Reporter: negative stereotypes on religion plague journalism

Sarah Bailey talks about reporting on religion in the Armstrong Browning building. Constance Atton l Lariat Photographer
Sarah Bailey talks about reporting on religion in the Armstrong Browning building.
Constance Atton l Lariat Photographer
By Brittney Horner

Some people think American media has a secular swing, often putting religion in a negative light. Religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey explained why that is and how Christians can combat the negative stereotype.

Bailey, a national correspondent for Religion News Service and previous online editor for Christianity Today, discussed the state of religion reporting, the impact of digital media and social networking in religious journalism and how Christians can find a place in prominent news outlets.

Bailey spoke Wednesday afternoon in Armstrong Browning Library to about 40 students, faculty and professionals.

The talk was hosted by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, which seeks to initiate, support and conduct research on religion.

Bailey said one of the major issues plaguing religious journalism is the negative stereotypes surrounding religion.

“In general, religion does good for society, and what tends to be newsworthy is negative,” she said. “Journalists tend to pick up on the controversy. We expect Christians to give to charity. We do not expect a Catholic sex scandal. That’s what makes the news.”

One way Bailey said the media can more accurately portray religions is to assign religion beats.

She said general assignments reporters should not write stories on religion.

“Writers have to think through religious stories with a religious lens,” she said. “It is better if a person is dedicated to the subject and really gets the background.”

Bailey said her faith does not make her reporting biased.

In fact, it helps her be more compassionate in telling other people’s stories.

“I am doing others a service,” she said.

Dr. Thomas Kidd, professor of history, and Dr. Byron Johnson, the director of the Institute for Studies of Religion, asked Bailey how to make complex religious issues more accessible and digestible to the public. Specifically, they wanted to know how to better use social media.

Bailey said the challenges of using social media to share religious stories are due to the demand for speedy reporting.

“We are so pressed for time now,” she said, snapping her fingers a few times. “I think in tweets now.”

She said one Friday night, she had dinner plans with her husband, but she read a tweet from the Azuza Pacific college newspaper about a transgender professor who was asked to leave.

She did not want the college newspaper to beat her to the story.

“I canceled my plans, made phone calls and published the story before them,” she said. “I would have just enjoyed my weekend, but social media is a motivator.”

She talked about how social media makes it so journalists are constantly updating and finding creative ways for people to share information. The New York Times, she said, highlights phrases that can go straight to Twitter if clicked.

“The New York Times is picking things for you to tweet,” she said.
Another way she said to fight the stereotype is by not endorsing media that portrays religion negatively.
Bailey said some evangelicals in the media exacerbate the bad religious stereotypes.
Wills Point freshman Rachel Stewart, who was in attendance, said Christian journalists have a disadvantage in the industry.
“The media is often so concerned with being politically correct,” she said. “It is difficult to discuss religion.”
Although Bailey outlined many challenges to religious news, she also provided a simple solution to the debate between the secular and the religious.
“A lot of the controversy I see is people who are not face to face,” she said. “It’s less about the issue and more about learning how to get along and have a thoughtful discussion.”
Bailey has had her work published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CNN and the Chicago Sun-Times.
She has won various awards, including first place in the Magazine Religion Story Layout and Design in 2012 from the Religion Newswriters Association.
Bailey attended Wheaton College, where she wrote for the student newspaper.