Thoughts in Hong Kong: Journalistic heresy (1997)

DATE: 12/20/97

Secular journalism and religious persons do not have a long history of looking to each other for guidance and inspiration. Traditionally, there has been less than high respect for each other’s gods. Rather, they have tended to look at each other with silent skepticism, if not open disdain. … Journalism is the public’s business, religion supposedly a ‘private affair.’ In the press one turns over a rock to expose the dirt; in the pulpit one turns over the dirt to expose the Rock. In this corner we have the bad news bearers; in the other, the preachers of the good news. (1)


 We live and write in an age in which all kinds of groups in the world of religion are being reshaped and their words and rites and symbols are being redefined.

This is news. Many religious groups are growing. So are in decline. Some are evolving. Some who call themselves Catholics act like Pentecostals and others act like goddess worshippers. There are Pentecostals who are converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, while others meet in megachurches and stage rites that resemble rock concerts. There are Jews who plead for universal religious liberties and those who want to strip gentiles of their right to freedom of speech. It’s a confusing age.

It would be good to be able to read more about these kinds of trends in the morning newspaper. If and when we do see news reports about events of this kind, it would be good to be able to trust what we read. Meanwhile, the Internet allows all kinds of people involved in these events and trends to spread all kinds of information around the world. We do not know if we can trust them, either.

In the conventional press, we hear silence or worse. In the new media of cyberspace, we hear all kinds of voices. Where can we find information we can trust?

It would help if there were more communication, and better communication, between the people who see their calling as turning over rocks to find dirt and those who believe they are called to dig through the dirt to find the Rock. The worlds of journalism and religion are, at times, part of the same equation. The people in these fields often have remarkably similar motivations. Yet they could not possibly live in more different worlds — with different goals and different rules.

It goes without saying that many religious leaders believe they are slighted and abused by the press. But we also meet here in an age in which people in the media are beginning to feel a bit downtrodden — with good reason. A former colleague of mine in the Scripps Howard News Service, political writer Peter Brown, tells a story about the public’s attitudes towards journalists that is both funny and rather sobering.

“The Salvation Army headed relief efforts in Waco, Texas, in the spring of 1993 when 80 men, women and children holed up from federal law enforcement officials for almost two months in a (Branch Davidian) compound before perishing in a conflagration. During that period, it got a few dozen calls from people who saw pictures showing this group distributing coffee, cold drinks and sandwiches to the hundreds of reporters on hand. One woman from Detroit was so incensed she called the Salvation Army commander there, Maj. Avedis Kasarian.” She said her blood pressure went up about 40 points when she read we were serving the news media,’ he recalled. She couldn’t understand why anyone would be nice to journalists.” (2)

This image captures the view that many citizens — especially religious people and cultural conservatives — have of those who work in the news media.

Yet we are gathered here in Hong Kong to talk about the role that God and divine grace can play in the field of journalism. In doing this, we are embracing the claim of the “cultural mandate” — the belief that all of God’s creation is both glorious and fallen. All of God’s creation — even journalism — has been shaped both by the perfect image of God and by the twisted reality of human sin.

Canon Vinay Samuel’s paper — which is both an academic statement and a faithful meditation — has given us a foundation under our discussions here as we tackle issues of faith and journalism. In the future, those gathered here need to accept the challenge of continuing to state these truths in Reformed language, while also find words and images that would reach out to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, evangelicals and Pentecostals.

It is clear that many people do not understand the concept of the “cultural mandate” and what it has to do with working in a field so aggressively secular as the news media. One of my students at Milligan College, on an essay test, said that it is clear that all of creation is both “glorious and fall-ING.”

I have found that many of my students on a Christian campus definitely believe that some parts of God’s creation — such as the news media — are falling faster than others. It is hard to convince them that God may, in fact, be calling them to work as journalists in the public square. For them, becoming a journalist would be as morally dangerous as falling off a cliff.

They do not trust journalism. We must realize that. They believe that some parts of God’s creation are much more fallen than others. Yet Canon Samuel also has reminded us that God can work through fallen people, even through the cultural work on non-believers. Ultimately, God is in control. Samuel writes:

“Miroslav Volf addresses the question of the work of those who do not acknowledge Christ’s Lordship in the stewardship of the Earth. He writes: ‘If the world will be transformed, then the work of non-Christians has in principle the same ultimate significance as the work of Christians, in so far as the results of non-Christians’ work pass through the purifying judgment of God, they too will contribute to the future new creation.’ Human cultures are not just the product of Christians. God’s spirit is active in the world of culture — animating, judging, correcting, destroying and creating.” (3)

This is good news. After all, if the God of the Bible can accomplish some of his Divine Purposes by working through the Philistines, then surely He also can use journalists. Let’s claim that truth. We also must make it clear where we stand on this issue, because a lively debate has broken out — at least in the North American context — on whether the only good journalist is a particular kind of “Christian journalist.” Behind this looms a broader issue about the goals and rules of journalism, itself. Especially when it comes to coverage of religion, and issues rooted in moral questions, there are at least four different “camps” on the issue of what is, or is not proper coverage. (4)

* The first is a secular subjectivity that is often referred to as a “European” model of the press. It argues that journalists write from given perspectives and that they should confess this worldview right up front. Journalists are expected to be accurate, but they are not expected to hide their biases. In America, this approach can be seen in many political magazines and journals — such as The New Republic or National Review.

