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Should Christians become journalists? Reflecting truth in a broken world

By , posted December 10, 2012 at 9:54 am

Why should Christians become journalists? I have been asked the question many times during my life as a mainstream journalist, and eventually as a Lutheran minister at the same time.

I admit I have given a variety of answers. Pointed at some good reasons (and maybe some not so good in my younger years!) as well as key reasons why not.  It really depends on your desires, your passions, and a number of other gifts that God may – or may not – have given you! For sure, to become a journalist in the mainstream broadcast, online and print news is not simply “just like any other job.” For many, journalism becomes a passion, a “calling”, a lifestyle. A life without reporting, writing, producing and presenting is for many journalists simply “unthinkable” – it is not their life, at least.

It is not necessarily a good choice to become a journalist for a person with a Christian faith. Long hours, irregular work patterns, a job that in a number of cases simply do not end when you (try to) leave for home, an increasingly stressful work environment with deadlines almost 24/7 for online and broadcast and print and . .. Urgent calls to drop whatever you are doing to leave for an event/crime scene/accident or whatever at the most uncomfortable time day or night . . . Sounds tempting, right?

Irregular work hours are a constant challenge to any normal life including family and friends – and church visits.  Stories that absorbs you totally so you even forget time and place . .  You get growing knowledge about people and institutions that make you wonder about their ethics and integrity (and not to forget faith if we talk about people with a dog collar.) Fun stories and hidden scandals are plenty in newsrooms. Disappointment over sources retracting their earlier statements and “kill” the really juicy and good stories is a regular happening. Or not finding good sources at all, still being eternally convinced the story IS out there . . . somewhere.

And still: The fun, the excitement, the victories in finally getting the good story right, with interviews on tape, compelling visuals, in-depth background material really making sense of a person or an event, giving the compelling reason why something became a failure or a success. The challenge in competing with fellow journalists, finding a better angle, a more newsworthy intro, a better and more revealing quote – oh yes, it is all part of the game, of the reward for revealing yet another untold story deserving it’s time in the spotlight. Simply the honest, good feeling of having told a story that deserved to be told!

Before I continue, maybe I need to reveal some of my own story into journalism? It started in a church youth club in secondary school when a key news editor in the largest daily newspaper had promised to visit and tell about newspaper life. As he arrived he also told the latest news: An avalanche had just hit a popular skiing resort and area, and it was yet too early to tell if there were any casualties. The news editor explained in detail how the journalists would handle the news: go to the area, connect with experts, do a number of interviews and reports with eye witnesses, rescue teams, and on and on. He did cut his visit a little short to head back to the newspaper – but the excitement, the strong connection with real life, crisis as well as joy when the teams dug up someone chilled, but alive – it all made real sense to me.

Almost two years later as I had entered high school I got my chance as the regional newspaper wanted to train some “local correspondents” in the various communities it covered, and this was the beginning of – so far – 38 years in journalism . Many long days and nights waiting for the news, checking and re-checking facts, finding more sources to confirm the story, and so on. Simple, basic journalistic work meeting people in all walks of life.

Over the years my life as a journalist has included all sorts of reporting challenges (well, not much sport), innumerable accidents, major financial crisis stories (a local bank going down, as well as the major entrepreneur company going bust), politics, religion and faith stories, all kinds of human experience stories –well, you name it. And, it has included years of “climbing the ladder,” running the news desk in the major newspaper, moving into production planning, helping configuring the largest printing plant in Northern Europe, becoming a journalism teacher, a publisher for a large youth magazine in the Middle East who also designed web sites and DVD’s, and so on. In all these ventures the challenge to report, to write stories to challenge, equip and encourage fellow humans is at the core – as for any journalist.

So, why become a journalist?

For many of us it’s a matter of desires in life. Passion. Involvement. Influence.  Serving people. Making a difference. And: Love.

As we start young, we want to challenge life and see how it may bring new opportunities, chances to impact and possibly change situations. Honestly trying to serve the society by telling true stories that in turn may impact society. Keeping the options open to become known, maybe even famous? We may well be idealists, wanting to serve fellow humans, bring social, financial and cultural change in their lives. Many journalists are also invited into the social network of politicians, becoming privy to the good stories, the gossip and the public secrets, and enabled to make an impact privately through connections and friendships.

As a Christian a key goal has always been to be available, on the spot when needed – if God lead me to give a hand to fellow humans on the road to eternal life. And, I must admit: There has been God-incidental events in my career that I have chosen to interpret and understand in a much larger context – as a Christian. Opportunities I would never have encountered “only” being a church minister.

