Cover Story

EPA ad hoc ethics committee report

The report, complete with "minority report" by Wes Pippert

Issue: "Taking the Bait?," July 12, 1997

An ad hoc committee has been established by the Evangelical Press Association to investigate alleged violations of the EPA Code of Ethics by WORLD magazine. These two questions are considered in this report of the committee: 1. Has a violation of the EPA Code of Ethics occurred in two articles published by WORLD magazine (March 9 and April 19, 1997, titled "Femme Fatale" and "Battle for the Bible")? 2. What course of action should EPA recommend to WORLD? Only the first section of the EPA Code of Ethics pertains in this case. Its four statements provide the framework for our report. Christian publications should be honest and courageous, their presentations characterized by sincerity, truthfulness, accuracy and an avoidance of distortion and sensationalism. The committee agrees that there is a basic difficulty in addressing such a sweeping statement in relation to the two articles in question. Part of the difficulty is a philosophy of journalism, evident in WORLD's reporting and fully developed in Marvin Olasky's writings, which believes advocacy is the first and essential pillar of good journalism. Marvin Olasky's views on this are well known and fully developed in two books and several articles and speeches. The question that must therefore precede our findings is one this committee cannot answer: whether WORLD owns any accountability, as an EPA member, to the guidelines of that organization, or whether the standards of the EPA are dismissed as "sad" and supportive of a "public relations" approach to reporting, as Olasky describes in his June 14-21, 1997, editorial. This committee confines its reports to the questions at hand. On the first tenet of the EPA Code, the committee finds that WORLD's two articles are written in sincerity (they believe what they say), courage (in that a controversial issue of public importance is addressed head-on), and with honesty (nothing in either article violates the philosophy of journalism to which Olasky is committed and WORLD is an expression). On the remaining points of the first tenet (accuracy, an avoidance of distortion, and sensationalism), the committee finds that WORLD falls seriously short of upholding the EPA Code. Aspects of the two articles approach accuracy, but both are gravely incomplete. WORLD set out to report on the changing language of Bible translations, yet the arguments brought forward to substantiate WORLD's editorial viewpoint were one-sided and dismissive of responsible alternatives. Relevant material concerning the production of Bibles in general, the NIV in particular, and concerning ancient biblical languages was omitted. In addition, the author dismisses with a single sentence the pivotal issue of whether, and how, our language is changing and how that might affect readers' understanding of Scripture. Accuracy demands that those who are cited in an article be contacted and given a chance to set the record straight, particularly when serious charges are being leveled. No philosophy of journalism sets writers free from this basic responsibility. This committee believes that WORLD's prominent linking of Zondervan Publishing House and a "feminist seduction," in view of WORLD's failure to contact Zondervan for comment or explanation, is inexcusable. With regard to distortion and sensationalism, this committee finds WORLD remiss in both articles. The author employed inflammatory language, insinuation, and a blatant appeal to anti-feminist sentiment. Poor writing is a deeply troublesome aspect of these articles. The use of terms such as "feminist seduction," "unisex language," and "stealth Bible" detract from a reasoned discussion of an important issue. The committee agrees that the more serious a charge or accusation a journalist makes, the more care and restraint the journalist needs to take in exploring it. The article appears to be a news report, yet techniques of commentary are evident, such as the third paragraph of the article, "Femme Fatale," which reads, "How have we arrived at this point?" In no way can such slanted, first-person editorializing be considered "reporting." By manipulative use of language, the author insinuated collusion between several evangelical entities and an ill-defined feminist agenda. Those responsible for the publication must exercise the utmost care that nothing contrary to the truth is published. The committee agrees this is an impossible standard, as none of us can vouch for the absolute truth of anything we say or publish. None of us can step out of time and space onto a platform by which absolute truth can be absolutely known, and our own statements absolutely affirmed. In the present case, the meaning of this section of EPA's ethics code must be akin to the notion in law of "actual malice," that is, knowing falsity or reckless disregard as to whether a statement is false or not. WORLD chose facts, quotes, and supporting data to put forward a point of view consistent with its editorial mission. WORLD published nothing which they knew to be false in advance, and have not demonstrated reckless disregard. Whenever substantive mistakes are made, whatever their origin, they should be conscious of their duty to protect the good name and reputation of others. The committee is at a loss to understand the meaning of this statement, as the subject of the main clause refers back to "substantive mistakes," rendering the statement unenforceable due to lack of clarity. To the degree that the statement intends to protect reputation, it can legitimately do so only in the context of a prior call to accurate reporting on issues of public importance, to which the parties in a dispute will necessarily disagree. Nonetheless, this tenet of the code is central to the concerns raised by Zondervan Publishing House (ZPH) in its request that this committee consider ethics charges. WORLD did not attempt to protect Zondervan's name or reputation. Instead, its articles engage in a set-up job: They draw spurious connections between feminism and Zondervan, the International Bible Society, and the Committee on Bible Translation, and then leap to a discussion on women's roles in churches. The implication is clear that in WORLD's view, Zondervan, et al., are contributing to the demise of a particular view of what women may do in church leadership. In doing so, WORLD seriously maligns the reputations of Zondervan, the IBS, and the CBT. In dealing with controversial matters, opposing views, when presented, should be treated honestly and fairly. Since no opposing views were presented by WORLD, this tenet of the EPA Code does not pertain. In conclusion, the committee finds in WORLD's two articles unwarranted inferences attributed to Zondervan and the CBT, and faulty conclusions which do not follow from the date presented. None of us on