I’ve long admired the work of Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a Christianity Today editor whose work online keeps me informed regarding current events around the world of interest to evangelicals. Today, Sarah joins me for a conversation about the media and religion.

Trevin Wax: Sarah, thanks for stopping by. Tell us a little about yourself.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey: During the day, I am online editor for Christianity Today, where I write and edit for the print and online magazine. I tend to focus on news, update our blogs and social media, and pursue book interviews, profiles, and features. On the side, I write 2-3 times a week for GetReligion.org, where we critique mainstream coverage of religion news. I also write a monthly column for the Indianapolis Star on culture and politics. I grew up in Indianapolis, went to Wheaton College, and now I live in Green Bay where my husband works for the newspaper. Needless to say, my day is filled with journalism, especially of the religion variety. On the side, I attempt to cook and enjoy a good board game with friends.

Trevin Wax: Let’s start with your work on GetReligion, which has recently become one of my favorite blogs. The tagline for that site is “the press just doesn’t get religion…” Why do you think this is the case? What are the main blind spots that the press has when it comes to religion reporting?

Sarah Pulliam Bailey: Reporters work really well with concrete data, numbers that prove some thesis or trend. It’s difficult to capture religion because you can’t always quantify it. Journalists don’t always know what to do when someone says they did something because “it was God’s will” or “God called me to do this.” We’re told to capture who, what, where, when, why, and how questions, but reporters often gloss over the “why” question. Why would people give away money, why would people volunteer their time, why would they hold certain beliefs about politics, money, sex, family, entertainment, etc. Sometimes reporters just miss one of the key factors in a story.

We often stumble across interesting stories that miss an underlying religion angle, what we call a ghost. Sometimes it might be skepticism (such as in sports writing) or sometimes it’s ignorance. A 2007 Pew report suggested that 8 percent of journalists say they attend a church or synagogue weekly and 29 percent of them never attend services. You do not have to be religious to report on religion or find religion angles, but your personal experience might impact how important you think religion could be in a story. Then we often see stories that just miss the mark, such as calling Jim Wallis a face of the religious right. Even for those data-driven reporters, there are several sociology, political science, history, etc. scholars offering research or “expert advice” on recent trends to keep reports accurate.

Trevin Wax: I wonder how detrimental this oversight is to reporting on other issues. I’m often amazed at how the Middle East conflicts are so often conceived of in purely secular terms, as if religion is not a key factor in the battles raging in other parts of the world. Stephen Prothero has pointed this out in God is Not One. Many Americans tend to think that religion is relegated to the realm of speculation and private spirituality, and many journalists appear to follow that pattern in how they report on news stories in other parts of the world. Do you think “not getting religion” hinders our ability to understand some of the world’s great conflicts?

Sarah Pulliam Bailey: Yes, I think your point is key: journalists often look at international events through a political or economic lens. I’m amazed at how many events are seen through election coverage (“Libya a political challenge for Obama“) and not through other factors, such as religion. For instance, the local response to the Japan earthquake is likely very different from the Haiti earthquake, just based on the religiosity of the people impacted. Even if a story has foreign policy implications, some reporters underestimate the impact religion plays in another country’s leadership. Most religion reporters are locally or nationally focused, so we don’t see much international religion coverage from those who are on the religion beat. Newsrooms have time, budget, and manpower constraints, and a story on Justin Bieber’s haircut will probably see many more hits than an angle on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. However, Reuters’ FaithWorld blog is one mainstream outlet that does a nice job at finding the international religion angles.

Trevin Wax: Occasionally, the media does pick up on a religion story, but it’s usually about something sensational. So you get media outlets camped out in the yard of a tiny church where Terry Jones plans to burn a Koran, or they take out of context the pope’s quote about Christian names and make it out that he is condemning other kinds of names. Is there an anti-Christian bent that causes media outlets to jump on stories like this? Or is it a desire to be first in reporting the most sensationalist news out there?

Sarah Pulliam Bailey: Pew recently released its annual report that includes the state of religion coverage. Last year it doubled–to just 2 percent of overall coverage. Of course, these are stories that are particularly focused on religion, as opposed to a story that might have an underlying religious angles (Haiti earthquake, for instance). The top five were the Park 51 controversy, the Catholic abuse scandal, Terry Jones, religion and the Obama administration, and Sept. 11. It’s interesting to see a few items like Park 51 covered so heavily and then dropped almost completely.

I don’t necessarily see evidence of an anti-Christian bent from most reporters, but there are probably elements that contribute to why they cover Christianity a certain way. For instance, the Terry Jones story was partly fueled by statements from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (again, that political filter). Or Pope Benedict XVI statements are often poorly translated due to language and distance constraints or theological and historical misunderstandings. Plus, there aren’t always obvious leadership structures. For instance, Protestants don’t have someone like Pope Benedict XVI to determine when something is significant, so the diversity can be confusing.

Occasionally, we’ll see an agenda-driven reporter or someone who just doesn’t understand Christianity or religion broadly, but it depends on the outlet. There probably is some pressure to jump on something before the next reporter, and it might get messy if the outlet doesn’t have a religion reporter or editor on staff who is at least guiding the coverage. When you see a quick blog post or tweet take off, it’s hard not to want to follow-up with more full-blown coverage, even if it might not be the most important story to cover.

Trevin Wax: A lot of attention in the blogosphere in recent weeks has gone to Rob Bell’s Love Wins and the controversy surrounding the semi-universalist beliefs put forth there. Martin Bashir of MSNBC interviewed Rob in a rather confrontational manner, and his interview raised some bigger questions about how journalists treat pastors and religious figures. Some folks have complained that left-leaning religious leaders are given softballs, whereas traditional Catholic or conservative evangelical leaders are asked tough questions, framed in a no-win situation for the leader. How do the assumptions of a television host influence the way interviews are done with religious leaders?

Sarah Pulliam Bailey: You’re right that Martin Bashir was pretty confrontational in his interview with Rob Bell, and we’ve had some discussion about whether it was appropriate. On one hand, it was refreshing to see someone challenge Bell after seeing some softball interviews but on the other, he was pretty pushy in such a short interview.

Part of a journalist’s challenge is to figure out what’s new, so if conservative leaders reiterate what’s been said for thousands of years, the reporter might feel the need to come up with more provocative questions to break new ground. If a more left-leaning religious leader says something provocative to begin with, the reporter might just feel like throwing softballs will make it a spicy interview anyway. There’s an underlying journalistic challenge that might shape the way reporters do interviews.

It’s clear that Bashir has some theological background that informed the way he conducted the interview. He asked the kinds of questions that someone without religious background would probably not know to ask. Some might argue that the questions risk going over the head of most MSNBC viewers, so it’s better to have someone who is less theologically literate. But regardless of Bashir’s approach, the kinds of questions assume a more intelligent audience that raises the interview past the surface level. Someone with a religious background might be more attuned to the theological issues, but any journalist can become more literate in these areas.

Trevin Wax: Sarah, thank you for the good discussion on the media and religion. And keep up the good work in your writing and reporting!