Toward a compassionate press: Power, persecution and responsibility in the new millennium
James Fallows, formerly the managing editor of U.S. News and World Report, has a riveting anecdote in his book WHY WE HATE THE MEDIA about a public discussion of journalistic and military ethics. The setting was Montclair State College, in the fall of 1987. The incisive moderator, Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, kept prodding the dozen or so panelists, most of them distinguished military offices, about their likely behavior under certain types of wartime conditions.
Then it came the turn of two journalistic panelists, Peter Jennings, ABC News anchor, and Mike Wallace, veteran CBS investigative reporter, to sit in the hot seat. What would Jennings do, the moderator asked, if he were invited as a journalist to accompany troops of an imaginary adversary nation called North Kosan on a military mission that would result in the ambush–and death of –American troops who were allies of South Kosan, a country being invaded by North Kosan?
Jennings was silent for about 15 seconds, Fallow says, then answered. “I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans,” he said, even if he risked his life to do so. Wallace immediately jumped in and contradicted him. “You’re a reporter,” he told Jennings. “I’m a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American, you would not have covered that story.” Ogletree now turned his inquisitorial attention to Wallace. Didn’t Jennings have some higher duty, he asked, either patriotic or human, to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot? “No,” Wallace said flatly and immediately. “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!”
Jennings proceeded to back-pedal as fast as his fluid diction would permit. What a terrible gaffe he had just committed, he confessed to the audience. He wished he could take back his entire performance during the previous five minutes.
Now retired Air Force General Brent Scowcroft, who had been Gerald Ford’s national security advisor and would later serve in the same job for George Bush, jumped in. “What’s it worth?” he asked Wallace bitterly. “It’s worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon.” Ogletree turned to Wallace. “What about that?” he said. “Shouldn’t the reporter have tried to warn the Americans?” Wallace now dived into his maximum charm mode. Grinning broadly, and extending the palms of his hands in an exaggerated gesture of having nothing to say, he said to huge laughter, “I don’t know.”
But many people observing this conversation did not laugh. One was panelist U.S. Army Colonel George M. Connell, who all but spat out his contempt for the two reporters. If either were wounded in combat accompanying U.S. troops into battle, he said, his own men would risk their lives to bring the men out. Where was any sign of ethics and decency in the Wallace-Jennings response?
Where indeed? Or to take another example of the degree to which reporters in the U.S. have came to view their processions not merely as adversarial, but essentially exempt from other ethical, social, and even legal demands on the citizens of a country, what about the question of a nation’s secrets? In the 1970s, when there was great public controversy in the U.S. over the role of the CIA in world and national affairs, a New York Times reporter, I think it was, flatly proclaimed that it was the job of the government to keep national secrets and the responsibility of the press to ferret them out and publish them.
I do not open with these two samples of journalistic ethical dilemmas either to focus primarily on the situation in the U.S. or to make this paper a mere list of journalistic ethical case studies. What I want to suggest are three things:
First, when journalism as a profession is detached from moral considerations affecting the human condition as a whole, it will deteriorate into a self-worshiping idolatry that will eventually erode the integrity of the profession as a whole.
Second, if journalism, even with the best of intention, loses sight of its role and function in a civilized society, national or global, it will betray the essence of its duty as a component in that society.
Third, a Christian definition of the role of journalism, its responsibilities and its limitations, offers by far the best formula for the profession to maintain its health, creativity, integrity and usefulness well into the next millennium or until whenever, as Christians universally believe, the Messiah Jesus Christ returns to judge and rule the nations.
Journalism as Self-Worship
Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines journalism in its opening entry as “the collection and editing of material of current interest for presentation through the media of newspapers, magazines, newsreels, radio, or television.” The Webster’s New World Encyclopedia defines it as “the profession of reporting, photographing, or editing news event for the mass media.” Finally, the Encyclopedia Britannica Macropedia defines journalism as “the profession of gathering, writing, and editing the news.”
It is interesting that most early journalism, in Europe and the U.S. in the 17th century, was highly contentious, opinionated commentary on current events in which the establishment of fact and truth was much less important than the denunciation of opposing opinions. It saw only as newspapers and magazines grew larger in circulation, more powerful in influence, and in possession of a more efficient news-gathering technology, that an internal sense of professional integrity began to develop. Even so, the old tradition of calumny, exaggeration and inflammatory rhetoric never entirely died out. The so-called “yellow journalism” of the 1890’s in the U.S. is now broadly regarded as having contributed to the outbreak of the war in 1898 between the U.S. and Spain over Cuba and the Philippines.
