Criticism of journalistic "sensationalism" has been common in the United States throughout the twentieth century. Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 complained that "sensational" journalism "does as much to vulgarize and degrade the popular taste, to weaken the popular character, and to dull the edge of the popular conscience, as any influence under which the country can suffer." In attacking sensationalism he could point to top circulation newspapers such as the New York American. One of its typical issues featured on page 1 a large picture of men attacking women in Alaska. Page 2 was mainly devoted to an illustrated discussion of the question, "Is Woman Human or Animal?" Page 3 discussed a "Woman with a Past," page 4 a torture chamber, and page 5 "The Black Spectre That Frightens Fashionable Brides at the Altar.''
Many critics of sensationalism have castigated the desire of editors to appeal to a wide audience, as if popularity necessarily meant lower quality. Newspapers should be solemn, they said. Roosevelt, though, wisely blamed not the mode of presentation itself, but the editors behind the style: "These men sneer at the very idea of paying heed to the dictates of a sound morality." And so the battle is joined: Is sensationalism inevitably a sneer at sound morality? Do the supermarket tabloids represent the only possible kind of sensationalism? Or might there be a Christian variety?
To answer such questions, we have to get our definitions straight. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "sensation" as "a condition of excited feeling produced in a community by some occurrence; a strong impression produced in an audience or body of spectators." Sensationalism, then, is the attempt in works of literature or art to produce such responses. One example given of usage, from 1863, is a comment on "the cheap publications which supply sensation for the millions in penny and halfpenny numbers." Sensational stories tend to emphasize death and destruction.
If sensationalism, properly defined, is an attempt to produce excited feelings and strong impressions, often through tales of trouble and disaster, then the inspired authors of the Bible were some of the prime early users of sensationalism. Moses quoted the first news report, Lamech's announcement in chapter 4 of Genesis that he "killed a man for wounding me." Later in Genesis come the original tales of sodomy, leading to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, followed immediately by the incest of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19).
Many more sensational events fill the pages of Genesis and the four following books of Moses. That part of the Bible culminates in the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience found in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy. The culmination of the curses is especially vivid, with Israelites told that unfaithfulness will lead to terrible war and starvation in which "you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you.... The most gentle and sensitive woman among you-so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot-will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For she intends to eat them secretly."
The slide downhill was speedy during the period described in the Book of Judges. When God wanted to show the effect of the Israelites ignoring Him-"There was no king in Israel"-His inspired author wrote of a man murdering his seventy brothers and X half-brothers, and of a woman being gang-raped and killed, with her husband cutting her into twelve pieces and then sending the body parts throughout Israel (Judges 9:5; 19:25-30).
Specific detail was not left out in Judges: Jael's assassination of Sisera was described in five graphic ways (Judges 4:22; 5:26). Similarly, when Ehud plunged his sword into the belly of the king of Moab, pungent description follows: "Even the handle sank in after the blade, which came out his back. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it" (Judges 3:21, 22).
By the time of Ahab and his son Joram, some of the curses for disobedience already were being realized. One woman told the king of her neighborly arrangement (2 Kings 6:28, 29): "This woman said to me, 'Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we'll eat my son.' So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, 'Give up your son so we may eat him,' but she had hidden him." Ezekiel promoted similar disgust at what God's covenant people had become when, in 23:20, 21, he wrote of how Judah "lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. So you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when in Egypt your bosom was caressed and your young breasts fondled."
Such characterization would not survive the word processors of today's newspapers, but Jeremiah explained God's methods simply in 19:3: "This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle." How can ears tingle if descriptions are mellow?
Directness was carried over to the New Testament as well. Paul, in Romans 1:27, did not mince words when he noted that men had "abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion." The Book of Revelation was war reporting at its most vivid. In the New Testament as in the Old, sensationalism showed the difference between God's holiness and man's depravity.
Christians who wanted to produce their newspapers in the image of Scripture regularly practiced sensationalism also. For instance, the Connecticut Courant in 1765 sounded very much like Jeremiah in showing the consequences of sin in a land of "indolence and oppression" where the Bible is not read and "no provision is made but from hand to mouth." A famine developed, and "in many places children expired in the arms of their mothers, who devoured them as soon as they were dead." Men tried to sell their wives and children "for a few dollars, to procure a short respite from the pangs of hunger and the approach of death."