Anyone wanting to make a career in mainstream journalism needs to spend oceans of time learning the trade, letting fellow journalists teach the pitfalls, ethics and ways to do good reporting. There is no simple or easy way to become a good journalist but to spend lots of time seriously interested both in other journalists and their way of performing the art of reporting, and building up a widespread, diverse network of friends and sources to develop the good stories.

Learning to become good journalists constantly challenges us as human beings: To respect fellow humans as we interview them and seek the truth. To be polite and friendly, and work with people in a personal way. As humble people who are Christians always be prepared to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves too seriously. Admitting mistakes – even in public – is a trademark for an ethical (and Christian) attitude to journalism.

We know the classic roles for a journalist: A gatekeeper helping set the social agenda in a society. An independent watchdog always on the outlook of injustice and misuse of power.  As a guardian give voice to the voiceless, presence to the invisible, power to the powerless and open the doors for the marginalized to the mainstream of society. On the rise in many societies is also the demand for media and journalists to maintain established ideologies, both cultural as well as political. As journalists we are also expected to foster meaningful (and entertaining) conversations, not too deep or philosophical, just good enough to keep the public amused and content. All of this is “feel-good journalism.”

Yet: A key element is missing: The role of the humble, consistent, truth-seeking fact finder. As too many journalists lately have made truth relative, private – and oftentimes not really important in the big picture, we need a new generation of younger journalists committed to searching and finding truth. Finding hidden truths in public institutions, multinational companies as well as churches and Christian institutions as stewards of millions of dollars collected for benevolent causes.

Every Christian is challenged to be a person committed to communicating the truth. As mainstream journalists we have an enormous opportunity not only to share “truths” but to write honestly from a Christian conviction and let our commentaries frame society and reality in a worldview based on the Bible. NOT in a pushy, proclamatory way but as reflections on values related to current issues, being realistic, frank, and honest. With an anthropology based on the Bible our lives are committed to pursuing truth and sharing truth, as it has set us free to serve fellow human beings. (John 18:37)

The daily news regularly focus on sex, lies, murders, theft, fraud. As Christian, we believe – and do experience day after day – that lying and dishonesty are part of humanity’s sinful nature. The good news is that, if there is dishonesty and wickedness, then the mirror opposite is honesty and righteousness. If there are lies, there is truth. The Bible teaches it, and traditionally, journalists have tended to believe this. As Georges Braque once noted: “Truth exists; falsehood has to be invented.”

The outstanding journalist and Time magazine bureau chief David Aikman says Christians actually has an advantage over non-Christians in journalism:

“First of all, they believe in truth. They don’t necessarily believe they always have the truth, particularly on a secular story, but they believe that there is such a thing as truth. And that takes a lot of indecision out of the business of reporting, because if you believe the truth is somewhere out there, then you will pursue it with greater alacrity than if you don’t think that there’s anything there at all. The second thing is Christians have a much more realistic understanding of human nature. Christians understand that human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore capable of acts of nobility and beauty. But they also know that humans are deeply flawed, flawed by sin. And so it doesn’t surprise them when Christians sometimes behave – well, not just Christians – why people behave rather badly.” (Quoted from Jen Slothower: Christians within Journalism)

As journalists the first priority is to build a solid professional merit and earn our credentials among fellow co-workers. We may well be challenged on personal life and faith early on, and as Christians our integrity may be tested. A small cross as jewelry for a woman, a Bible on the desk, may be signals of a different integrity and standard. I would not recommend for anyone to take on a high profile “proclaiming Christ in the newsroom.” Rather, in a quiet, humble manner by being yourself and answering to the highest ethical standards gain respect that inevitably will attract people to your desk for a quiet conversation.

In the old Greece the “town crier” (called evangelist!) was the local person bringing the latest news. In a modern world our quiet words and deeds may well be far more effective than a loud voice and a bragging manner. Our task is to practice the common Code of Ethics by the Society of Professional Journalists’ (2006): seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable. Keeping this ethical code is a strong common ground for all mainstream journalists. When we turn these ethical challenges into practice they will also prove to be a real testimony to a higher standard of honesty and respect for fellow human beings. And, putting common journalistic “rules” of ethical practice can actually be a very strong witness of a Christian faith!

A key challenge for any journalist is how we choose our words in covering a story. There are numerous wicked, slanderous, mendacious stories in the news.  As a Christian, I have a particular responsibility to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). I would be the first to admit failing too many times to consider this matter before turning in a story. Maybe a good test might be to always check if I am willing to say face to face to the person concerned what I am about to publish online, in a broadcast or on print?

