Power of Words in An Age of Image (Russell Chandler)

Speech delivered at the World Journalism Institute's summer term closing banquet (Santa Clarita, CA, June 21, 2002)

By Russell Chandler

 A friend of mine told me recently that he and his wife had words. Problem was, he said he never got to use his.
Words are powerful. If – and how – we use and interpret them makes all the difference.
Consider these headlines (forgive me; I'm an old newspaper man!):

 Medic Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim

 Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case

 Milk Drinkers are Turning to Powder

 Iraqi Head Seeks Arms

 Stolen Painting Found by Tree

 Here are a couple of sports headlines:

 Grandmother of Eight Makes Hole in One

 Shot off Woman's Leg Helps Nicklaus to 66

 How about some crime news:

 Deaf Mute Gets New Hearing in Killing

 Two Convicts Evade Noose, Jury Hung

 Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Ax

 

And these:

Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over

Never Withhold Herpes Infection from Loved One

Stud Tires Out!

Prostitutes Appeal to Pope

 

Here are my favorites:

 Two Sisters Reunited After 18 Years in Checkout Counter

 Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers

 Eye Drops off Shelf

 Survivor of Siamese Twins Joins Parents

 

And this:

 British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands

 

Indeed, words as well as political parties can waffle, as this weather report attests:

 Sun or Rain Expected Today, Dark Tonight

“Daytime rain or sunshine activity expected, lasting throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Look for high temperatures to be warmer than the lows. Variable winds may develop from any direction. Tonight: dark conditions. Tomorrow: increasing lightness towards dawn, with a good chance of continuing until dusk.” (Plattsburg (NY) Press-Republican)

 Word Power.

 Words can amuse. They can delight.

Words can also manipulate, waffle and lie.

Words can persuade, and words can mislead.

Words can distract, and words can inspire.

Words can touch the heart, arouse to passion, and convict of truth.

Words can bring wonder, awe, comfort, forgiveness, bonding, certainty, understanding, insight and clarity.

They can also cause anger, distortion, confusion, ambiguity, embarrassment, separation and destruction.

Words convey power.

They can give life. And they can kill. They can tear down, and they can build up.

In heaven, according to Dante, words and images are unnecessary. There, we can apprehend immediately without intermediate signs. In his Paradiso, other spirits read Dante’s mind and he develops the ability to understand intuitively. Astronomical perplexities are instantly unknotted for him, without words. (Paradiso 22:145-150)

For us here on earth, we look forward to that time in heaven when we will enjoy this form of intuitive knowing. Paul, in I Corinthians 13:12, tells us that though “now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we will see face to face.” And though we now know only in part, then we shall know fully, even as we are already known by Jesus Christ. (NIV)

For now, however, words and images, rough-hewn and inadequate as they often are, must suffice.

As author Max Lucado says, “Pray all the time. If necessary, use words.” (Grace for the Moment, p. 183)

The Age of Image and Changes in Communication

This evening I want to speak about the power of words in an age of image.

The present challenge for us journalists and wordsmiths is increasingly difficult and complex.

The electronic communications revolution, say the experts, is the largest change since the development of writing.

Let that sink in for a moment. Not television. Nor Marconi’s radio. Not Gutenberg’s printing press. The beginning of writing! Cave man. Stone tablets.

Cuneiform to computers.

I suspect I don’t need many words to convince you of that, following your rigorous two weeks of classes about Reporting on the Popular Culture. Or better, I think, call it Reporting in the Midst of Popular Culture. For none of us can truly escape culture’s grasp.

We have rocketed from Cuneiform to Computer in the fundamental organization and transmission of knowledge in a very short span. And I’m convinced that you graduates need to be on the cutting edge of understanding cultural trends, and in understanding how to catch the waves of God’s Spirit. You need to be able to communicate the Good News through the lens of the Daily News.

Changes in communication are key in understanding the fundamental way we see the world. Institutions, society, social structures, culture, the family, churches, all change when communication changes. They are linked.

So, let’s zero in on Communications for a moment. We operate in an interactive, globally linked, instantaneous 24/7, virtual communications environment. The world is open for business 24 hours a day and information is available anytime, anywhere.