The Boston Recorder during the 1820s regularly ran sensational accounts. For example, "Earthquake at Aleppo" included both a first-person account of destruction in Syria and an overall report. Benjamin Barker, on the scene, wrote that he was racing down the stairs of a crumbling house when another shock sent him flying through the air, his fall broken when he landed on a dead body. He saw "men and women clinging to the ruined walls of their houses, holding their children in their trembling arms; mangled bodies lying under my feet, and piercing cries of half buried people assailing my ears; Christians, Jews, and Turks, were imploring the Almighty's mercy in their respective tongues, who a minute before did not perhaps acknowledge him."
The Recorder's overall report continued the theme of sudden destruction affecting hearts and minds as well as bodies. It began with a description of the poor but peaceful city of two hundred thousand that Aleppo then was, with "nothing remarkable in the weather, or in the state of the atmosphere." But "in ten or twelve seconds" the city was turned into "heaps of ruins," with "hundreds of decrepit parents half-buried in the ruins, imploring the succor of their sons," and "distracted mothers frantically lifting heavy stones from heaps that covered the bodies of lifeless infants."
The Recorder noted that "the crash of falling walls, the shrieks, the groans, the accounts of agony and despair of that long night cannot be described." But the Recorder could describe the likely purpose behind such a sad event: "Earthquakes must be numbered amongst the 'terriblia Dei,' the 'terrible things of God,' in which His irresistible power to punish His sinful creatures is most awfully displayed: and which fill the human mind with greater terror than any other public calamity."
The Recorder then described great earthquakes of 1638, 1692, 1755, and 1783 and brought the point home: "Should not these awful demonstrations of divine power cause us to fear Him who can so suddenly sweep away a whole city into destruction? Should not sinners tremble to think how awful it is to have such a God for an enemy? Should they not immediately seek reconciliation to Him through the Blood of the Lamb?
The Recorder stressed the material/spiritual interface of earthquakes, which it argued were sent as a general punishment for sin, allowing the survivors the opportunity for new reconciliation with God. At Aleppo, according to the newspaper's account, many persons were seen "falling on their knees and imploring the mercy of God; and shortly after crowding the places of worship, eager to learn what they must do to be saved. Thus was it also in London in the year 1755." The Recorder then asked why sinners, standing "on the brink of eternity, and liable by a thousand means as fatal to life as an earthquake, to be hurried into eternity," do not "seek the Lord while He may be found."
Later in the nineteenth century many newspapers did not emphasize God's sovereignty explicitly, but they still used sensationalism to stress morals emphasized in books such as Proverbs. Stories about executions of criminals had Biblically-referenced headlines such as "The Gallows Too Good/The Unrelenting Fiend Should Go to Welcome Haman." Coverage paralleled the assertion in Proverbs that criminals lose out not only in the next life, but this one also: "Do not envy a violent man or choose any of his ways," for "these men lie in wait for their own blood; they waylay only themselves! Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the lives of those who get it" (Proverbs 3:31; 1:18, 19).
Editors sometimes followed Biblical example by stressing the consequences of adultery. Just as Proverbs compares man who sleeps with another man's wife to the man who hopes to "walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched" (6:28), so articles headlined "Shocking Domestic Tragedy" laid out sensationally the "tragic outgrowth of marriage infidelity in high life.'' As Proverbs compares a man sleeping with a prostitute to "a bird darting into a snare, little knowing it will cost him his life" (Proverbs 7:23), so the Houston Daily Post described how a man was hanged for a murder he committed in "a house of ill repute." The newspaper was explicit: "The black cap was drawn over his face and the noose arranged, and at three o'clock the cord holding the weight was cut and Doran was hurled into eternity. The body was left hanging eighteen minutes."
Many nineteenth-century newspapers also provided specific examples of the proverbial rule that one crime leads to another, until the person who has strayed "comes to rest in the company of the dead" (Proverbs 21:16). Newspaper stories often described the downward spiral of wrong behavior: A man forged another's name on bank papers and then tried to poison him to avoid prosecution, or a husband quarreled with his wife and then killed her with a carving knife.
Editors also applied the verse, "If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it" (Proverbs 26:27; see also Psalm 7:15; 9:15; Ecclesiastes 10:8). They ran headlines such as "A Shooter Shot Dead" (concerning a bandit who prided himself on a quick draw) or "He Is Fixed for Life," concerning a person who had hoped to steal enough to become financially independent, but ended up receiving a life sentence.
Convention reports from organizations such as the Texas Press Association showed that many editors were aware of their responsibilities. One editor, E. E. Harris, argued that "the press fills its largest and holiest function as the great schoolmaster of the age . . . for the good of humanity and the glory of God." Another editor wrote that "the press is the fair handmaiden of the Christian religion." Editor S. J. Thomas suggested that "the journalist is as surely called by divinity to his trade as is the minister of the gospel."
