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Surveys and the reporters who love them

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(GetReligion) - Journalists tend to love survey research since it often confirms or rejects their suspicions about trends they more casually observe. But reading through data and spotting the significant trends can get tedious, or—worse—journalists can misunderstand the data.

Religion reporter Joshunda Sanders recently explained her concerns with reporting on religion research:

"As much as I enjoy polls and surveys, a recent Wall Street Journal article on the flaws of national news media reporting on surveys is a concern I’ve had that’s popped up again and again. In the absence of more people willing to talk openly about their faith, combined with the “halo effect” of self-reporting — when people report things because of what they think people want to hear versus what they actually do — the data seems to often come up shallow. At least, that’s what I usually think about it, as fascinating as I find data."

Bradley WrightSanders points out one of the many angles to consider when reporting on religion surveys, including points made in a recent Wall Street Journal column on how reporters tend to chase the negative trends in religion research. Baylor University’s Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson suggested that reporters often fall into the trap of not checking to see if survey results seem plausible.

So what’s a religion reporter to do? Ignore all the research? I hope not. I spoke about these questions with Brad Wright, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, who recently authored Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told (2010) and Upside: Surprising Good News about the State of Our World (2011). He also wrote a recent cover story for Christianity Today (where I work) on how Americans perceive evangelicals. In a twist on our usual 5Q+1 feature, I asked Wright to talk about how journalists can avoid the pitfalls of chasing viral studies.

What should journalists watch out for when they report on new religion surveys? What problems do you usually see?

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