Showing, not telling

Reporting depravity requires tough editorial choices

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

Mrs. Jones of Redcrest, Calif., this column's for you!

Readers sometimes wonder what a model letter to the editor is like-a letter that warms his heart, challenges his thinking, and provokes a personal response.

Here's the model, provided by Mrs. Jones, with the editor's reactions interspersed. She began in a most salutary fashion:

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"My family has subscribed to your magazine for several years now. [Yes!] I've enjoyed the thoughtful, thought-provoking articles [Yes!!] and carried on mental dialogues with your editorials [nicely put!] until Joel Belz and Marvin Olasky seem like personal friends. [Yes!!!]

"I remember when Mr. Olasky became the new editor and watched with enjoyment [Yes!!!!] the changing and, I believe, [can there be any doubt?] improving format of your magazine. I've suffered through the poor mail service too [we feel each other's pain!] with three issues in one week [nice bit of specific detail] being my personal record.

"It is to my shame that I finally write only to complain [uh-oh] but"-and here page one stops. You can imagine how quickly I turned the page: "could you explain the reasoning for your regularly listing several gruesome murders under a title like "Man without God" or "The Depravity of Man" in the Publick Occurrences section? I find it disturbing and repellent to read such tragedy casually summarized in anonymous little sentences. My imagination grapples with awful images ... what's your point? I do trust you have a reason but it just isn't clear to me."

An excellent question and expression of concern-and here's our point: We believe that when man turns away from God, he acts like a beast, and that beastliness will show itself sometimes in awful crimes. We do not want to dwell on them, but if we ignore them we're ignoring evidence for the understanding of man's sinfulness that is essential to Christianity: For if man without God is not a beast, then Christ's sacrifice for us was unnecessary.

Furthermore, we do try to have biblically directed journalism, and make the Bible our guide for what's acceptable and what's not. When God's inspired writers wanted to show us what happens when Israel turns away from God, they wrote about incest, cannibalism, and even gruesome things like gang rape, as in chapter 19 of Judges.

Moving to more recent times, we like to think of ourselves as successors to Christian journalists who wrote and edited from the Reformation through the mid-19th century, when mainline American journalism turned essentially atheistic. That's why-you know this, but new subscribers may not-we have page headings like "Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick" (that was the name of the first American newspaper, published by a Puritan in 1690) and "Remarkable Providences."

One of the last energetic Christian newspapers was put out in New York City by John McDowell, a Presbyterian minister. In 1834 he explained his journalistic technique by noting all the passages in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and many other books that sensationally expose vice and sin, and then writing that "true Christians will never hesitate to follow an example set by their Father in heaven.... Shall we be wiser than God?"

Those are our defenses, in theory--but managing editor Nick Eicher and I are clearly not inspired in our writing and editing, and we do fall short. We always need to watch tone. We always want to be lively and pointed, but it's easy in pushing the back of the envelope to poke fingers through it. We do not want to go beyond what is necessary to show what man without God is like.

We are also aware that some children of middle-school age read WORLD. We wish that America at the end of the millenium were not a place where gruesome stories occurred, but they do, and it is important for children rocketing toward or through the emotional and physical changes of puberty to learn that their true security is in Christ. Again, there are fine lines here, and in the press of putting out a weekly magazine we may sometimes step over them.

When we mess up, we do want to hear from you, especially if you can write as sweetly as Mrs. Jones. Her letter ended, "I respect your thoughtful consideration of issues and ideas beyond what most people ever bother to consider [Yes!] and, be assured, I'll be reading you."

That's what we like to hear.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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