How Wheaton alumni are paving the way toward responsible journalism in a polarized society
Words: Bethany Peterson ’20
Photos: Eskay Lim / Getty Images
Earlier this year, Ruth Graham ’02 traveled over 1,000 miles from her home in New Hampshire to a small town in Georgia to see a Bible in a Tupperware container. At the heart of a charismatic Christian community, a man claimed to have witnessed an ongoing miracle from God—his Bible overflowing with oil.
Graham, now a national religion correspondent for The New York Times, had been sent by Slate to the community’s Tuesday morning worship service attended by hundreds of people to write up a story about the man, the miracle, and the question that’s impossible not to ask: Was it true? Later, she recalled people praying, crying, speaking in tongues, singing, and dancing. Graham, who does not come from a charismatic background, found herself moved by the sight.
Although credible accusations soon came to light that the man purchased an excessive amount of oil from a nearby Tractor Supply store, Graham reflected, “I get it. I get why a person would be drawn to this and why it’s encouraging and hopeful to believe this way.” She hopes that the story she wrote about the experience, “The Bible That Oozed Oil,” captured as much a sense of faith as it did doubt.
I came to the conclusion that the job of the journalist was to pursue truth.
Around the same time as Graham was traveling cross-country, Lee Powell ’98 was covering the chaotic aftermath of the Iowa Caucus in February, at the start of what would be almost six months on the campaign trail, lugging heavy equipment into every plane, rental car, and hotel along the way. As a video reporter for The Washington Post, Powell covers almost every subject in any location. He then takes his footage back to the D.C. newsroom to do his own writing, producing, and editing.
“[News] doesn’t take breaks and it doesn’t go to sleep at night,” he said. “If it didn’t happen or take place in front of my camera while I’m rolling, it may not have happened at all.”
Meanwhile, in New York City, Whitney Bauck ’15 was considering whether a fashion show could ever be environmentally justifiable. In the midst of fashion month, Bauck, a senior sustainability reporter for Fashionista, wrote an article highlighting the ethical dilemma for influential global companies between the financial and cultural benefits of hosting these events and the potential negative impacts of carbon emissions from international flights and resources required for runway show construction.
It is no secret that journalists face a unique crisis in the 21st century. From the stress of rising polarization in U.S. society to the technological revolution that introduced social media as a major source of immediate and expressive information, the future, purpose, and ethics of journalism have come into question over and over again—with some even going so far as to proclaim that the age of the professional journalist has ended entirely.
But if this is true, Graham, Powell, and Bauck haven’t gotten the memo. They embody the tug-of-war between a newfound need to process an incessant influx of information and a marked thoughtfulness about deeper issues.
In the New Yorker article “Does Journalism Have a Future?” Harvard history professor Jill Lepore remarks, “There’s no shortage of amazing journalists at work, clear-eyed and courageous, broad-minded and brilliant, and no end of fascinating innovation in matters of form.” She concludes, “Still, journalism, as a field, is as addled as an addict, gaunt, wasted, and twitchy, its pockets as empty as its nights are sleepless. It’s faster than it used to be, so fast. It’s also edgier, and needier, and angrier. It wants and it wants and it wants. But what does it need?”
Wheaton alumni in journalism seem particularly poised to answer this question. Although Wheaton has never had a journalism major—a journalism certificate was introduced in the communication department in 2011—the College has turned out an extensive list of influential voices in newsrooms across the globe.
Wheaton alumni currently hold top reporting, editing, and videography positions at organizations widely considered the best in the business, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press. Other alumni influence the journalism field at prestigious journalism schools around the country, serving as deans and professors, or conducting research as Ph.D. candidates.
Their positions, work, and attitudes are shaping the journalistic field and opening new paths toward responsible journalism even amid change and, at times, distrust.
Wes Pippert M.A. ’66 did not intend to get a degree from Wheaton. With a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa, Pippert started work at United Press International (UPI), a wire service, just a few days after graduation. When he transferred to the Chicago bureau after several years, he visited the Billy Graham Center one day to see if there were any available graduate courses in political science.
