Journalism as a picture of exceptions

Mollie Hemingway, in the context of a post on how the media completely ignored a huge evangelical youth gathering, quotes the great G. K. Chesterton on the nature of journalism:

“It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority. [from The Ball and the Cross]

via Got news? The hidden mystery of 60K Christians.

This isn’t a criticism. Journalism has to be that way. But it follows that we shouldn’t let journalism get us down.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • tODD

    Hmm. Given the people saying these things, I’m not entirely convinced that “this isn’t a criticism”.

    But still, I think Mollie gets at the point here when she said:

    Journalism doesn’t paint anything close to an accurate picture of our modern existence but much obligation is with the reader/viewer to understand why that is.

    In other words, anyone who thinks that news (hello, news) should be an accurate picture of an average person’s experience … hasn’t exactly understood the point of what the news is, has he?

    Imagine that you just saw a friend you haven’t seen in months. You ask him (as people often do), “What’s new?” And then you get confused why his answer didn’t once include the fact that he’s breathing, he sleeps for several hours every day, and so on.

    Also, it’s worth noting that even Mollie didn’t claim that the media “completely ignored” the gathering. I mean, it was covered by the major newspaper for the city where the event happened and the local NBC affiliate, as well as a few other, mainly religion-focused, outlets.

    But I guess I’m not sure to what degree I think this particular gathering should’ve been covered by media outside the local market where it occurred. It is, after all, a recurring event. That mitigates its newsworthiness, unless a particular instance produces something controversial that stands out from the other instances.

  • SKPeterson

    I heard about Passion2013 from the perspective of the “confessional Protestant” (i.e., mostly Lutheran) critics of some of the conference speakers and their somewhat questionable theology. Though, it seemed the critique might have been regarding the lack of theology or doctrine, or much mention of that Jesus guy, except that he might be somewhere inside some people’s hearts. Doing what? Heaven knows.

    Anyhow, the greatest newsworthy tie-in is that the conference was organized by the latest martyr of the evangelical community, Louie Giglio, who was disinvited without really being disinvited from giving the blessing at the, yawn, inaugural snoozefest. Holy persecution of the saints, Batman!

  • sg

    Funny, you should write on this. As I entered the patheos site, I noticed that the pictures that change every few seconds each dealt with a blog entry on a topic of some fringe or marginal interest. Real man bites dog stuff. I scrolled down and dug through a blog to find a very interesting entry of broad interest. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2012/08/damage-control-made-impossible-craig-blomberg-reviews-christian-smith-guest-post/

    It reminds me of the kinds of discussions/rants by some biblicists we have engaged here then and again.

    Smith’s central contention is that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” renders moot evangelical presumptions of the nature and authority of Scripture. Smith means that since the Bible clearly “teaches very different things about the most significant subjects,” and since highly competent biblical interpreters come to very different conclusions about the same texts, evangelical assertions about the Bible’s inerrant authority ring hollow (pp. x-xi).
    One of Smith’s most important claims, as I read it, is that in much the same way that biblicism was at the heart of the fundamentalist approach to faith, it has also come to define contemporary evangelicalism. If fundamentalism failed in large measure because biblicism became the main theme of their obscurantist, fundamentalist self-understanding of Christianity, evangelicalism has also condemned itself to failure because it too constructs its identity around more or less the same forms of biblicism, which, in Smith’s analysis, makes the Bible “impossible.”

  • fjsteve

    In the research field, this is called the filing cabinet syndrome. Unpublished literature that, purposefully or otherwise, gets lost in the filing cabinet can skew the perception of the published literature by making something appear more or less common that it actually is. But that’s why meta analysis, properly done, collates the data from studies—not news reports about studies. The news media outlets report on what they think will increase circulation or, less often, what they think may be beneficial public knowledge. However, that’s not to lay blame on the news media. The same can be said of social media, which in some cases is completely consumer driven. Review sites, for example, tend to skew negative because people are not only more likely to report negative experiences over positive experiences, they are more likely to read the negative reports.

  • Carl Vehse

    In his “On War Against the Turk” Luther observed: “But as the pope is Antichrist, so the Turk is the very devil. The prayer of Christendom is against both. Both shall go down to hell, even though it may take the Last Day to send them there; and I hope it will not be long.”

    Today Luther would probably include leftwing mainstream media “journalists.” And I wouldn’t disagree, although I would also include the Traitorobama regime and the Demonicrat Party.


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