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The Christian journalist

Media | How Bible-believing journalism fits within the American system of government and how it makes reporters watchmen of bad news and tellers of good news

Each year we put about 14 Christian college students and recent graduates through a two-week training course, and give about half of them summer internships at WORLD or at secular newspapers. The intensive training emphasizes hands-on tutelage in writing, sound, photography, and videography, but we occasionally discuss the why of journalism as well as the who, what, when, where, and how. Here’s how we start.

Lesson 1: Why journalism matters

Why do some Christians become journalists?

It couldn’t be the money: Some journalists become rich, but not many. It couldn’t be the prestige: Americans on surveys place journalists near the bottom of the barrel, alongside politicians and funeral directors.

It could be ego: Journalists can see their words and bylines on paper and online, and their faces on television and in pixels. It could be power, the opportunity to hype the reputation of some people and ruin other’s. Biblically, we are all fallen sinners, so we respond to some unholy appeals.

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It could be excitement and fun: Most journalists, instead of sitting behind a desk all day, go to odd events and meet extraordinary people. And it could also be—among Christians, I hope it is—a desire to use God-given talents to serve others as helpful citizens of the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God.

This lesson explores in two ways the crucial role of Bible-believing journalism: First, where it fits within the American system of government, with its separation of powers and checks and balances. Second, how Christian journalists are watchmen regarding bad news and tellers of good news, following the teaching of Ezekiel and Luke.

The constitutional base

Bible-believing journalists had a crucial role when the United States was founded—most newspapers and magazines then were explicitly Christian—and have a critical role again today. The reason we have freedom of the press in America is not because the Founders liked reading newspapers—although they did. The reason is that they saw journalists as having a vital role in preserving liberty.

The Founders, because they understood man’s tendencies to lord it over others, created a system of checks and balances. They did not like monarchy because it could lead to tyranny. They did not like aristocracy, because it could result in feudalism. They also didn’t want democracy by itself, because it could lead to “mobocracy,” rule by crowd psychology and the passions of the moment.

They created a mixed government featuring a separation of powers. They made the president like a constitutional monarch. They created a Senate that they thought would be an aristocracy. They created the House of Representatives as the voice of democracy.

They foresaw a time when the executive and the legislative branches might join forces to preserve their own power, at the expense of liberty, so they created a Supreme Court that would prevent or at least curtail such grabbing. If the Supreme Court did not do its job, they thought state legislators would stand up in their capitals and say, “No.”

And what if, by some remote stretch of the imagination, the Supreme Court disregarded big chunks of the Constitution and allowed the executive and legislative branches to gain an extraordinary amount of power and money? What if the central government succeeded in bossing around the states by threatening to withhold funds if the states would not bow to their will?

The Founders believed in one more check on corruption. They believed in the power of journalism. As Thomas Jefferson put it in 1787, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Journalists were the last defense against tyranny.

Jefferson and others had faith in journalism because newspapers had come a long way during the 18th century. When the century began, what could be called “the official story” dominated colonial American journalism. The job of a journalist was to trust the king and his royal governors, print what officials wanted printed, and not print anything that would hurt their reputation.

Journalists, in short, did public relations for officials. The idea was that if people lost confidence in officials, anarchy could result and everyone would be hurt. In Jefferson’s lifetime, though, the purpose of American journalism changed. More editors understood the Bible’s story: Creation to corruption to Christ. They were willing to expose corruption, even if they might be jailed for doing so—and some were.

For more than a century many journalists proceeded boldly because they embraced the New Testament’s news story of God saving sinners through Christ’s sacrifice. By the 20th century, though, numerous journalists did not believe the good news of Christ redeeming us. They saw man as naturally good, not corrupt. They asked the question: If we’re good, what makes us bad?

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