I think a lot of the people I interview and want to write about are very skeptical of the mainstream media...That has become even more challenging to me over the course of my career, even though I actually do think that mainstream media religion reporting, even specifically on evangelicals, has gotten a lot better.
When the front office secretary explained that the graduate school at Wheaton was primarily for biblical and theological studies, Pippert opted to take some Old Testament courses. Over the next few years, he managed to complete a master’s in Old Testament while working full time in the Loop with UPI, taking only one leave of absence to spend time in Israel where he eventually requested to transfer professionally. During his career, Pippert has written books and covered presidential campaigns, the Carter White House, Watergate, and the Lebanese war from Jerusalem.
Pippert credits his time at Wheaton with helping him develop his idea about the role of the journalist.
“I came to the conclusion that the job of the journalist was to pursue truth,” he said. “The definition I decided on was that truth was really the core of the story. When Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ what he was saying was ‘I am the core of the story.’” By the “core” of the story, Pippert means moving beyond just accurate reporting—though rigorous fact-checking is essential—to putting the facts in a context that draws a complete picture of events. For example, Pippert remembers reporting on a fatal car accident while he lived in Israel. It would have been accurate, he said, to say that one person died on that day, but after doing more research, the more truthful story was that there had been eight to ten car accidents at that very same intersection.
Similarly, Walter Ratliff M.A. ’94, an award-winning religion reporter at the Associated Press, considers John 8, where Jesus discusses his identity and source of authority with the Pharisees, the basis for his definition of journalistic truth. He said, “Getting at the truth of a story, regardless of party, religious group, or individual, is essential.”
Ratliff, who has won awards for his books and documentary films on religious movements, received an M.A. in Communication from Wheaton, as well as an M.A. in Islam & Muslim Christian Relations and an interdisciplinary doctorate in social religious movements from Georgetown. This experience informs his insistence that “everyone, regardless of their beliefs or political outlook, should expect fair and accurate coverage, and an appropriate professional distance between journalists and the groups they cover.”
However, in a digitally saturated society, this commitment to “distance” from an issue or a group can become challenging, especially as people involved in the story have the ability to directly share their personal experiences and opinions through the internet and social media. Audiences may increasingly feel that reading a Twitter thread from someone on the inside of an issue is preferable to a longer article from a professional journalist. While “citizen journalism,” when the general public shares and analyzes news typically through the internet, can add to one’s understanding, it can also be a biased, incomplete, or even inaccurate portrayal of a story.
Dr. Will Norton ’63, who recently retired as Dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi, believes we are facing a “world crisis” in media. He attributes this decline to the rise of cellphones and social media, where everyone has “their own printing press and television station and radio station,” but isn’t prepared for the difficulties of sorting fact from fiction and understanding a range of ideological perspectives. In addition, online sites looking to make a high profit without the same journalistic standards as traditional publications can easily gain viewers with sensational headlines and emotionally charged content without regard for fact-checking procedures and reporting ethics.
Jeremy Weber ’05 feels a pressure to compete with “clickbait” in the “raw numbers game” of analytics in his position at Christianity Today (CT). As CT’s award-winning former news editor and current global news director, Weber says, “we will get out-circulated by groups who don’t have our history or our level of quality and who I would argue haven’t been as careful with the facts or as neutral with the framing just because a lot of people aren’t looking for that.”
“There is this impulse that you want to follow suit,” he said. “If that’s what gets eyeballs and shares, then you want to lean toward, of the possible framings, the more aggressive one, or of the possible headlines, the more hyperbolic one.”
However, he says a journalist always has to ask, “Are you fulfilling the legacy and purpose of your publication and your own calling as a Christian?”
Overall, the “goal is always to be faithful to the story you uncovered and your commitment to truth and love of neighbor,” he said.
These two skills—the ability to contextualize facts in a way that uncovers a core truth and the commitment to be fair to those who are directly involved in or impacted by a certain story—are the key contributions from professional, responsible journalists who would be sorely missed if their roles were to disappear entirely.
