UW News

November 29, 2001

Book examines religious roots of American media

By Steve Hill
University Week

Despite widely held public perception to the contrary, criticism from conservatives, and journalists’ own claims to objectivity and skepticism, the American press corps operates from a religious foundation, according to a UW researcher.

In his forthcoming book, From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press, Doug Underwood argues that whether they know it or not, journalists are guided in their thinking and their daily professional tasks by religious values. Underwood, an associate professor of communications, former Seattle Times reporter, and practicing Quaker, first developed the idea for the book while studying at Earlham School of Religion during the 1994-95 academic year. He began writing and researching shortly after that experience.

“I was amazed as I got into it at the connections that I began to discover,” he said. Those connections helped him clarify what had been a vague notion for many years.

“Without recognizing it while I was a journalist, for me there really was kind of a higher mission to the job,” Underwood said. “I realized that, unconsciously, I’d gone into journalism with a sense that there was a special mission there. That’s truly how a lot of journalists feel. They just never express it in traditionally religious ways.”

But in a survey of 432 American and Canadian journalists, Underwood and his colleague, communications professor Keith Stamm, found that the Fourth Estate is more religious than previously thought.

“Journalism is this interesting profession in that it’s seen by people in it as being very secular,” Underwood said. “It’s criticized by religious conservatives as being secular humanist. And yet when you actually get in and ask journalists questions about this you discover that, first of all, a high proportion of journalists very openly call themselves religious people. Church membership is 50 percent or so. And, secondly, journalists respond very strongly to certain fundamental religious messages, but particularly if those messages are framed in ways that don’t sound religious in nature.”

For example, whether or not they define themselves as religiously oriented, journalists overwhelmingly endorse the Bible’s warnings against injustice and corruption, he says. And, perhaps most interestingly, Underwood argues they tend to support the idea of putting traditional Judeo-Christian values into practice within their profession.

Finley Peter Dunne’s famous quote, “The proper definition of a journalist is someone who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” for example, is straight out of the Old Testament, according to Underwood. And despite their supposed secular tendencies, respondents to Underwood’s survey overwhelmingly endorsed the statement.

The famous muckrakers, he argues, took religious attitudes and applied them in journalism. And they weren’t shy about it. That has changed, but the relationship between religious value systems and the professional value systems of journalists, while largely unrecognized, remains a strong one.

While he admits it sounds odd to talk about faith in the context of the newsroom – traditionally seen as one of the more irreverent institutions in American culture – Underwood says religion and journalism are inextricably linked.

“If you analyze the typical values espoused on the editorial page, it’s not at all hard to identify their religious element.”