By the late nineteenth century in most parts of the United States the tendency to use sensation to teach Biblical morality had diminished, as newspapers had departed from Christian moorings. Yet, a sense of objective right and wrong still found its way into newspaper coverage of some sensational stories.
For example, newspapers did not accept the idea of no-fault, individual-choice suicide, and instead editorialized that suicides should receive more than pity: "It is necessary that we should also take into account the long concatenation of causes which have culminated in the tragedy-follies intellectual, moral, and physical . . . vices which are undeniable tokens of selfishness; passions to which the bridle has been given until it cannot be resumed; with all the waywardness and misemployed persistence of which the race is capable."
Underlying the harshness was a theological sensitivity revealed in this 1877 editorial: "The highest wisdom, therefore, even for a wretch whose life is saturated with sorrow, and for whom apparently there is no future, is to wait. Surely, considering how much we need them, faith and persistence should not be lightly abandoned. The very fact that we are not yet called from the scene of wearisome struggle and disaster, seemingly consummate, should prove to us that Providence has some design in continuing our existence."
Throughout the late nineteenth century, suicide was condemned by newspapers. Suicide often was described as an act committed by a person who had done wrong, but was unwilling to admit responsibility and ask for forgiveness. Newspapers saw suicide as a frequent after-effect of murder, adultery, or theft. For example, a man who committed suicide in a county jail was said to be receiving from his own hand the punishment he deserved for brutally kicking his aged mother to death three months previously.
Newspapers also publicized suicide by murderers and adulterers. The New York Tribune explained how a convicted wife murderer hanged himself in jail with a handkerchief. The Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story about a murderer hanging himself. The Chicago Tribune reported that one man took arsenic after learning of his wife's adultery. The New York Times had a man killing himself after his wife found love letters another woman had sent him.
Theft also was a leading cause of suicide, a reader of late nineteenth-century newspapers might conclude. A typical 1877 story dealt with the "Suicide of a Defaulting Cashier." Similarly, the Dallas Herald noted the cyanide-taking of a bookkeeper arrested for theft.
The physical end of suicidal thieves often was described with particular vividness. One front page story, "A Thief & A Suicide," showed how a bank robber shot himself and was found with "his face shattered and covered with blood." Another man, who also had a record of wife beating, slit his throat in the courtroom after being convicted of grand larceny. A bank defaulter was found "with half of his head blown off."
Was the violence necessary? The answer to that might depend on whether we really want to follow Jeremiah's procedure of making ears tingle when we communicate the results of sin, and the Boston Recorder's policy of emphasizing tribulation to increase awareness of God's sovereignty. As New York reporter Jacob Riis wrote, a murder story can "speak more eloquently to the minds of thousands than the sermon preached to a hundred in the church on Sunday." And yet, sensationalism frequently has been opposed by both materialists and Christians, although for different reasons.
Materialists have tended to criticize the view of man's lowliness that often seems implicit in tales of murder, rape or other crime. Over 150 years ago the atheistic journalist and reformer Robert Owen wrote, "Do you ask me wherein I put my trust, if religious responsibilities are annihilated? In human goodness. Do ye enquire what I propose as a substitute for religion? Cultivation of the noble faculties of the human mind." During all the years since, those in the Owen mold have been surprised by stories showing human goodness untrustworthy and faculties often ignoble.
Materialists also have proclaimed that children should not be exposed to reports of man's depravity, or else they might also disbelieve in those "noble faculties of the human mind" that are to save us. The Biblical view, though, is that children must quickly come to understand that man needs to depend on God for all things and that man without God is sinful and miserable. In any case, as children learn the Bible they will come across the sensational stories inside, and as they get older they will learn the facts of tragedy. It is far better for them to learn in a Christian context than elsewhere that we are sinners in the hands of a righteous (and for that reason angry) God.
Christians tended to object not to all sensationalism, but to the kind which preached that sin was not always wrong. From newspaper accounts in the 1920s, for instance, it would sometimes seem as if criminals like Bonnie and Clyde had committed victimless murders; they were glamorized while their victims, and the families of those victims, were ignored. Headlines such as "He Beat Me-I Love Him" or "Thousands Applaud While Woman Is Tortured for Amusement" became typical on some front pages. Meanwhile, the newspapers that could provide Biblical sensationalism were either defunct or sunken into anti-sensational staidness.
