Our journalistic task

And why I like to see overly full classrooms

Issue: "Court in the balance," April 1, 2000

In the early years of WORLD magazine, I always said that reporters and writers who wanted to contribute to what we then called our "arts and media" section had to have three qualifications:

First, they had to demonstrate that they knew what was actually going on in the work they wanted to review for WORLD readers. It's easy to head for a theater, a museum, a concert hall, or a library simply to be entertained. But to approach a symphony, a painting, a novel, or a movie with some kind of thoughtful insight is something else again. Because Francis Schaeffer so engagingly called on Christians during the 1960s and 1970s to apply their intellect to such activities, he gave new dimension to what we call a Christian worldview.

Even so, most Christians (like most non-Christians) tend today to interact with their culture only on an unthinking, uncritical, and superficial level. They can't analyze the lyrics of a song or critique the theme of a film in any meaningful way-and especially not from a biblical point of view. So at least 95 percent of all applicants for writing reviews for WORLD proved to be unqualified; they simply couldn't analyze what was really going on in the activity they were assigned to cover. (I hasten to add that it's precisely because I so often couldn't do that myself in many fields that I was looking so hard for someone qualified to do it for me!)

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Second, of the very small cadre of those who could demonstrate they had the intellectual firepower to approach the task of accurate analysis-of those very few who really did seem to know what was happening in a particular work of art-I still had to ask a couple more questions. Could they write with clarity and interest about what they had just seen? You've had professors, for example (especially in math!), who understood their subject very well, but couldn't explain it worth a toot. So what good is it if some scholar can tell you exactly what is happening sociologically and politically in a bestselling book if the reader has no interest in going past the second paragraph of his review? Sadly, this qualification tended to eliminate four out of the five lonely applicants still standing at the door of my office. A few folks with decent insight, but hardly any who could hold our attention while describing those insights.

And I still had a third qualifying question. Could this brilliant survivor, who had persuaded me that he or she had both unusual insight and compelling writing skills, do the work assigned with what I call a "shepherd's heart"? For I knew from experience that WORLD readers disagree vigorously with each other on many of these cultural topics. Could this reviewer treat them in a manner that was respectful of those differences? Might there be enough vigor and force to make it interesting, but enough sensitivity and tenderness to make it palatable? I wasn't looking for wimps, you understand-but good shepherds are rarely wimps.

Then, as I've described here before, a startling thought overwhelmed me. If this was a valid three-part test for WORLD's reviewers, why not for all our writers? For in one sense, a newsmagazine is itself an extended review. Besides movies, TV programs, and music albums, we review political happenings, social patterns, educational developments, scientific breakthroughs, and economic shifts. Don't the same qualifications apply? Whether we're talking about the Republican and Democratic primaries and then the big presidential campaign, about the sex-slave trade in southeast Asia, or about a pro-homosexual partnership vote in Vermont, our journalistic task is always to take the reader right to the essence of the story, to do that with color and zest, and to keep in mind that there will always be thoughtful Christians who might properly disagree about some of the nuances and details.

So it is WORLD's ongoing task not just to find a handful of folks who can practice this kind of journalism in our review pages, but from the beginning of each week's magazine to the very end. And my main point in reviewing some of these details here is to say loudly and clearly: The woods aren't full of such folks.

In fact, until last year we were unaware of a single journalism education program anywhere in the country devoted to preparing reporters and writers with those unique insights and capabilities. Now the World Journalism Institute, right here under our own roof, is committed to nurturing a growing number of young men and women each year. In its first year, some 37 people have been exposed at different levels to this unique understanding of the journalistic task. More than half a dozen of them have already had their work appear in WORLD and other outlets.


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