Is the Mainstream Media Biased Against Catholic Supreme Court Justices?

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Since the Supreme Court’s draft opinion that could overturn Roe vs. Wade leaked, various observers commented on the religious affiliations of the judges. Six judges are of Catholic descent, including the three appointed by former President Donald Trump.

Those comments echoed discussions during the fall 2020 confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Catholic with strong religious ties. At that time, some abortion rights advocates and Democrats warned of the potential use of religious dogma in judicial decision-making — and in particular abortion doctrine. Republican leaders and conservative news outlets have argued that raising such concerns constitutes religious persecution. Some have argued that the liberal media is using religion against Barrett.

Is this last statement true? Does the liberal media negatively represent the religions of judges?

To find out, we analyzed media reports from liberal and conservative outlets during Barrett’s hearings. Barrett had said Roe vs. Wade was a precedent, but in the leaked draft opinion, she was on track to join the majority overturning the landmark decision. We found that liberal media were actually less likely to mention Barrett’s religion than conservative media. Conservative media were also more likely to link his religion to his stance on deer.

We analyzed media elements from four popular news sources, two liberal and two conservative, as assessed by AllSides’ Media Bias Chart: MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Fox News. To ensure this material relates to Barrett’s nomination, we limited our search to material or segments produced or published from September 26, 2020, when Trump nominated Barrett, to October 26, 2020, when Barrett was sworn in as a judge. of the Supreme Court. We included all items (newspaper articles and TV show transcripts) that mentioned his name in the original search, resulting in 1,049 segments or articles. We then randomly selected 500 of them for final analysis, selecting items in proportion to the total number of relevant items we found in each source. We ended up with 228 New York Times articles, 73 MSNBC transcripts, 72 Wall Street Journal articles, and 127 Fox News transcripts. The majority of newspaper articles were byline, but we also included editorials. The transcripts came from various TV shows.

Evangelicals opposed abortion long before their leaders caught up with them

Conservative media mentioned Barrett’s religion far more than liberal media

If Barrett’s media coverage has been biased against her religion, then we should see the media talking a lot about her religion. We hand-coded the percentage of stories and transcripts from each of our sample media stories that mentioned Barrett’s religion in any way.

We found that liberal media were almost a third less likely to mention Barrett’s religion than conservative media. MSNBC, our most liberal media source, mentioned Barrett’s religion in less than 10% of its coverage, while Fox News, its conservative counterpart, mentioned it in more than 30% of its Barrett segments. Liberal media were also much less likely to mention Barrett’s membership in People of Praise, a conservative Catholic group.

We found no overtly negative mention of Barrett’s religion.

We also documented the tone of media coverage, i.e. whether any outlet spoke about Barrett’s religion in a negative or positive way. To do this, we checked articles and transcripts that mentioned his religion to see if the source supported his nomination and if his religion was mentioned as a disability or in support of his nomination. Of course, our results should be viewed with caution, as it is not always straightforward to determine whether a statement is overall positive or negative.

However, we did not find a single source in our sample — whether in the liberal or conservative media — who had a negative view of Barrett’s nomination or his religion. On the Liberal side, coverage took on a neutral tone, while a handful of items were positive. On the Conservative side, a strong majority was positive.

Certainly, Barrett’s religion, his position on deer and the connection between the two has been widely covered in other media that we have not analyzed, such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. But the narrative pushed by the conservative media is completely out of proportion to the extent of the actual coverage – our systematic analysis reveals this discrepancy in great detail.

We checked whether the context suggested that Barrett’s religion was an asset or a liability

Bias can also appear in the topics the media chooses to cover. For example, did the context of the article implicitly suggest that Barrett’s religion would influence his decision on Roe vs. Wade, in a way that suggested either prejudice for her or against her religious beliefs? To verify this, we investigated whether the media articles tried to link Barrett’s religion and his position on deer mentioning both things in the news article or segment, assuming that if the liberal media did, they were biased against his religion, and if the conservative media did, they were biased against his favor.

Only about 7% of liberal media articles or transcripts mentioned deer and religion in the same article. We found that liberal media were much more likely to mention deer not to mention Barrett’s religion. In contrast, conservative media articles were much more likely to mention his religion while also mentioning deer – suggesting that the conservative media were trying to signal to their readers or viewers that Barrett’s stance on deer would agree with his conservative religious beliefs.

Our research finds almost no evidence to support the allegation of religious bias against Barrett in media coverage. Instead, conservative media are using the religious threat as a preemptive narrative in their own coverage of religion and the Supreme Court. The danger is that even those who don’t consume conservative media buy into the narrative that liberal media attacks his religion. This creates an imaginary attack on religious freedom, but a very real reaction that further entrenches religious divisions.

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Hailey Woman is pursuing his Masters in Government at Georgetown University.

Marc Brockway is a faculty member of political science and religion at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

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