The Twentieth Century certainly had its share of sustained and directed calumny by the media, but almost entirely in societies under the control of political dictatorships. It is also obvious that editorial bias in reporting, or to put it less controversially, the passionate exposure of grim and shocking news, has profoundly influenced world events. Most people now accept, for example, that the U.S. media’s focus on the sheer destructiveness of war during the Vietnam conflict–to put is as neutrally as possible–helped undermine the willingness of the American people as a whole to sustain the conflict.
Later, the television images of starvation and chaos in Somalia was influential in persuading the Bush White House to lead an international military expedition to the country in 1992 with the intention of restoring order there. Of course, sometimes exposure of the public by the media to too much suffering first-hand — whether created by natural disaster or human brutality in places like Rwanda — leads to what has been called “compassion fatigue,” a point where the human heart and mind close down rather that experience any more searing emotions in the observation of human pain.
An important element in journalism, and indeed a frequently mentioned motive among young journalists for their decision to enter the profession, is the belief that exposing wickedness in society can lead to beneficial social change. Probably the most prominent example was the investigative work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in uncovering the details of the Watergate drama as journalistic derring-do. This work was rewarded by the movie “All the Presidents’ Men,” a feature-film about Watergate, based on the reporters’ book, that carried forward an older public perception of journalists: crusaders against corruption and wrong-doing in high political places.
For a time after Watergate in the 1970’s, investigative reporting became the goal of many young aspiring journalists eager to make their mark not just within the profession but within society as a whole. But as is often the case, too much zeal at times lead to abuse of the medium and a certain retreat. The infamous example of the Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke, who was nominated in 1981 for a Pulitzer Prize, America’s highest award for reporting, on the basis of a story which it later tuned out had been entirely invented, or of NBC News, which had to apologize to General Motors for exaggerated and misleading on-air assertions in 1992, helped tarnish the image of investigative reporting as the venue of civic-minded and courageous journalists.
Very often, though, day-to-day political reporting, under the pressure of T.V. producers and newspaper editors, assumes a posture of what might be called “gotcha journalism,” whereby the objective is to catch some public official out having misstated or misrepresented some situation, to his own or his government’s embarrassment. At its worst, such reporting is so mindlessly irrelevant to the topic supposedly at hand that it makes the reporters seem like children demanding to go on a picnic when the house is on fire.
For example, I recall as the bureau chief for the TIME Magazine in Beijing, during President Reagan’s 1984 visit to China, attending a White House press briefing in a Beijing hotel. The entire White House press corps accompanying the president–perhaps 150 people–was in attendance, engaged in what was nearly a shouting match over whether some junior administration official had or had not said that something or other might or might not be happening that week. (It was such an infinitesimally obscure point that I have completely forgotten the details). Yet here they were in China–the most populous country in the world, potentially a strategic ally against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War — supposedly reporting on a President who had spent much of his life denouncing Communism in general and Communist China in particular. Not a single question was asked about the visit, about the President’s talks with Chinese officials, much less about China itself. To what had the famous White House press corps, the press corps that had hounded a disgraced President from office only a few years earlier, been reduced? It seemed to me that White House journalism in particular had become transmogrified in some ways or other into a form of professional narcissism.
It might be countered that the very paraphernalia of modern political reporting itself encourages that. Journalists covering governments in almost every part of the world are to some degree dependent on the apparatus of government to do their job. They depend on officials to arrange hotel accommodations, and travel to and from the cities being visited whenever a national leader travels, not to mention passport and visa clearances if the visit is overseas. In Washington, some of the most coveted luggage address labels are the laminated plastic identification tags that say things like: “Visit of President Clinton to Russia, January 1994.” It’s an unsubtle way of encouraging a journalist to share in the reflected glory of being with an important person. Many journalists not only succumb easily to this flattery, but move quickly onward to the familiarity and contempt towards their putative subject matter characterized by the incident I have reported from Beijing.
Other journalists, on both sides of the Atlantic, and perhaps in many countries around the world, acquire a sort of public star status by virtue of their appearance on television talk-shows, or as they are sometimes called “shout shows.” What might have started as fame acquired through serious reporting in the print media became fame through face recognition on television and talk-show appearances deliberately designed to be provocative, if not inflammatory, so that viewership will increase. Television appearances are extremely desirable for most reporters in most countries. For one thing, they enhance a reporter’s importance, especially with editors. In the U.S. such appearances have the added commercial value of increasing a reporter’s desirability as a speaker at corporate or educational functions, with thousands of dollars being paid for a single speech. It is easy to see why television in and of itself has helped distract reporters from what used to be the primary task of their profession, which was to report and interpret the news.
