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.
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?
More journalists came to see their duty as exposing and overthrowing purportedly oppressive external influences such as religion and free enterprise. Then, progress would come. For many, the journalistic mission became one of helping to do away with capitalism or churches or schools or guns or meat or … something. Then our lives would improve.
Over the centuries each overarching understanding had its years in the sun. In colonial days, journalists frequently produced “official stories” that promoted rulers. Then, during the first century of the American republic, “corruption stories” flourished, chastising rulers who did wrong. During much of the 20th century leading reporters wrote “oppression stories” that attacked American institutions.
In the second half of the 20th century, a strange phenomenon emerged: The long-forgotten official story form made a comeback and merged with the oppression story form. The original impetus for O & O (official and oppression) was the civil rights movement, where the federal government (prodded by journalists) overturned centuries of oppression and helped to bring about equal rights for African-Americans.
Mainstream journalists went from that triumph to seeing the federal government as the change-making agent in a vast array of endeavors. U.S. officials would fight a war on poverty and lead the way to a great society. U.S. officials would fund the creation and expansion of schools and colleges. U.S. officials would teach people in poor countries to reduce their population growth. U.S. officials would do “nation building” in anarchic societies abroad.
In the eyes of O & O journalists, Washington’s best and brightest should bowl over not only local and state governments but also business corporations, churches, and community groups that get in the way of “progress.” O & O proponents praise those government leaders who seek to overthrow institutions that purportedly hold us back.
The biblical base
Now let’s turn to the biblical warrant, as derived from both the Old and New Testaments. Ezekiel 33 lays out the calling of those who watch for trouble: “If [the watchman] sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people, then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head.”
Christian journalists are watchmen charged with discerning the times and showing the challenges. Ezekiel also warned about dereliction of duty: “If the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.”
Luke begins his gospel by noting the importance of eyewitnesses to Christ’s deeds. He then writes a job description of the long-term goal of a Christian journalist: “just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
The Gospels are a news story, not an instructional manual. Luke and (at a far lower plane) Christian publications have the same goal: To proclaim Christ’s glory! They do that by not being surprised when bad things happen, but also not falling into hopelessness. They know that particular events are important because the world is important—but particular events are not ultimate. They are part of a bigger story of God accomplishing His will, so Christians can avoid panic even when things are bad.
Christian publications bake three-layered cakes—looking at events, reporting interpretations of events, and probing for deeper meaning—and in the process show people who overcome their circumstances because Christ gives them hope. Some journalists have contempt for ordinary folks, purportedly without imagination and trapped in dreams of materialist sugarplums. Christianity has a different view of human possibilities, one fully realistic but also fully optimistic: Jesus turned Simon, who dreamed of fish, into Peter, a fisher of men. He can do that to anyone, anywhere in the world, from any background, race, class, or ethnicity.
The common denominator in so many WORLD stories from Iraq to Iowa, stories about good programs and bad decisions, is that they all begin with the asking of questions about what’s going on at ground level in these locales. They start with interest in “ordinary” people. For a while WORLD had an annual feature, “No Little People, No Little Places,” taken from the words of Francis Schaeffer. We’ve continued that kind of reporting under different headlines: Our basic attitude is that every person and every place is important.
In short, a Christian journalist through his work answers each day a simple but crucial question: Whose world is this? Abraham Kuyper—a Dutch editor who was also a theologian and even served as prime minister of The Netherlands—answered that question this way: “Every square inch of creation belongs to Christ.” Let’s think about that. What if … every square inch is truly God’s? What if every person is made in God’s image? What if every moment is within God’s providence? How do our answers to those questions affect the way we report the news?
We talk in church about Christ as the fulcrum of history, with all things working by and through Him—but does that have any relevance to the way we cover events? We joke that in Sunday school the answer to every question is Jesus—but why is that almost never the answer in the news reports most of us read, even ones in some Christian publications.
A Christian journalist knows that Christ is not simply someone to praise in church. He’s the 800-pound gorilla in every living room. He’s hard not to notice, but some people ignore Him. Those who notice Him react positively (gorilla-sympathetic, gorilla-praising), negatively (gorilla-uncomfortable, gorilla-pretending-to-ignore), or with extreme and somewhat crazed negativity (gorilla-attacking). These roughly correspond to varieties of journalists and professors, or publications and colleges: atheist, agnostic, secular, theistic, pro-Christianity, Christian.
People contemplating careers in journalism need to think through where they want to be? It’s worthwhile to establish a theistic presence in a secular environment, or a pro-Christianity presence in a theistic environment. At some point, though, many Christians want to report and write at an enterprise that, following Kuyper, asserts that every square inch is Christ’s.
WORLD’s definition of a Christian journalist is one who not only goes to church for an hour on Sunday but believes that Christ rules 24/7. A Christian journalist trusts the biblical message that God created the world and is active in the life of His creation. Christian journalists know that God created a good world but Adam and Eve fell, and the whole creation with them.
Christian journalists see evidence of that fall—the sin and misery—all around us. But they also know that the Bible is a story of redemption. They see evidences of God remaking, repairing, and renewing this world. They report on brokenness and renewal in culture and education, in communities and families, in church and state.
It’s not easy to be a Christian journalist: Public relations is an easier pursuit. But one of my favorite movies, The Right Stuff, has an official telling pilot Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space, that the work of an astronaut is “dangerous. Very dangerous.” Shepard’s instant response: “Count me in.” That’s what prospective Christian journalists need to say.
1. Name something that happens anywhere in the world in which God would have no interest. Back up your argument with scriptural references indicating His lack of interest.
2. Describe a “Christian journalist.”