Modem sensationalism, in short, proclaims that there is no king in Israel, so every man is right in doing what he wishes, in being his own oracle. The troubles of others are spectator sport. As one newspaper critic noted about some typical early-twentieth century articles, "Last night this man was worth millions; this morning he has not a cent. Interesting. Yesterday this man was a pillar of his church; today he has two wives. Amusing. Last night he was a respected bank cashier, this morning he is in Canada. Alarming. This morning she was selling lace in a big dry goods store; tonight she is in the East River. Shocking. He quietly entered the house and put a knife into his wife and three children. Horrible."
Sensationalism, as the Bible and the nineteenth-century examples show, does not have to be like that. The type of sensationalism with which we in the twentieth century are most familiar shows the world groaning in sin, yet provides no explanation of why we have such troubles and what we can do about them. The lack of context is not surprising, since in the twentieth century many writers use their pens in an attempt to ink out God. But a Christian sensationalism could win readers while glorifying God.
CHRISTIAN SENSATIONALISM WITHOUT GUILT
The journalistic textbooks proclaim that sensationalism is wrong, and cite solemnity as a sign of seriousness. Given the requirements of the media marketplace, such belief ends up turning many current journalists into shamefaced sensationalists. A multiple murder, just in time for the 11 o'clock news, with good film, is impossible to resist, for ratings purposes if nothing else. Journalists give in grudgingly and feel they have sold out. Or, in some cases-as with a frequent lack of suicide coverage-journalists do not cover a story in depth, if at all, and for not taking that job they feel very righteous. The straight-laced New York Times is seen as newspaper heaven.
The journalistic goal, though, should not be self-righteousness, but the production of lively and edifying newspapers and news programs. Non-Christians are increasingly having trouble doing that, since humanistic sensationalism fosters feelings of journalistic guilt. Christians can provide salt, not by censoring coverage but by expanding it; by making newspapers not in our own image but in the image of God's newspaper, the Bible; by helping readers realize not that editors are godlike, but that only God is Godlike.
To contemplate sensationalism constructively, it is necessary to keep in mind Biblical journalistic purpose. The Christian reporter's goal should be to provide a complete account, material and spiritual, as best he can within the limits of everyday journalism. If a Christian wants to report only the elevating and not the depressing, he is forgetting that in Christianity there is no repentance without an awareness of sin, no triumph without suffering, and no resurrection without the cross. The proper use of sensationalism could help Christians win back an audience of readers from those who purvey tragedy as amusement rather than education.
Readers and viewers should be unashamed about wanting sensational stories of disaster and death. Such stories appeal to us, in part, because they are telling us something important about our post-fall human condition. If, though, sensational stories teach readers and viewers to believe that man is not responsible before God, that obedience is not a requirement, that man's sin results from forces outside his control, and that society is responsible for crime because revolution or evolution has not proceeded fast enough, then the stories are appealing to our depravity, our desire to live without God. Sometimes they may even appeal to our sinful tendencies to gloat or to enjoy the suffering of others.
Biblical sensationalism, however, can provide bad news and good news by showing sin and repentance, and the reasons for thanksgiving day by day. Biblical sensationalism can portray man as sinner, fully responsible before God who requires obedience. It can make ears tingle at the news of punishment for breaking God's law. It can educate readers or viewers and inoculate them against the belief that sin is without consequences. It can be the two-by-four that is often necessary to gain our attention. And it can do all this in a way that people will read.
In addition, Christians can report as sorrowful participants rather than gleeful spectators. After all, Paul explained in Romans that all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory. Christians who understand man's tendencies toward evil realize that every murder or suicide is neither an exotic man-bites-dog story nor a result of environmental pressure. Christians know that the murderous thoughts inside all of us are akin to murder; so the tale of murder itself is not bizarre, but a reminder to all of us. (If "news" is defined as deviation from the norm, then good news-taken for granted by those with faith in man-is truly news for Bible-believing Christians.)
Furthermore, Christians should be among the best at producing human interest stories of all kinds, because Christians are commanded to be truly interested in humans. For non-Christian reporters coverage of the macro issues of politics is prestigious, while the crime beat is something for newcomers or those who could not hack it elsewhere. A prevalent non-Christian belief was summarized well by Lincoln Steffens, the muckraker capsuled in Chapter Three. The cause of trouble in the Garden of Eden was not Adam, Eve, or even Satan, but the apple.
