Are j-profs losin’ their religion?

ManAngelThat man Jay Rosen, a veteran professor at New York University’s Department of Journalism, is at it again — digging into the religious structures beneath the cathedrals of journalism.

A long, long time ago, a Sojourners essay took a stab at describing the links between religion and journalism, saying that journalists turn over the rock to reveal the dirt and ministers shovel off the dirt to reveal the rock. This is the same territory that Rosen covered in one of those essays that I hope every GetReligion reader has read — “Journalism Is Itself a Religion.” Note that this link takes you to the The Revealer, where it is stored as one of that blog’s statements of core doctrine.

If you want an update on some of those themes, check out Rosen’s “Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion,” which dissects the role that the Watergate Myth played in the idealism of a whole generation of journalism leaders. Here’s the readout from the top of that essay: “Watergate is the great redemptive story believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. Whether the story can continue to claim enough believers — and connect the humble to the heroic in journalism — is a big question. Whether it should is another question.”

Now, if any of that interests you, you are ready for the Rosen report from the recent AEJMC convention in San Antonia (tmatt asks: Great summer climate. Was hell booked up?) where some veteran journalism professors had a chance to testify — in the Bible Belt sense of that word — during a panel discussion called “Things I Used to Teach That I No Longer Believe.” It seems that the old-time religion just isn’t converting a new generation. As a journalism professor myself, I feel their pain.

It’s impossible to miss the faith language in the San Antonio remarks. Here is a clip or two from Rosen’s report:

First up was Carl Sessions Stepp, a contributing writer to American Journalism Review, a former national correspondent and editor for the Charlotte Observer and USA Today, and a professor at the University of Maryland’s J-School. He said that most of what he believed when he began teaching in 1983 he still believed, with one big exception.

Then he would have said that nearly all journalists employed in the field were people “on a mission.” They saw their work as a noble public service, and shared a sense of duty that helped them define what the service was amid a hectic news environment. Students quickly picked up on this creed, and newsoom culture supported it.

That was then. Now, he said, the sense of mission is not the same. He didn’t say it was gone; plenty of journalists still heard the call. And young people still showed up in his classes ready to believe. But changes in the news business and “workplace culture” have turned the mission into a fairy tale much of the time. There is no universal sense of calling any more, Stepp declared. Journalism as a whole isn’t “on a mission,” but journalists as individuals still can be.

The obvious question: What is the nature of this secular “calling”? As a Christian who works in mainstream journalism, I have always struggled with that word for the simple reason that many people hear it and link it directly to the work of ordained ministers. The traditional Christian doctrine, however, is that people are called to a wide variety of professions and God does not rank them — from rock & roll guitarists to airplane pilots, from (gulp) lawyers to painters. In that sense, one can be “called” to be a journalist, working in this industry to the best of one’s ability and following the rules of the craft.

Rosen argues that many journalists are actually semi-ordained evangelists in a church of journalism. They are on a mission from the gods and the gods have names such as Woodward and Bernstein, who produced The Good Book that inspired young believers to make personal professions of faith and walk the true path.

So what does it mean if young people don’t want to do “mission” work in modern newsrooms? What is the modern j-student seeking?

Back to Rosen’s report:

Next was Dianne Lynch, dean of the School of Communications at Ithaca College, a journalist, and former executive director of the Online News Association. She told us a startling story about an exceptional student who gave up a four-year scholarship worth over $200,000, including tuition, room and board, even travel money. The student came to the dean’s office to let Lynch know that she was quitting journalism and switching to sociology. “I decided that I just can’t be in such a terrible profession,” the student said, adding that it did not seem to her a field where a young person could “make a difference.”

There was a slight gasp in the room at that. This was because the phrase used, “make a difference,” though tedious and vague, was once the very thing that identified to journalists their own idealism. You didn’t do it for the money, and it wasn’t the wonderful working conditions, or a chance for advancement. For a certain generation (whose mortality was lurking about the panel, way under the laughs) journalism, at its best, was all about “making a difference.” Speaking truth to power, and all that.

And so forth and so on, world without end. Amen.

So do modern j-students want to preach, as in pour out their beliefs in secular sermons in openly partisan publications? Are we facing the rise of the new, New Journalists? Is the goal to do unto the bloggers what the bloggers want to do unto you?

These are interesting times and Rosen is must reading, no matter what church you have joined.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jay Rosen

    Hey, thank you so much. I really appreciate that you get what I’m writing about. Coupla corrects… I am not the chair anymore (was for five years, 99–04) and it was actually hotter in New York and Chicago that week than San Antonio.

    I don’t think it’s a scandal that the mainstream press has a religion. But I do think it’s news when known gods fail.

  • Stephen A.

    The student cited actually made sense by recognizing that sociology is the proper place to “make a difference.” Politics may also be a good choice.

    But journalism, back in the old days and hopefully now, is to REPORT what IS, not how one would want things to be.

    A while back I posted something about the post-Watergate motivations of journalism students changing from “telling a story” to “changing the world.” (I wish I could remember who first used this allusion.)

    Maybe, one day, we can get to a point when journalists simply report facts fairly and tell the story straight, even in cases such as the slumlord’s neglect or a politician’s corruption, where an argument could be made that simply reporting the facts is “advocacy.”