When ML and I traveled in the isolated highlands of Scotland last year, we were able to sign on and get our e-mail from a tiny cybercafé in an outpost town. There, for example, the search engine Google can link you to the same information as in Boston or LA – or Kabul.

This globalization knits us together in one world. But while it unites, it also divides by heightening differences that weren’t so readily perceived before.

In tension with the unifying force of globalization is the centrifugal force of identity, in the form of ethnicity, or of religion. Sept. 11 painfully pointed that out. These counteracting forces split our world apart.

Example: Now we know about the jihad culture, a brand of Islam; its name can mean either struggle, or holy war. The basis of its appeal is complex, but it involves the collective sense in the Muslim world that Israel and the West have emasculated Islam and undermined its greatness. So culture and religious tensions divide, despite globalization.

An explosion of knowledge and resources and options has given rise to a kind of global, universal culture, but with very sharp regional, ethnic and religious distinctives.

What does this Communications Revolution in an Age of Image mean for your upcoming jobs – and perhaps careers – as writers, editors and speakers?

How do some of these cultural trends play out in your future role? Where is Christian Word Power in an age of changing values, meanings and approaches?

And what can you do to increase your Word Power? Let me suggest some steps:

(1) Seek Truth and Accuracy  

Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades in 1912 founded Pravda, the ponderous and most famous Communist newspaper; it folded in 1996. Arguably, it was history’s most inaccurately named publication: Pravda in Russian means truth.

“Lies,” said the New York Times on the occasion of Pravda’s demise, “were the special talent of the Soviet leadership, and as its official mouthpiece Pravda was the best showcase for that talent” (from Santa Barbara News-Press, July 31, 1996).
 

For on August 30, 1922, the newspaper described the origins of what would become the largest system of death camps in modern history. It said: “The experience of the first few months during which the compulsory labor camps have operated on the basis of self-financing have produced positive results.”

Words can tell truth, and they can tell lies. Big lies.

In Russia, there’s a joke inspired by decades of “revisionist history” reflecting Communist Party doctrine. “In Russia,” the joke goes, “it is impossible to predict the past.” (Quoted in Carpe Manana: Is Your Church Ready to Seize Tomorrow, by Leonard Sweet, Zondervan, 2001.)
 

Several summers ago, Dr. Jack Kevorkian assisted a woman who lived in a town near us to commit suicide. The basis for his action was her words that she was suffering a debilitating illness. But an autopsy revealed that she apparently had no diseases in her body (Santa Barbara News-Press, p. A-1, July 31, 1996).

Words have the power to do wrong. Or do right. They can give life. And they can kill.

Today, “truth” is often a matter of spin, tweaking the “facts” for what appears to be worthy ends. I urge you not to compromise truth in order to tell a story. Or sell a book.

Take the High Ground.

People are tired of propaganda and doublespeak. In our society communication has become a kind of code, a fundamental currency. We do not just say things; they have more than face value. They have context, and they are going to be interpreted in context and in a series of contexts. Media-savvy spin doctors and jargon jockeys anticipate, control and deal with what is said in a way that is powerful. Watch for them!

The response to words can be at a deeper level than just how untruthful the words themselves might be. Especially in an Age of Image where so many people have lessened powers to discriminate and to discern the bogus from the genuine.
 

I encourage you to subscribe to QV, a quarterly newsletter for Christian journalists. The initials are taken from the Latin words for “the pursuit of truth.” QV focuses on how Christians serve their Lord in the field of journalism and how journalism handles religion reporting. (Julia Duin, who is a member of the board of Gegrapha, the organization that publishes QV, may have already told you about QV in her class this week. To find out more, call 800/373-9692.)

(2) Seek, Make and Keep Promises 

There's a great hunger these days for both truth and for People of Promise. We sense a national yearning to find those who seek, receive, make and keep promises, to cite the foundation of the popular Promise Keeper Christian men’s movement.

Remember when Forrest Gump promises Bubba that they will be partners in his shrimp business and later gives half his earnings to Bubba’s mother? The poor woman is so shocked when Gump keeps his promise that she passes out on her front porch.

Can our Word be our Bond? Can Christian writers be “as good as their word”? As honorable as Forrest Gump?

God requires no less.

Words can bond. Or they can separate.