Steffens was arguing that the real story of man is economic; the personal just reflects the societal. People are victims of circumstance, not truly responsible for their own actions, not truly important. For Christians, though, the most important battles are not fought out in Washington: They are fought out in the human soul. "Big questions" are reflections of that largest-of-all struggle.
CAUTIONS AND CONCLUSIONS
Christians who wish to reinvigorate sensationalism must be careful to avoid malicious gossip. Human disasters cannot always be connected to specific, personal sins that may have preceded them. Those who force such connections are in the position of Job's; friends giving bad advice because they did not know that the war in the heavens was claiming one more victim. Particularly when reporters are writing against deadline, discernment is vital if false inference from inadequate evidence is to be avoided.
Christian reporters are not inspired. In our zeal to apply Biblical explanations for tragedy, we must avoid premature explanation, exaggeration, or malicious whispering. Forcing an explanation that seems to agree with a particular doctrinal or ideological perspective is also a danger. Christian journalists must remember that true justice, not poetic justice, pervades the world. This means we know that the Judge of the whole world does right, but-with Satan still going to and fro in the world-many tragedies are unpredictable from our human vantage point and may not have a journalistically discernible cause.
To some, it might seem strange to mention coverage of sensational events and truth-telling in the same paragraph, since the two have so often seemed opposed in non-Christian publications. God's world, though, is full of wonderful and terrifying things, and Christians are often faced with the question of whether to downplay the latter. That temptation must be resisted if we are to witness fully to our faith in God's sovereignty and justice, come what may. We tell the truth about the type of creator God is when we do not try to apologize for Him.
Disciplined truth-telling cannot be based on our own character development alone, but on the belief in God's sovereignty that only faith can bring. Telling the truth about a sorrowful incident is not easy. Augustine, after describing some of the difficult situations a person must face, noted that he found it very difficult "to resist when someone says to me: 'Look, here is a patient whose life is endangered by a serious illness and whose strength will not hold out any longer if he is told of the death of his dearly beloved only son. He asks you whether the boy is still alive whose life you know is ended.'"
Augustine then posed the hard question: "What will you answer when, if you say anything except 'He is dead' or 'He is alive' or 'I don't know,' the patient will believe that he is dead, because he realizes that you are afraid to say and do not want to lie? It will be the same no matter how hard you try to say nothing. Of the three convincing answers, two are false: 'He is alive' and 'I don't know,' and you cannot utter them without lying. But, if you make the one true answer, namely, that he is dead, and the death of the anguished father follows hard upon it, people will cry that he was slain by you."
Augustine wrote that he was "moved by these arguments," but then he "put before my mind's eye the intellectual beauty of Him from whose mouth nothing false proceeded," and was "so inflamed by love of such great beauty that I despise all human considerations that call me back from there."
In a hard case of that sort, it takes enormous discipline born of faith to think of the "intellectual beauty" of God's truth. Yet, those who see the beauty realize that our most vivid teaching about man's fallenness comes from the large and small disasters we see around us. The Boston Recorder, at the end of its coverage of the Aleppo earthquake, asked a hard question: "Must we tempt God to visit us also with an earthquake?" Sensational destruction forced many in Aleppo to consider their Creator, the Recorder suggested that God could use its sensational accounts to make some readers think of spiritual questions while they still could.
We know, therefore, that even disaster accomplishes something. It requires faith to understand that God protects, in life or in death, those who believe in Him. In the words of Paul to the Colossians, Christ has "reconcile[d] to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (1:20). But if news organizations do their job properly disaster also brings edification for those who look on with wonder and horror. When even Christian news organizations play down news of fallenness and the long-term consequences of the original fall, they are denying a truth that Martin Luther proclaimed: "It is impossible for a human heart, without crosses and tribulations, to think upon God."
Sensationalism, in short, gains audience, but it also can educate that audience. The inspired writers of the Bible wanted to make ears tingle. So did American Christian journalists in the early nineteenth century. Tingling ears often are learning ears. They tend to belong to people who will come back for more stories of life and death, sin and misery, repentance and revival.
In the nineteenth century, pride-a refusal to take audience tastes into account-contributed to the fall of many Christian publications. Their refusal to employ sensationalism actually meant that some editors were thinking themselves better than God, who showed in the Bible that He wants many sensational things reported. We should not make that mistake again: With God's grace, Biblical sensationalism is the key to successful Christian publishing and programming.
|PART THREE QUOTE
|Whenever we see ourselves as weak, we should not concentrate on our own frailty, but should gaze-both eyes-up God's glory.|