The blurring of the line between journalism and entertainment, the commercial pressures on media organizations to aim always for the highest readership or viewer ship possible, the “tabloidixation” of formerly “serious” journalist, the emergence of journalism stars paid astronomically high salaries at least in television, the apparently reduced interest of the general public in ” serious”” news; all these have contributed to the transformation of journalism at least in much of the Western world into a profession where self-advancement and self-promotion seem at times to eclipse the traditional functions of the profession itself.
Speaking at a major East Coast theological seminary in the U.S.A in the mid-1990s., I asked my audience of some 300 or so people how many of them had not hear of the following three names in sensational news stories during the previous two years, Joey Buttafuoco, Lorena Bobbitt, and Jon Benet Ramsey. Only eight of the 300 raised their hands to acknowledge ignorance of these people, and four of these were students from outside the U.S.
Then I asked how many of the audience had not heard of Jiang Zemin, Aleksandr Lebed, and Nestor Cepra. (Jiang was the president of China, Lebed was one of Russia’s most popular political figures, and Nestor Cepra was the leader of the three-month guerilla takeover of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru). About half the entire audience had never heard of these people. My point about tabloidization was not disputed during the question time.
One consequence of this development is a broad public view of the profession of journalism that may be at its lowest level in decades. As James Fallows pointed out in his book, WHY AMERICANS HATE THE MEDIA, the view of journalists depicted in feature films and television shows for the past two decades has been almost uniformly derogatory. Journalists in movies since the 1980’s, he said, have “been portrayed, on average, as more loathsome than the lawyers, politicians or business moguls who are the traditional bad guys in films about the white-collar world.” Examples Fallows quotes are the reporter Sally Field in “Absence of Malice” (1981) or the airhead newscaster played by William Hurt in “Broadcast News” (1987).
A Times-Mirror Poll of attitudes towards journalism and other topics in 1995 had these findings: For example, 79% of respondents thought the media was no more ethical than the politicians on whom they reported, 74% thought the media themselves drove the controversies they reported. Paradoxically, despite evidence that the public buys tabloid newspapers in the U.S. that expose the personal scandals of the rich and famous, 65% of the people polled thought that the alleged character problems of President Clinton had been overdone by the media.
Much of the decline in respect must derive from a widespread sentiment that journalists have gradually distanced themselves from the standards of integrity that were once broadly practiced by the profession.
Journalism without a social function
One of the most interesting series of listings on the Internet is the neat compilation of codes of journalistic ethics assembled by the journalistic professional associations in various countries over the years. In many ways, the codes as much as anything reflect the shifting moral priorities of the societies themselves as much as any permanent verities about the journalistic profession.
For example, the International Federation of Journalists who met in Bordeaux in 1954 came up with a code whose flat declaration is that the first duty of the journalist is “respect for truth and the right of the public for truth.” No equivocation here on whether truth exists. “Only fair methods,” it goes on, should be used to obtain “news, photographs, and documents.”
Some 40 years later, it seems, the moral universe of journalism had moved on somewhat. The National Union of Journalism of Ireland, for example, in 1994 had an interestingly different set of priorities, focusing on the profession itself rather that any entity, such as “truth,” outside it. At the top of the list were “the highest professional and ethical standards,” the need to defend “the principle of the freedom of the press,” and other items like avoidance of pressure on reporting from advertising and rectifying “any harmful inaccuracies” (with no definition of what “harmful” might be).
Contrary to the simple IFJ ban on “unfair” methods of gathering news, the Irish document implied that “other means” than fair ones could be employed in news-gathering, but only if justified “by over-riding considerations of public interest.” Again, there was no effort to define what considerations might consist. In a massive bow to political correctness, the document went on to insist that details of a person’s “age, race, color, creed, illegitimacy, disability, marital status (or lack of it), gender or sexual orientation” could only be provided at all if the information were “strictly relevant.” But relevant to what? Or to whom? And by whose definition of relevance? The National Union of Journalists of Ireland did not say.
The intentions of this kind of code of ethics are obviously good. They desire to ensure that not a single interest group or lobby group of which journalists approve should have its sensitivities offended. But the list betrays a view of life which obviously does not believe there is such a thing as truth or absolute values of any kind–except for tolerance of its own ideas–and which is implicitly hostile to a faith-based view of human behavior. In theory, a journalist strictly adhering to this view of ethics could not mention in his or her story any details of human existence which might arouse disapproval in a reader with a Christian view of human relationships. As is clear, it is a very short step indeed from the desire to show “sensitivity” to the creation of a new kind of intolerance.
