It is the same office with the exception of some minor changes, but President Obama’s faith-based initiative has received far less media coverage in the first six months of his administration compared to the initiative under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Under Bush, the faith-based initiative received nearly seven times as much coverage in the first six months of 2001 as it did during the same period in 2009.
A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found there were 281 stories from January-June 2001 on the faith-based initiative in eight major national and regional newspapers. By comparison, there were 50 stories on Obama’s faith-based initiative from January-June 2009.
The difference in the amount of coverage is due to several reasons including the newness of the program under Bush and the very different situation of the United States in 2001 compared to 2009.
In 2001, evangelical president Bush created this new faith-based initiative within the first 100 days of his administration. Not only were secular opponents wary of the new plan to give government funds to faith-based groups, but surprisingly, evangelical leaders also voiced concern about the idea.
Much news coverage was devoted to the debate on separation of church and state, and on the Christian leaders who feared that receiving tax dollars would force them to compromise their mission of sharing the Gospel.
But eight years later, the discussion on separation of church and state regarding the faith-based initiative has mostly played out. But another issue was reignited under the Obama administration – hiring policies by faith-based organizations that receive federal funds. Some media coverage was given to this issue on whether faith-based organizations receiving tax dollars could hire employees based on their religion.
However, coverage on the issue fizzled out after the White House said it would work with the White House legal counsel and the Department of Justice to make decisions on faith-based hiring position on a case-to-case basis. Critics, however, complained that the administration failed to directly address the problem and give a clear answer.
In addition to the comfort level of Americans with the faith-based initiative, eight years later, the political and economic climate of the country also drastically changed, resulting in differences in media coverage.
During the beginning of the Bush administration, the economic and national climates were, in general, rosy. By comparison, Obama inherited a country that was in the midst of an economic recession and involved in two simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“There were fewer major issues competing for public and media attention” when Bush introduced the faith-based initiative in 2001, Pew Forum noted.
With Congress and America preoccupied with the economy, wars, and a contentious health care overhaul, concerns about the faith-based initiative have been “pushed…off the radar,” the report stated.
Pew Forum also noted another media coverage difference – news on Bush’s faith-based initiative would more often land on the front page than stories of the program under the Obama administration.
“Overall, Bush has been more closely linked to the initiative than Obama,” the report stated. “While both men were mentioned frequently in news report from their respective first months in office, Bush also was referenced in nearly two-thirds of the stories analyzed from the beginning of Obama’s term.”
Yet a similarity both presidents share regarding the faith-based initiative is that most of the press coverage on the program occurred in the first month or two of their term.
The Pew Forum analysis is based on articles published in national and local newspaper with the largest circulation according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The newspapers used in the analysis were the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post.
Those who conducted the analysis used keyword searches using Boolean search logic in the Nexis database. They searched for 2001 coverage using the terms “White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives” OR “faith-based initiative.” For the 2009 coverage, the terms used were “White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” OR “faith-based initiative.”
In total, the search terms produced 331 stories that in some way addressed the faith-based initiative.