prosecuted; the continued detention of Muslims like Prof. Sami al-Arian, whose jury verdict as well as the post-trial agreement forged by Justice Department and Defense attorneys were ignored by the trial judge.
Since 9/11, I am constantly asked (or the charge is made): "Why don't Muslims in America and globally speak out against religious violence and terrorism?" To which my response is that the absence of such statements is either due to the fact that Muslims do not speak out or that, as is the case, the media too often does not find these stories "newsworthy." I then refer them to internet sites like Beliefnet and others where these statements may be found.
Inadequate media coverage is compounded by the fact that many, though certainly not all, reporters come to stories with little or no background on religions and the very topics they cover. This was a major reason why after 9/11, I wrote the book, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam.
Is there more media coverage of religion today than in the past? Yes. Are there reporters and stories that make an important contribution to better understanding? Yes. However, are there serious and substantial problems resulting in a dangerous bias in the coverage provided by many media outlets? Most assuredly, Yes. We still have a long way to go in a world in which in many societies, religion has become a more pronounced presence and factor in personal and public life, in domestic and international politics.