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Tables turned: Our Sarah on 'ghosts'

When it comes to the day jobs held by your GetReligionistas, Sarah Pulliam Bailey is the team member who is probably in the most interesting, or even delicate, position. One reason that she writes for us less than I would would wish, to state it bluntly, is that she already has a prime slot in the religion blogosphere through her work over in the wider Christianity Today online empire.

This is one reason that she doesn't do many posts about topics about events in the evangelical world. She always has to ask a valid question, in the eyes of her CT editors: Is this a news story for the magazine or a blog critique for GetReligion (or a CT blog, now that I think about it). We're just glad to have her time when she can spare it.

One of the duties that Sarah has latched on to, here at GetReligion, is our occasional 5Q+1 feature. For newcomers, the 5Q+1 feature in a slot in which we sent a series of standard religion-news questions to someone in the news business who either works the religion beat or, and we love these, journalists and editors on other subjects who have excelled at covering news in which they have a chance to spot the religion "ghost" in stories on other beats. We then print interactive versions of their answers.

So here is a twist. A website has just interviewed Sarah Pulliam Bailey and asked her some interesting questions, including a question about this website and its goals. I thought GetReligion readers would enjoy reading what she had to say when placed on the other side of the notebook. Here is a logical slice from that:

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. ...

And so forth and so on. Read it all.

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