Worried about the decline in the reputation of journalism and concerned over the sometimes mindless sensationalism of much of the popular media today, some in the U.S. concocted a new vision of journalism which they call either “civic journalism” or “public journalism.” The idea, in the view of one exponent of it, was fundamentally about “using the power of the press to re-engage people in public life.” Journalists should aim at “an invigoration of public spaces.” For example, crime reporting might investigate ways in which the public might take back their streets from criminal elements as well as merely reporting on the causes of crime. The premise is sound enough: Without an informed and socially active public, journalism itself will eventually have no audience.
But the concept is fraught with pitfalls, particularly within the American style of journalism. As Terry Mattingly has pointed out, American journalism has traditionally tried to convey the idea that reporting and editorializing can be if not hermetically, at least very nearly hermetically, sealed off from each other. While European newspapers have cheerfully and embarrassingly championed certain cases with no suggestion that other points of view on the issue had value, “quality” American news organizations have usually been uncomfortable with this idea.
Could an American reporter explore “political possibilities” in an impartial and unbiased manner? It seems unlikely, though poll after poll in the U.S. indicates that reporters for major national newspapers are hugely more liberal that the general public on almost every issue. (The Times-Mirror 1995 poll already cited showed that only 4% of all journalists disapproved of gay sexual behavior, compared with 53% of the general public).
Most American reporters are instinctively uncomfortable admitting to any political bias at all. There seems to be a sort of intuitive idealism that journalism can and should be responsible to society in a way that everyone can recognize as responsible. There may not be an agreement on whether truth exists, this view seems to hold, but journalists ought at least to work as though it might be somewhere out there. If this analysis is correct, “civic journalism” is likely to be either empty and platitudinous, or, at worst, dishonest because it fails to report adequately on society’s negative attitudes towards those new policies and developments which it champions. As New York Times editor Max Frankel has said, the media should probably ” leave reform to the reformers.” To put it another way, the best cure to the malaise of global journalism in the new millennium is probably not to attempt an imitation of Pravda or the People’s Daily.
A Christian definition of journalism
At conferences of Christians in the secular media held in Washington and Jerusalem, there have been some excellent explorations of a Christian theology of journalism as well as of the role that such journalism can play in society. I would like to suggest, on the basis of insights gained during these discussions, and in discussions with numerous Christian journalists around the world over the past decade, that there is a surprisingly broad consensus on what the function of a Christian in journalism is. I also believe that the Christian definition comes closer in an intuitive way to what entirely secular people, or even followers of quite different faiths, come after consideration to believe what the role of journalism should be.
The analogy, I would suggest, is similar to that of the relationship of the Hippocratic Oath to a Christian view of medicine. Though the Hippocratic Oath itself was conceived some 400 years before the birth of Christ, the ethical standards it contains are so consonant with the Christian view of the sacredness of human life that the Oath reinforces a Christian view of medical ethics. (Sadly, the Hippocratic Oath is frequently no longer required of medical graduates in medical training institutions around the world.) By obverse analogy, so to speak, I believe that when most journalists of non-Christian background examine this particular Christian ethic of journalism, they are likely, if they are at all open-minded, to find that it conforms with their own ideals, sometimes learned at high cost of life itself, of what journalism should be about.
First, Christian journalism should more than anything else be about truth. As Cliff Kelly has said, “truth is the Christian journalist’s best friend.” Jesus Himself told his disciples that there was a direct relationship between obedience to him and truth. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples,” he said. “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Later, he told Pilate, “In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37).
Ultimately, every Christian alive has the responsibility of testifying to the world about the truth of Jesus Christ, his death on the Cross and Resurrection. Yet Christians also believe (Romans 1:20) that everything in the universe in some way points to God. In an increasingly interconnected world, and in a world that is yet more ambivalent than ever over the very existence of truth, it is essential that all Christians reporting be based on this concept. A Christian journalist may not know enough circumstances in a reporting situation to be sure what the final truth of that situation is, but he or she has no doubt that there is truth to be known. A Christian journalist also convinced that knowing truth, even truth with a small “t”, is the essential prerequisite for everything else that is good in human life. Neither social justice nor peace can ever be constructed on the basis of a lie, as any Christian instinctively knows, and so the search for truth must underlie all other aspects of reporting, including the exposure of injustice.