(3) Keep up with Changing Concepts and Meanings 

The meaning of words changes. And their impact and power correspondingly shift. Especially when they are used in conjunction with images, sounds, motions and colors. Taken together, for example, MTV is a potent communication and values change-agent.

Christian communicators, happily, are realizing their need to stay current and in touch.
 

Now, I’m not suggesting that we go with each and every fad and buzzword. And let’s avoid needlessly complicating essentially simple concepts.

Words can confuse and distract. Or they can clarify and bring understanding.

(4) Connect with the Culture 

Journalists are out there writing the first draft of history. And that gives an adrenaline rush!

And lest you think that Christians and others of high character and standards who have chosen journalism aren’t making a difference, let me give you an example of the good (daily) news:
 

Peggy Wehmeyer: Until recently, Peggy Wehmeyer, a Christian, was the nation’s only major TV network religion correspondent. Peggy, a good friend, was based at the ABC News Bureau in Dallas and reported regularly for “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings,” and for “20/20.”
 

She spoke last year at Samford University in Birmingham at a student gathering. Peggy said, “I felt that television was out of touch with the people they were covering. My job has been to translate the culture of network media and the culture of American religious life.” In essence she was doing for TV what I felt my role was as a religion writer for The Los Angeles Times.
 

“If we are to be creative journalists,” Peggy told the audience, “we must find creative ways to tell the way religion plays a role in people’s lives.” She added that she tried to do stories that lower the walls that divide people.
 

Faith matters. More than ever since 9-11. In personal lives, and in the world political scene. Connect faith with culture.

(5) Take Advantage of Technology 

I want to acquaint you with ReligionLink, a new “tip sheet” project of the Religion Newswriters Foundation. ReligionLink launched just this March. Every other Monday it offers reporters resources on story ideas, background, and sources about religion and public life.

Best, it’s free to journalists across the country. Delivered by e-mail, it’s posted on the Religion Newswriters Association web site: www.religionwriters.com.
 

Why is the RNA doing this? Listen to what ReligionLink’s editor says:

“More and more, religion pops up in all kinds of stories – politics, government, state legislatures, schools, social services, science and entertainment . . . ReligionLink aims to help . . . reporters explain where faith fits in. Our goal is to provide easily digested background and helpful sources . . . .” (RNA Extra, March/April/May 2002, page 6)
 

What a great resource – along with all the other search engines and web sites – available to you.  Check it out!

So, words can magnify, multiplying exponentially in cyberspace. My hope is that as we sort out all this technology, our words will not only magnify, but also edify.
 
(6) Remember that the Physical Medium of the Written Word Contributes to its Meaning 

In other words, as Marshall McLuhan put it, the medium is the Massage (and the Message).

One-level printed text isn't enough anymore. Just as illuminated Bible texts in the time of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance forever changed the way readers perceived the textual message, so we are literally opening new Windows today to the way people perceive and interpret information and make sense of the world.

Here’s an example that demonstrates my point. I have a full-page ad from the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 12, 1996, p. A-13). It was paid for by a company called Cognizant, whose motto seems to be “See things more clearly.” In small type at the bottom of the page we read: “Turning information into the kind of insight essential to the success of your business.” But what’s all the fuzzy mass in the center? In only slightly larger type near the bottom of the ad is this hint:

“YOU’RE ABOUT TEN FEET TOO CLOSE.”
 

Once you pull back to get the right perspective, you get the message: “INS-IGHT.”

Words can blur and obscure. And they can bring insight and vision.

(7) So, Help Readers Not Only Find Information, but How to Use It 

Shorter is looking better these days. Even as the Information Glut bloats us. Perhaps a new kind of social responsibility is emerging: Be succinct. Be economical about what you write and what you post online. Information ecology should be in vogue.
 

But while the vast information vat threatens to spill over and drown us, the cry is for the skill to convert data into knowledge that is actually helpful. Many who are computer-literate can find the facts – but they don’t know how to use them.
 

Or how to retain them.

Memorability may be more important than accessibility in an Age of Image and Specialized Overload.
 

In the Powerful Words of good writing, there needs to be a sense of permanence.

Words of Power are more than raw carriers of useful factoids. The danger of a high-tech education is that it can lead to a bleak wasteland, a splintered nation of ever-more isolated individuals clinging to ever-more narrow interests.
 

Words can bring us together. Or drive us apart.
 