Graham has reported on a variety of religious topics throughout her career and makes fairness a central concern of her reporting.
“I try to tell the truth but also in a way that lets readers make up their own minds,” she explained. “I think it’s possible to be very clear about the impact of certain beliefs, certain behaviors, certain movements—the impact of those kinds of things out in the world and on people’s lives—without mocking the real people who believe.”
She also expressed a viewpoint not often heard in modern discourse: that media coverage of evangelicals has actually gotten better, not worse, in recent years despite the increase in skepticism from many in evangelical circles.
“I think a lot of the people I interview and want to write about are very skeptical of the mainstream media. . . . That has become even more challenging to me over the course of my career, even though I actually do think that mainstream media religion reporting, even specifically on evangelicals, has gotten a lot better.”
Even within the realm of Wheaton alumni, Graham points out, there are highly influential reporters at major outlets reporting on religious topics, not least of which include her fellow alumnae Elizabeth Dias ’08 at The New York Times and Sarah Pulliam Bailey ’08 at The Washington Post. After graduating from Wheaton with a theology degree, Dias received a Master’s in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and went on to work at TIME Magazine before her current position covering faith and politics from the Washington bureau with The New York Times. Pulliam Bailey, now a full-time religion reporter for The Washington Post, has covered many influential stories and won several Religion Newswriters Association (RNA) awards throughout her career at outlets including CT and Religion News Service. She has interviewed major political figures including President Barack Obama, Marco Rubio, and Michele Bachmann.
One misconception for religion reporters is that they only cover their own faith or even pursue sources with a religious agenda to proselytize or persuade; Pulliam Bailey actually covers a much larger spectrum than just evangelical issues. Although she does not always report specifically on evangelicals, she explained that since this group makes up a quarter of the voting electorate, there is a lot of interest in them in the media, especially during an election season like this year.
Because she interacts with a large variety of religious people with unique backgrounds and beliefs, Pulliam Bailey feels that applying the “golden rule” is the best guidance for fair reporting in her work. While many people would interpret the golden rule to mean that they always receive positive coverage, Pulliam Bailey takes its meaning to a deeper and more substantive level.
“I want the truth,” she told me. “I want someone to write a piece about the good, the bad, and the ugly about how we’re living life. That’s how I approach . . . how to do truth-telling in a way that would be reflective of my own values and belief system as well.” To do so, Pulliam Bailey emphasizes understanding the core motivations at work in the people she writes about.
“There is a misconception that when you write about religion, it’s about institutions like the Catholic Church or religious figures like Pope Francis,” she said. “That’s important and we do cover that, but we’re really writing about how people live their lives—about motivations and how people think and why they live their lives a certain way,” she said.
Powell, who spends roughly 50 percent of his time traveling for stories, understands that respect for the people he interviews or writes about is an important aspect of his job as a journalist. He admits that this can be a “tough balancing act” in some cases. He explained, “You’re trying to be respectful of people, of their stories, of their time, of their situations, but you’re also needing to serve a much larger, wider audience that has needs of its own. So, in a way, you’re an intermediary—a message carrier, if you will—between those two groups.” Bauck similarly feels a responsibility to her audience to “dig for the truth.” She said, “I do ask really hard questions, and it’s not that I’m out to get anyone or make anyone look bad, but I also know when I’ve been lied to.”
She described one situation when a powerful person lied to her during a meeting. “In that case, I would say my job, my responsibility as a journalist, is to push back on that and to make sure I find out the truth because my readers are trusting me,” Bauck explained. She is committed to holding herself to high standards for fact-checking, even beyond what is typically expected of her. She feels her readers depend on her to be knowledgeable in her field and to only publish information she knows to be accurate, rather than simply repeating what different individuals have said.
Journalists, in their pursuit of truth, often have to have a deep knowledge of events, policies, or conversations without direct, personal involvement. Journalists have to have an unusual ability and responsibility to understand and communicate diverse perspectives across typically hard lines of division. It takes a certain kind of intensely curious person to take on this role well.