However, this “European” model is gaining popularity in mainstream American journalism, although it is rarely used openly. On religious and moral issues, this approach is especially friendly to pluralists and progressives who, statistically, dominate the media elites. After all, the only objective truth is that there are no objective truths. Much of the hostility that many religious conservatives feel for the news media today is linked to the increasing — but unconfessed — use of this approach in the mainstream press.

* The second “camp” is usually identified with the “American” model of the press. It evolved in the mid-19th Century, as American editors used faster printing presses to reach out to mass audiences, promising them that they would be given news that was “fair,” “neutral” and some would even say “objective.”

At the very least, this model commits the journalist to seeking a 50-50, balanced approach to present both sides of a controversial issue. Christians who work in the secular media often site this model as a worthy goal for those who humbly work in a sinful, fallen world. I have often heard Christian colleagues say words such as, “We’ll trust God to win a fair debate” or “We’re sinners, too. We need to try to be fair and not assume that we’re absolutely right about everything. Let’s strive to be fair.”

* Some on the left as well as the right openly argue that the best approach to covering issues of religion and morality is built on a “public relations” or even marketing model. It says that all bad news hurts the church and, thus, media should stress the good news — period. Christians do not write bad news about other Christians. Many religious leaders are confused and angry when journalists fail to use this approach.

* Finally, many Christian leaders and some journalists have begun saying that if the secular media elites are going to be biased and unbalanced, then the “Christian journalist” must be willing to fight fire with fire. The goal, according to Dr. Marvin Olasky of the University of Texas, is for Christian journalists to write the stories that God wants them to write, the way God wants them written. The goal is “true objectivity,” the “God’s-eye view” and “directed reporting” in which God serves as coeditor.

“Biblically, there is no neutrality. … Christian reporters should give equal space to a variety of perspectives only when the Bible is unclear,” writes Olasky. “A solidly Christian news publication should not be balanced. Its goal should be provocative and evocative, colorful and gripping, Bible-based news analysis.”

Note that this is, essentially, a clarion call for Christians in journalism to embrace, as their primary journalistic model, a “European” approach to their work.

This is the debate before us — especially in the North American context. I recognize that, for some at this conference, a “European” model is the norm in the culture in which you work. I recognize that in some cultures it is dangerous to advocate concepts of fairness and balance. Yet, as Christians who work in the mainstream media, we will all be affected by the tensions between these various positions on what is good and “Christian” journalism. And we see these debates raging in the newsrooms, classrooms and congregations in which we work.

Canon Samuel has given us a point of departure for discussing the theological importance of journalism — journalism with no adjective attached. Yet no one here would deny that there are major problems in modern journalism. We know that journalistic standards of fairness, balance and even accuracy are under attack. Yet I, for one, am not willing to say that the journalistic canons are no longer relevant. It is impossible to accuse the news media elites of journalistic heresies if we, too, are journalistic heretics.

We must believe that God can use information and free debates. In a fallen world, some of us must continue to trust that our God is strong enough can work in the tensions created by journalism.

(1) Jim Stentzel, “The Good News With The Bad,” Sojourners, April, 1979, page 19.
(2) Peter Brown, chapter two of an unpublished manuscript on how the lifestyles and worldviews of journalists affect the news.
(3) Canon Dr. Vinay Samuel, “Journalism and the Two Mandates: The News Profession as Vocation, the Role of Journalism in Creation and Mission,” June, 1997, page 3.
(4) Parts of the following material have appeared in some of my columns for the Scripps Howard News Service, based in Washington, D.C. These remarks are very similar to those referred to on page 15 of Dr. David Aikman’s paper at this Hong Kong conference, entitled “Journalism and Grace: Towards a Compassionate Press: Power, Persecution and Responsibility in the Next Millennium.”
(5) For a complete discussion of Dr. Marvin Olasky’s views on this issue, see his book “Telling The Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism” (Crossway Books, 1996), especially the second chapter, “Biblical Objectivity.”
(6) Dr. Marvin Olasky, “Telling The Truth,” pages 22-26.