Coordinating Journalism and Faith

When I began my secondary education at the University of Iowa on a journalism scholarship (which by the way is not even close to a full ride. I think it might have been enough to buy books), I knew that I wanted to be a journalist. It’s been more than 30 years, I hate to admit, but even then the evangelical Christian community in which I was nurtured saw media as secular and liberal–hostile to Christians, or at least disinterested.

The analysis has changed only slightly in recent years, as more conservative outlets such as talk radio are available, and Fox News doesn’t treat Christian as a dirty word. But the analysis of mainstream media has changed little in the conservative Christian churches of America.

There are plenty of radio stations, publications, and some television stations that are overtly Christian. But in most cases they are not journalistic. They adhere to advocacy, sometimes posing as journalism. Contrary positions are not given ink, and the journalistic ethics I learned in j-school are routinely discarded. The easiest way to get a news story on a Christian radio station is to buy advertising. Often, this isn’t even voiced in hushed tones.

There are some good things happening in Christian media, I should hasten to say (since as a public relations practitioner I have to work with these folks). Salem Communications is the real deal. World (http://www.worldmag.com) and Christianity Today (http://www.christianitytoday.com) magazines are true examples of journalism in the evangelical world.

The current issue of Columbia Journalism Review has an interesting article (http://www.cjr.org/issues/2004/5/beckerman-god.asp) on the efforts of the World magazine community, the World Journalism Institute. The group that offers quarterly seminars for aspiring or working journalists who are professing Christians. The reporters of CJR met some of the zealots who attended one of the seminars, and heard among the young students the passion and anger about mainstream media that I’ve heard my whole life.

The director of the Institute, however, is a seasoned journalist and professor, Robert Case, who understands the emotion but is holding up as a moderating examples people such as former New York Times reporter John McCandlish Phillips.

The CJR piece reads:

To younger journalists, Phillips’s name might not ring a bell, but for the eighteen years he worked as a reporter for The New York Times, from 1955 to 1973, he was considered one of its very best writers. Gay Talese, who was at the Times during the same period, has said of him, “There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.”

He also was, and still is, a devout evangelical who kept a Bible on his desk at the Times “as a statement of who I was and what I believed,” he says. He doesn’t like the term Christian journalist. He sees himself rather as a journalist who happens to be Christian. “You are not out on a campaign for a conversion of souls; you are out on a very direct campaign to get information for an organ of public knowledge,” Phillips told me.

His work at the Times was distinguished by a fine, almost sensual attention to detail that was the envy of other journalists. He wrote features that depicted ordinary people with the richness of Technicolor — a Brooklyn high-school principal who was also a ragtime piano player, a homeless man and his social life at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and, famously, a Jewish boy from Queens who became an American Nazi and a Ku Klux Klansman. But in the newsroom, Phillips largely kept his distance from fellow reporters, staying clear of the gambling and heavy drinking that engaged some of his colleagues after work. He says it’s an “absurdity” to think there should be any contradiction between being both an evangelical and a professional journalist. “I found them rather well coordinated,” he says.

In the CJR article, Case instructs students at the World Journalism Institute to: “First, endeavor to be extraordinary journalists. Then, you will have earned the right to bring your evangelical perspective into the newsroom, and offer an alternative to the godless and cynical atmosphere that he and most evangelicals believe predominates in the press.”

There’s a nice Terry Mattingly article on John McCandlish Phillips at http://tmatt.gospelcom.net/column/2000/09/20. Phillips, Mattingly writes, “has lived in two radically different worlds. Few journalists appreciate what goes on in churches, he said, and few church people understand what goes on in newsrooms. He believes that this warps the news.”

Robert Case knows that there’s some warp on both sides, something he is addressing through the World Journalism Institute.

–James Jewell

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About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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