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Journalism & humility

Media | The two rarely go together anymore, but by following the Bible a Christian journalist can aspire to be a humble truth teller. Other current options-subjectivity-balancing or ideological commitment-leave reporters standing on shifting sand

Issue: "Lavelle's wonderful life," Dec. 25, 2004

"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:3-7).

Put the two words "journalistic humility" into the Lexis-Nexis electronic retrieval system. Ask for all articles over the past year that include the term. Here's the reply message: "No documents were found for your search. You should edit your search and try again."

A generation or two ago the reportorial ethic came as close to emphasizing humility as it ever has. A California friend of mine remembers that at The Orange County Register she enjoyed being "a fly on the wall," listening to a variety of views and then presenting them fairly rather than imposing or even insinuating her own. Columnists (like liberal Supreme Court justices) could flaunt their opinions, but reporters were to be strict constructors of stories and avoid legislating from their notepads.

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This was journalism still based on statements of faith such as "The Journalist's Creed," written by Walter Williams, Dean of the University of Missouri's Journalism School from 1908 to 1935. The creed states 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." Williams called for reporting that "fears God and honors man . . . self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers."

How many reporters followed that creed, let alone the Apostles' Creed, is hard to tell. Movies throughout the 20th century tended to emphasize journalistic cynicism and rudeness, but some reporters-particularly Christians like McCandlish Phillips of The New York Times-saw themselves as public servants, not puppet masters.

The chasm between modern mainstream media and Christianity now seems immense. Last month Mark McGuire of the Albany Times Union wrote that the gorge was inevitable because of "the conflict between religious faith and journalistic skepticism." He offered the hoary journalistic joke, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." He concluded that reporters can't take anything on faith, while Christianity is built on faith, so never the twain shall meet.

That analysis is provocative but flawed for one main reason: A major theme of the Bible is its repeated declaration that If your heavenly Father says He loves you, check it out. Why else would Luke stress at the beginning of his Gospel that he relied on eyewitnesses, that he had "followed all things closely for some time," and that his goal was to offer the recipient of his letter, Theophilus, "certainty concerning the things you have been taught"?

Why else are we instructed in Psalm 107 to "give thanks to the Lord, for He is good"? The psalm explains how God delivered from distress those who "wandered in desert wastes," those who "sat in darkness and in the shadow of death," those who "went down to the sea in ships" and, amid storms, "reeled and staggered like drunken men." The psalm gives the experience of deliverance that millions have had, and concludes, "Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things."

That appeal not for blind faith but for attending to the lessons of experience emerges throughout the Bible. For example, we can continue thumbing through Psalms and note 116:1, "I love the Lord, because He has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy." Or Psalm 118:5,"Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free." Or Psalm 119:65, "You have dealt well with Your servant, O Lord, according to Your word."

The Bible also offers the evidence from Israel's history to explain why we should have faith in God. In Joshua 24:7 God tells the Israelites, "Your eyes saw what I did in Egypt." In Acts 7:36 Stephen tells of how Moses showed God's power by "performing wonders and signs" not only in Egypt but "at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for 40 years."

Yet, what of the famous words in John 20:28? Jesus asked the apostle who became known as Doubting Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." Those sentences are sometimes taken, out of context, as signifying that faith and evidence are opposed.

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