    Bias is always going to be there, but editors should be wary of the crusading reporter – ordained by the ‘gods’ of journalism – who might be tempted to overlook ‘inconvenient’ facts that could balance stories.

    Too often, ‘news’ seems to have an obvious point of view, and that hurts the profession.

  • tmatt


    Correction made. Thank you for the kind note.

    I know it’s easy to slide into the old “worship of the fact” as the old religion, replaced by the New Journalism’s new religion (which is the old European journalistic faith). It all gets confusing.

    Here at GetReligion, we try to avoid the “objectivity” debates that verge on clashes of dogma. We do, however, believe that diverse newsrooms full of people committed to accuracy and fair, balanced debates can do good work. That’s old-fashioned, I know. So be it.

  • ECJ

    Mr Mattingly,

    I have been unable to open the ‘Deep Throat’ Link. Is there something wrong with it, or is it just me?


  • tmatt


    Thanks for the heads up. It’s working now.

  • jpcarson

    Journalism as a profession?

    Journalism has some, but not far from all, the attributes of a profession, using the term “profession” in a more exclusive sense.

    Lots of journalists do not consider themselves members of a “profession,” but of a “trade,” and there really is not a body of objective, specialized, knowledge that needs to be mastered, in some degree, for journalism as there is for professions as law, medicine, engineering, architecture, etc.

    Neither are journalists licensed, as members of most other recognized professions are. “Freedom of press” negates State licensing of journalists, and also allows anyone to claim to be a “journalist.”

    “ethics” in the profession are promulgated and enforced by employers (i.e. NY Times), rather than by professional bodies.

    To my knowledge, these type of questions are not routinely being asked by journalists, maybe because they know they do not have answers that will leave them feeling good about their “profession.”

  • AlyD

    Well we know what you think about the media.

  • Jay Rosen

    Ported over from the post you reference: Someone at my blog wrote: “Nobody is innocent if they intentionally set out to change public opinion.” That’s exactly what I was trying to say.

    The closer you get in journalism to “intentionally set out to change public opinion…” the less innocent your journalism is, and so it doesn’t matter if you stop just short of some fantasized “line,” you still need to defend the journalism you are doing by realizing the politics you are crafting “with” it.

    On the whole, and certainly at the top, the American press has declined this challenge, clinging instead to ideas of neutral professionalism, and a contentless public service standard. These I treat as official claims to innocence (no agenda other than to “serve.”)

    And if you listen to “make a difference” talk (as I have, obsessively, for 15+ years) and you observe things like the Pulitzer Prizes (and what they honor) you do find a model of public service in which the highest good is work that a.) tells the truth, b.) exposes problems and c.) leads to reforms, action of some kind.

    We do not find a “highest” good like: work that exposes problems so profound there are no reforms imaginable, just sober contemplation. Because that doesn’t make sense in the public service grammar elite journalism chose for itself.

    Of course, defenders of the grand newsroom tradition of enterprise reporting would say: Jay, we don’t “try” to cause reforms. No. We uncover problems and lay out the facts, and it is public pressure, public outrage (or the threat of it) that causes action to correct a problem. It’s at best indirect, and willy-nilly. Not a plot.

    My current answer to that is: fine, let’s say indirect. The press is clearly trying to change public opinion if the desired reaction to a properly done investigation is civic outrage, and public pressure, which leads to action by someone else. “Nobody is innocent if they intentionally set out to change public opinion.”

    And that is why I wrote, “… they wanted the innocence (we do just the facts journalism) and the power (we do make a difference journalism) but this could never be.”

    But we do have to add, don’t we, tmatt: there is life for the press after its political innocence is “over.” You don’t have to claim chronic agendalessness to be respected and good. That’s what the transparency revolution is trying to say to journalists.

  • Joe

    I’m a deeply concerned Christian who is, by profession, a licensed professional engineer, employed as a nuclear safety engineer.

    Some of my concerns about my profession may be relevant to this thread and this blog.

    There is no collective and intentional Christian influence on the engineering profession, and likely never has been one, in the about 150 years it has existed as a modern profession. There is no theology that addresses whether there should be or to what degree and there is no viable organization to facilitate its expression.

    I am somewhat familiar with “gegrapha,” an association of Christian journalists, but I do not see it asking whether/to what degree Christian journalists should collectively and intentionally influence their profession.

    I suggest this situation tends to reduce the relevancy of Christian worldview “truth claims.” (So what about them, true or not – what difference do they make in the real world?)

    If the Christian worldview truth claims are valid, then the lack of a intentional and collective Christian influence in secular trades/professions as engineering/journalism would be expected to be negative to the functioning of the profession, at least in complying with God’s will for it.

    This is because the Christian worldview’s truth claims include an admonition for Christians to be “salt, light, and leaven,” individually and collectively, on their spheres of influence. That truth claim presupposes that their spheres of influence would benefit from a collective and intentional Christian influence, and also presupposes such intentional and collective influence is possible.

    My perception is that the “Get Religion” blog does not want “to go there,” – whether/to what degree Christian journalists should collectively and intentionally influence their profession.

    I suggest Jay Rosen’s most thoughtful insights, linked to the blog item, on the “religion of journalism” allude to this – they do not mention how, if at all, Christian journalists (or journalists of other faiths) should collectively and intentionally influence their profession, as an appropriate outworking of that faith and its truth claims.