Allison Althoff Steinke ’11 is a current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota and former Wheaton magazine editor. She studies “solutions journalism,” a type of writing similar to investigative journalism that analyzes causes and possible solutions to social problems, specifically examining human trafficking reporting as her main passion. In investigating painful and complex issues, a willingness to challenge perspectives and sort through different viewpoints is essential.
“Truth is kind of like a prism since there are so many sides to every issue,” she said. “It’s our task and our obligation to try to inform people the best that we can. And so that also means getting uncomfortable sometimes and asking the tough questions and hearing tough answers in hopes that would be edifying for audiences and the public at large.”
For Steinke, this ability to ask hard questions came from her Wheaton education, where she felt her mentors and professors encouraged her to appreciate inquiry and accept unexpected answers. Later, she would apply these same techniques as the coordinator of the Journalism Certificate program at Wheaton.
Steinke, along with a majority of these Wheaton alumni, also had the opportunity to practice journalism as a student through her work at The Record, the student-run newspaper on campus. Pulliam Bailey, who was Editor-in-Chief of The Record her senior year, started dating her husband Jason Bailey ’07 while they were on staff together. He is also a journalist and currently works as a senior staff editor at The New York Times. Pulliam Bailey remembers her time working at the student paper as “one of the most stressful things I have done ever,” and says it was a “training ground” and a “micro example” of her work today. Powell was also an editor for The Record his senior year, and Graham worked as Kodon editor during her time at Wheaton.
Overall, these Wheaton alumni journalists recommend gaining hard skills in writing and reporting through school papers and outside internships for interested students; they also recommend getting a liberal arts degree.
Mark Coddington ’06, a journalism professor at Washington and Lee University, explained the rationale behind this advice.
“We [journalists] try to learn about and understand and communicate science and politics and philosophy and health and economics and everything,” he said. “It’s basically about trying to understand those things in context and communicate them in really thoughtful, engaging, and true ways to your audience.”
In fact, Coddington views journalism as the “applied liberal arts,” because “the realm we cover is just everything.” For him, this understanding began at Wheaton with the integration of faith and learning, which he applied as a self-professed “really bad” sports reporter and then a much better Managing Editor at The Record.
“That was what Wheaton gave me,” Coddington reflected, “a toolkit for understanding the world, which is what journalism is. It is trying to understand the world and communicate it in stories to people.”
That was what Wheaton gave me...a toolkit for understanding the world, which is what journalism is. It is trying to understand the world and communicate it in stories to people.
Pulliam Bailey similarly points out: “Journalism thrives really well in liberal arts education because we have to dive into so many topics, and having an education that integrated, that showed how the disciplines intertwined, was really important in how I think about things.” No story, Pulliam Bailey remarked, ever involves just one discipline. A liberal arts education reflects a complex world where stories are never easily classified into just one field of expertise.
So, as Lepore asked, “Does journalism have a future?” Throughout my college career, and in phone calls with alumni, I was subconsciously seeking the answer to Lepore’s question, as well as asking, “Is it still possible to do journalism well?” Like most challenging questions (clearly, Wheaties can credit their liberal arts education for their asking), there is no one satisfactory answer and no one individual who has it all figured out.
Through my quest, I discovered that the way journalists, especially those who consider themselves Christians, conceptualize their roles and responsibilities in a rapidly changing media environment—whether it be pursuing truth as the core of the story, mediating between the subjects of the story and the readers, investigating complex issues and asking hard questions, or all of the above—is more complex and insightful than I once thought. This, in itself, is certainly worth knowing.
Powell says he is often asked if he is discouraged or offended when sources refuse to talk to him or even, on some occasions, slam a door in his face. His answer is no. “Part of my job is to not get distracted by all the other noise that’s happening. Just keep your head down and do the work,” Powell said. “We’re not at war with anyone; we’re at work.” And Wheaton alumni, as always, are hard at work.