Personally I have been intrigued  and challenged by a “Journalist’s Creed” written by Walter Williams about 100 years ago at one of the finest journalism schools in the US, the Missouri School of Journalism. He gives mention to God as part of the necessities for journalism and I believe it deserves serious reflection.

The creed reads:

“I believe in the profession of journalism.

I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to

the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.

I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are

fundamental to good journalism.

I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.

I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the

welfare of society, is indefensible. I believe that no one should write as a

journalist what he would not say as a gentleman; that bribery by one’s own

pocketbook is as much to be avoided as bribery by the pocketbook of another; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another’s instructions or another’s dividends.

I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best

interests of readers; that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should

prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its

public service.

I believe that the journalism which succeeds best – and best deserves success –

fears God and honors Man; is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion

or greed of power, constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled,

patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid, is quickly indignant

at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of privilege or the clamor of the mob;

seeks to give every man a chance and, as far as law and honest wage and

recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing worldcomradeship; is a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world.” (“Journalist’s  Creed,” para. 2-9)

So, what about those who chose to work in “Christian” media? Are they not real journalists? My answer is that they do journalism as well but will often face different ethical challenges related to independency, impartiality and integrity, particularly if their media outlet is governed and owned by a Christian institution. Impartiality, integrity and honesty are equally important as in mainstream media, but may not always be easy to follow if the Christian media leader rather is thinking PR than media ethics?

The editor in chief of the US-based WORLD magazine, Dr Marvin Olasky, is probably the most well-known advocate for the idea of “Biblical objectivity” – which he says is the concept that all journalism should be approached with a biblical worldview, reporting and interpreting with a God-centered filter in which God’s truth is the standard by which everything should be compared.

Olasky agrees that individual Christians have been able to make a difference in secular media, yet he says:

“In the long run, Christian journalists will need Christian publications. In that long run, it is clear that only news organizations owned and staffed by Christians will be able to practice journalism consistent with strong Biblical faith. Only through independence can Christians make sure that the Bible is taken seriously in journalism. “(Olasky 1988 p. 180)

In my view mainstream media is the core challenge for Christians with a desire and a passion to let their voice be heard and make a difference to the better in a society.  Mainstream media definitely provides lots of “worldly” challenges but also opportunities to communicate with a very different (and much, much bigger) audience. To only communicate to like-minded people sharing the faith is simply not the challenge given by Jesus to those who want to follow him. (Matt 5:14, Mark 16:15)

Working in the mainstream media is no easy task, and the challenges to compromise, let opportunities pass by, or simply drift along ignoring a moral and faith based compass or conscience is always tempting.  Praying for Christians who work in the mainstream media is one way to support them, as their work can impact key leaders and large groups, and inspire development and change.

In conclusion, some words from Martin Luther has been a challenge and an encouragement for me: “the Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” (John Schmalzbauer (2003) p. 48)

Being a good craftsman – in whatever work we do – is a true calling for every Christian! Yet Christians working as journalists in the mainstream news media has a God-given opportunity to model a life making a real difference with colleagues, friends and readers/viewers – as well as in the society.

End notes:

 

Missouri School of Journalism. (2008). Journalist’s creed. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://journalism.missouri.edu/about/creed.html

 

Olasky, M. (1988). Prodigal press: The anti-Christian bias of the American news media. Westchester, IL: Crossway.

 

Schmalzbauer, J. (2003). People of faith: Religious conviction in American journalism

and higher education. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

 

Jen Slothower (2008): Christians within Journalism: Applications for People of Faith Entering the Field. Available online at

http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1057&context=honors

 

SPJ Code of Ethics is available at http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

 

REV. DR. ARNE H. FJELDSTAD has been a newspaper journalist and editor in various Norwegian newspapers and the publisher of a large monthly magazine in the Middle East and North Africa.

His journalistic career covers more than 30 years in mainstream news media, a majority of them in various senior positions in the leading Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten. He has also been a part-time professor teaching journalism and communications. His doctoral dissertation on Lutheran churches and virtual churches on the Internet was completed at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1997.

Arne H. Fjeldstad is an ordained Lutheran minister having served in local parishes, and he has also served as an Anglican minister in the Middle East. Arne started as a student pastor and editor with the Norwegian Inter Varsity (NKSS) and was the International Coordinator and Editor for World Evangelization, the magazine of the Lausanne movement from 1993-1996.

He is the Chair of Gegrapha (www.gegrapha.com), a global network of Christians in mainstream media. Dr. Fjeldstad is currently the CEO of The Media Project (www.themediaproject.org).

 

 

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