the ad hoc committee believe WORLD has proven its case in point; on the contrary, their view is substantially weakened by their resorting to tactics that would be unacceptable to most other EPA editors and editorial board. We believe WORLD has every right and reason to open discussion on important issues related to Bible translation and urge WORLD to publish a full account, with equal prominence, of the position taken by Zondervan and IBS in the interests of the public that WORLD purports to serve. Members of the Committee: Mark Fackler, Ph.D. Wesley Pippert (see "minority report" below) Beth Spring July 7, 1997 ----------- Addendum from Wes Pippert to the Ethics Committee Report on Zondervan/IBS versus WORLD magazine (Note: It is my intention that my signature to the committee's report be conditioned on the attachment of my separate comments. WGP) I, only in general, accept the findings of the ad hoc committee on Zondervan's grievance against WORLD over the magazine's coverage of possible publication of a revised New International Version of the Bible. I am offering the following comments that represent more fully express my own views. I am doing so for these reasons: 1. The First Amendment guarantees a tremendous amount of freedom of the press, with wide latitude given to boisterous, even unbalance criticism. Even though slashing journalism has never been my professional style, I am wary of doing anything that would abridge any journalist's (including members of the Evangelical Press Association) fundamental right to engage in this. If the EPA is going to require balanced stories by its members, what will happen when non-Christian group, such as Hindu or Buddhist or perhaps Unitarian, demands that an EPA member publish a balanced story complete with its non-Christian views? 2. The committee was not asked to critique Marvin Olasky's or WORLD magazine's philosophy of journalism. My own views on this philosophy already have been spelled out in print. I restricted myself to their handling of a particular story. 3. The EPA Code of Ethics is very ambiguous and needs to be reworked. I found it of little value in evaluating this matter. This is why I have chosen to respond to the task given to the committee in my own way. The guidelines I have followed in my comments are those that I have followed in editing literally tens of thousands of stories for publication. Now, the Zondervan complaint against WORLD: 1. WORLD's news judgment: WORLD magazine performed in proper journalistic ways in choosing to cover Zondervan's possible publication of a new version of the New International Version of the Bible and particularly, the handling of gender in the version. For all those who value Scripture, this is an important story. 2. WORLD's reporting: Since Hodder & Stroughton is NIV's British publisher, WORLD was correct in citing H&S's NIV Inclusive Language Edition as providing clues that Zondervan might publish a new edition and how it might handle gender. The examples listed from the NIV Inclusive Language in the second article, however, should have been included with WORLD's first article. Since Zondervan also publishes the New Revised Standard Version, WORLD acted properly in citing NRSV as providing clues as to how Zondervan views gender in Scripture. But this does not necessarily suggest that either NIV Inclusive Language or New Revised Standard Version is wrong in its use of gender. The key question in this dispute is not the infallibility and verbal inspiration of Scripture, or, especially, feminism. Rather, the central issue is: Would a new version truthfully and accurately translate the original manuscripts' handling of gender? WORLD should have sought the opinion of two or three of the best Hebrew scholars, ancient and modern, who were not involved in any way with either translation. The persons who were quoted in the articles do not meet this level of expertise. This was one of the major failures on the part of WORLD. Also, although not required to do so, out of simple fairness and decency WORLD should have asked Zondervan for comment before the first article was published. 3. WORLD's writing: This is another major problem with the WORLD article. Despite WORLD's First Amendment rights to use terms like "feminist seduction," "unisex language" (repeatedly), "stealth bible," etc., this usage did not contribute toward a reasoned discussion of the issue. In fact, it probably detracted from the serious and legitimate question WORLD was raising. One rule of thumb: The more serious a charge or accusation, the more care and restraint the journalist needs to take in dealing with it, particularly in the use of language. I do not know what a "complementarian" view is, and the article does not tell me. Another major problem with the article was clarity. I read and re-read the piece to learn exactly what the situation is. It was confusing. It seemed the writer was arguing a case without laying the proper foundation of facts. The following should have been stated clearly: 1. The New International Version is published in the United States by Zondervan and in Britain by Hodder & Stroughton. The NIV copyright is owned by the International Bible Society. The Committee on Bible Translation, made up of 15 biblical scholars, is described by Zondervan as "the guardians of the NIV text." 2. Hodder & Stroughton in Britain recently published the NIV Inclusive Language Bible. IBS International President Lars Dunsberg was quoted in "Priscilla Papers," published by Christians for Biblical Equality, that Zondervan and IBS "will publish an inclusive version of the NIV on the American market." These things have led to fair speculation that Zondervan will publish a similar version in the United States. 3. In response, Zondervan and the International Bible Society said they will "continue to move forward with plans for the possible publication of an updated edition of the present NIV" after 2001. A joint statement said they "never have considered, nor ever will consider" any changes in the NIV text that would deny the masculinity of Jesus ... or that are contrary to the original meaning of the biblical text." 4. The first article should have listed examples of gender from the Hodder & Stroughton's new NIV and from the NRSV, and then the article should have contained comments from several Hebrew scholars on these examples. 4. Zondervan's reaction: Zondervan needed to be more restrained in dealing with this issue. The committee was flooded with Zondervan's explanations, defenses, counter-accusations, etc. etc. Zondervan, in its many responses, also used language that was adamant tone. It used words like "wild assertion," "completely false and absolutely dishonest," and "shoddy journalism." It even quibbled over whether WORLD should have rounded the number of pages of the publisher's style sheet to three pages instead of two.

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