Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Fact-checking the faithful

Sarah Pulliam Bailey with a peacock — via Facebook

Faithful.

It’s an apt description of Sarah Pulliam Bailey, religion reporter and editor of Acts of Faith at The Washington Post.

The 29-year-old Indiana native also keeps her promises — even when time is tight and her own deadlines demand attention. Case in point: this interview.

Long before she was editing a section of the Post, Bailey ran Wheaton College’s campus newspaper. She has since worked her way up through bigger outlets, but still values those humble beginnings enough to exchange more than twenty emails with a student journalist over a week of breaking news.

After graduating from university in 2008, Bailey was left staring down two paths. Cover the 2008 presidential election for Christianity Today or the Home & Garden beat for the Columbus Dispatch. “I can’t clean to save my life and my thumb has no green in it,” she said of her home and garden skills in our email interview. Bailey took the offer from CT because she realized that religion allowed her to cover a little bit of everything.

It also allowed her to interview Barack Obama.

But she’s still a rarity in American newsrooms for her beat; when’s the last time you clicked on the Religion section of a newspaper? By Bailey’s reckoning The Post is blessed with an abundance of dedicated religion reporters, having not one, but two. The New York Times has one, and most others an impressive count of none. This despite the United States being the most religious developed country in the world.

In fact, one hardly has to get below the month’s big headlines to see the steep faith angle of stories such as the Charleston church shooting, and Pope Francis’ encyclical addressing climate change.

So why don’t we see more religion reporting? Bailey says it’s probably because most journalists just aren’t particularly interested in religion, even in their personal lives, citing an AP story and 2008 poll that found only 8% of journalists attend a religious service weekly, compared to 39% for the general population.

Bailey reported on a sharp decline of the religion beat in local newspapers for CT but thinks that there’s plenty room for religion on the web. She says the beat often gets covered online by less specialized reporters, which is never optimal because “someone will hop on the latest Pope Francis comment, but they won’t be able to include context.”

photo credit: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk via cc

There’s plenty of work to be done in order to get good religion reporting to the public, given the reaction Bailey gets when telling fellow journalists what she covers, “I might as well be covering kittens and puppies.”

That’s not the only challenge to reporting on religion well, “A lot of journalists think religion is only important when the pope says something,” Bailey says, and a quick look at major news outlets shows that a sensational scandal or political soundbite would be the other criteria for the average religion story.

Bailey says the media is missing something when they narrow their coverage of religion, “they forget that many, many Americans are entirely driven by their faith in every way, not just once every four years at the ballot box.”

It’s no secret that Bailey, a graduate of a christian college and founder of CT’s popular women’s section Her.meneutics, covers her beat as a person of faith, but she doesn’t talk about it much. “I want people to feel comfortable that no matter where I’m coming from, their faith will be represented as best as I am journalistically able to portray.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t pitfalls to avoid, especially when covering her own faith. She says journalists in the religious press can be tempted to fall into pragmatism, picking and choosing what to cover to make their faith look good. “That isn’t really telling the truth,” she says.

“My goal is to tell the truth as best I see it, whether it ‘helps’ or ‘hurts’ someone’s faith tradition or not.” This would include reporting on the failings of leaders in the Christian community, like the recent marital affair of Tertullian Tchividjian (Billy Graham’s grandson), and publishing a powerful story of a Sikh man’s decision to forgive his father’s killer.

Uncovering the truth and deciding which stories to tell is a struggle all journalists share regardless of their beat, “I’m always trying to figure that out,” she says.

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