Religion Inside the Schoolhouse Gate: Gatekeeping Forces and Religion Coverage in Public High School Newspapers

Piotr Bobkowski

Rationale

Considerable scholarly attention in recent decades has focused on the treatment of religion-related topics by professional U.S. news organizations. Media scholar Stewart Hoover has argued that because “the world of religion seems complex and unexplainable, it is the role of the professional journalist to attempt to demystify and explain it.”1 Some journalists and scholars have suggested that religion coverage in professional press is emerging from what was once referred to as the “news ghetto.”2 Others continue to bemoan journalists’ inadequate and superficial treatment of religion in the mainstream media.3

Despite these efforts to address religion coverage in professional media, no comparable endeavors have investigated the state of religion representations in student media. The present study aims to start bridging this gap. Two reasons motivate this effort. First, there appears to be a discrepancy between the level of coverage of religion in public high school newspapers and its importance among high school students. Secondly, evidence suggests that some student journalists and their advisers may shy away from including religion coverage in their media, based on incomplete or incorrect understanding of the issues involved. Theologian Stephen Webb has written that educators have been “nervous about introducing any religious material into the classroom,”4 ever since the Supreme Court’s 1963 Abington School District v. Schempp decision, which prohibited mandatory Bible readings and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Charles Haynes and Oliver Thomas have referred to the model that pervades U.S. public schools, with respect to religion, as “naked public school.”5 Public educators in the U.S. apply a narrow interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to exclude religion from the schools, which results in curricula that are largely void of education about religion.6 Warren Nord and Charles Haynes have argued that the public school curriculum “does inhibit religion by marginalizing religion in our intellectual and cultural life, (implicitly) conveying the sense that religion is irrelevant in the search for truth in the various domains of the curriculum.”7 Against the backdrop of the naked school model that dominates public education in the U.S., student journalists can serve an important role in filling the religious knowledge gap that grips today’s teens. As they go about explaining the events of the world to their readers, journalists are some of the most influential teachers in today’s media-saturated world. Student journalists are in a unique position to teach their peers about the religious differences and similarities that make up their school’s universe.

The goal of the present study is to investigate the level of religion coverage in public high school newspapers in the U.S., and to analyze factors that might be associated with coverage levels. Pragmatically, this study’s results may shed light on the discrepancy between the importance of religion to high school students and the coverage of religion in high school newspapers. Additionally, results may aid designing curricular guidelines and objectives through which student journalists and their advisers might be able to address the obstacles entailed in covering religion in public high school media.

Literature review

Religion and Young People

A considerable proportion of high school students report holding religious convictions and regularly participating in religious services. Results of a national telephone survey of 13- to 17-year-olds indicated that 84% of teenagers believe in God, 84% are affiliated with a religious tradition, and 82% report that religious faith is at least somewhat important in shaping their daily lives.8 Ethnographic research has shown that even some teens who reject organized religion, identify themselves as being spiritual.9 Longitudinal data analysis has indicated that the importance of religion among high school students has been increasing since the late 1980s, and that their weekly attendance at religious services has remained steady since the mid-1980s.10

Religion and Public School Newspapers

Despite the reported significance of religion among teenagers, content analysis results indicate that religion plays an insignificant role in the makeup of high school newspapers. The Freedom Forum’s content analysis of 233 school publications found that only 10% of high school newspapers carried stories on religion or spirituality. Furthermore, religion/spirituality ranked 18th on a list of subjects covered by high school journalists (apart from school-related news, sports, and editorials), below coverage of such issues as racial prejudice/relations, drugs, AIDS/safe sex, sexual harassment, guns/violence, gay issues, and dating and morality.11 While religion is not entirely absent from the pages of high school newspapers, its lack appears to be inconsistent with the role that religion purportedly plays in teenagers’ lives.

Gatekeeping

Gatekeeping is a theoretical model used in media studies to illustrate and examine the selection processes involved in the gathering and production of media messages.12 It has been conceptualized to occur at five levels, each of which may serve as the focus of gatekeeping analysis. The levels are: individual, media routines, organizational, extramedia, and ideological. Researchers have used various combinations of these in structuring gatekeeping studies.13 The present project aims to examine gatekeeping forces at the individual and organizational levels.

While gatekeeping has not been explicitly applied to an analysis of high school media, several studies have shown that, at the individual level, the adviser assumes the role of a gatekeeper. Survey findings have shown that advisers see it as their duty to make editorial decisions concerning student newspaper content, read all copy prior to publication, and where necessary, correct factual and spelling errors.14 Research has also shown that an adviser’s personal characteristics—such as number of college journalism credit hours and years of advising experience—are associated with the levels of gatekeeping control that the adviser practices.15