Reporting and writing the truth, of course, has many components beyond mere accuracy and honesty in the presentation of all known facts. At least one aspect of it, though, is what Kelly has called “discerning the signs of the times,” a reference to the occasion when Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees for failing to do this. In an important sense, discerning the “signs of the times” means constantly examining the raw material of journalism- “material of current interest,” “news,” “news events” – through the prism of a Christian view of the movement of history forwarded to the return of Christ himself. Does that mean constantly trying to locate biblical prophetic clues in current events? Of course not. But it does mean at all times taking a very skeptical view on the curability of the human condition through human means, however idealistic and inspiring they may appear to be at the time. The sheer realism about human nature of the Christian journalist’s world view ought to be one of the most consistently attractive aspects of it for non-Christian journalists.
Second, a Christian journalist should grasp that truth, as Jesus made clear in the scripture cited above, is also related to freedom. A Christian journalist will never idealize freedom in the sense of license or the lack of any truth to freedom and justice. One of the greatest contributions a Christian journalist can make to a society that is politically free, as well as to one that is not yet so, but aspires to be, is to stress constantly the relationship to truth and vice versa. As Pope John Paul II put it so eloquently in his address to the U.N. in 1945: “Freedom is ordered to the truth, and is fulfilled in man’s quest for truth and in man’s living in the truth. Detached from the truth about the human person, freedom deteriorates into license in the lives of individuals, and in political life it becomes the caprice of the most powerful and the arrogance of power.” A Christian journalist, in other words, should be as zealous for the truth in a society that enjoys political freedom as in one that does not.
The logical follow-on from devotion to truth is devotion to justice. Of course, the question will always arise: What is justice? Honest Christians will differ among themselves, for example, on such matters as how wealth should be distributed, or indeed whether it should be “distributed” by some external agency at all. It might therefore be objected that since Christians will disagree with each other on the subject, how can they be expected to agree on what injustice is when they see it?
The answer is that though there will always be situations where it is difficult to decide what is or what is not “just,” even among Christians, because of man’s sin, the human race somewhere or other will always have abundant examples of injustice to uncover. Incidentally, in the third millennium, one of the priorities of Christians seeking out injustice will be the exposure of the persecution of Christians, wherever this may occur in the world. But a Christian journalist should also be honest in exposing examples of persecution even of groups with whose philosophy he disagrees. Not only is this reporting of injustice and persecution the sign of a conscience made sensitive to sin in the world, it is a constant indication to unbelievers of the orientation of Christian journalists to a compass-point far beyond any worldly powers. One might say, indeed, that preoccupations with truth, freedom, and justice are inherent pre-evangelistic forms of Christian witness on the part of a Christian journalist. As Cliff Kelly has said, Christian journalists should be “friends of virtue.”
They are also, he has added, people of light, in the very direct sense that light and darkness as spiritual entities are totally opposed to each other. The function of light is not simply to neutralize darkness but to expose it and eliminate it. A Christian’s reporting in some sense therefore will always reflect negatively on worldly systems because such systems do not espouse God’s standards. As Jesus himself said: “This is the verdict: Light had come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). But because media organizations are overwhelmingly owned or administered by people who are not Christians, the Christian desire to be light amid darkness, and to shed light on darkness, is itself likely to provoke persecution in some form or other. This may not happen immediately, or overly even, but it will happen at some point or other. If common sense did not make this clear, scripture will: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (Timothy 3:12). It is only God’s calling and divine protection in the life of a Christian journalist that provides the hope that a believer may enter this profession and not only survive but excel and succeed.
Third, a Christian journalist must at all times “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). What this means, whether he is reporting on an entirely secular matter or covering developments within the Christian church, is that truth must always be conveyed in a way that indicates the existence of a loving God behind the premise of both truth and justice. As Cliff Kelly has said, “Loving journalism tells people the truth in such a way that they will be encouraged to draw closer to God.” It is exceedingly difficult to practice this principle, as anyone who has spent time reporting that activities of truly mendacious and wicked individuals or organizations can attest. One criterion might be that one should not say on television or in print anything one would not be willing to say face to face to the person concerned.
Should one be “compassionate” to tyrants? No, in a sense of excusing them for wrongs they may have committed. But one should speak the truth to them in a way that points them to the Truth, that indicates that all human judgment is at best temporary and that there is only one Judge in the ultimate moral sense to which even the most evil of men and women is ever accountable.
Finally, a Christian journalist will always be only as effective for the Kingdom of God as his or her degree of godliness extends. In all professions where Christians are occupied, there should never be any visible dividing line between the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and the qualities needed for the diligent and effective exercise of that profession. But in journalism in particular where the prevailing sin is cynicism, it is vital that a Christian demonstrate hope for the condition of the human race at the same time as he shows his realism about it.
David Aikman is a journalist, author and founder of Gegrapha, a fellowship of Christian journalists who work in the secular media. This was published originally by Gegrapha just before the turn to the Twenty-first Century.