Remember the words of the old Gospel Hymn?
 

Memorable Words/ Efficacious Words/ “Wonderful Words of Life”

(8) Motivate Your Readers to Think and Wonder More  

Beyond information, there should be thinking and stretching. That goes for you as well as for your readers. Writers need pauses, like blank pages, when we ponder and the pen stops or the keys cease clicking.

Silence. Stillness. Wonder.
 

Is there still room to wonder and ponder in an Age of Image? I hope so! Else we run the risk of the “illusion of intimacy without real intimacy, connectedness that doesn’t really connect” (John Garvey, writing in Commonweal, May 3, 1996, page 8).

We need words that work so well that when we pay rapt attention to them, our attention is well repaid. With wonder and intimacy.

(9) Strive for Excellence, Even Greatness 

I challenge you to think about choosing journalism as a career, especially in the secular media. That’s where we’re underrepresented. There’s a big hue and cry about needing diversity in the newsroom. But if that’s really going to happen, then we need more women and men of faith there.

You can help advance balance, perspective, truth, faith and morality in America’s newsrooms and broadcast studios. And you will not be alone. Others share those goals and that vision.
 

Consider Ross Newhan, and baseball, since it’s that season. Last summer, Newhan, who has been covering baseball for my paper, The Los Angeles Times, for about 35 years, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. He joined 46 other legendary giants of sports writing.

Newhan commands lots of respect, though he is low-key and straightforward. He turns out about 200 bylined stories a year. But he never writes a story until he feels it has substance. His high-standard approach to reporting is simple: Be accurate, make sure that people you talk to can trust you, be fair. That’s it. Newhan’s excellence has been rewarded by the top honor in his field.


(10) Create New Worlds 

Perhaps, in the final analysis, novelists and storytellers are best at articulating our dreams and hopes and prayers. They, at their best, interpret God and ourselves to us.

They inculcate our sense of wonder.

It is true that words alone or without substance are empty.

I believe we cannot communicate well without images and sounds and graphics and colors and visuals and motions. But alone these are never enough.
 

There are, after all, grave limitations to the powers of the lens and the tube and the chip.The fully dimensional human viewpoint cannot be matched by any machine. The human eye is still sharper than the eye of a television camera because it is linked to a brain and a heart. (Paraphrased from the late Saul Pett, an AP news features writer)
 

For it is in the Power of Words that images are translated into meaning in our brains and hearts. And into change.

Remember the humorous (intended or not) headlines I shared with you at the beginning of this talk?
 

British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands
 

You got the irony. Yet a picture or image could not convey it. Your mind had to supply the construct.

I conclude with a plea: Creatively use the whole quiver of communications arrows that God has placed at your disposal and dispersal.
 

With God’s Words, we can speak volumes. We can even speak new worlds into existence, just as God did at Creation. (See Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1 ff.)

Our language can create whole new worlds for our readers.
 

“Language,” observes historian John Lukacs, “is a very mysterious gift from God. In the beginning was the Word. Not the Fact. Not the Picture. Not the Number. Not the Image. It is through words that we relate to each other. It is through words that we can give pain or pleasure to each other. And because of this . . . the choice of the word is not only a matter of accuracy, not only an aesthetic choice; it is a moral choice how I describe something that has happened” (Books and Culture, July/August, 2000).

Our ultimate theme, then, must be to address the spiritual hunger that gnaws within the unredeemed human breast.
 

We can, tell stories. Our stories. And join them to the Great Glad News of His Story.

Powerful Words/ Wonderful Words of Life.
 

No, “Christian Journalist” is not an oxymoron! There are real challenges in the job, as well as definite rewards (although for most of us financial is not high among them).

Writing for the secular press – and often for Christian publications – is fast-paced. Frequently exciting. Sometimes dangerous, if you are an overseas correspondent or cover terrorism, riots, wars, fires, floods and earthquakes. There is also the potential to reach – and influence – millions: for Good and for God.

The late Karl Barth, the great theologian, once said that Christians should approach the world with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. What he meant by that is that each complements and interacts with the other. The Bible contains the story – the map, if you will – of God’s dealings with his people, and his actions in the world. This is the written draft of history and His Story.

And the daily news is, if faithfully presented, a summary of God’s action in present history. It’s not all pretty and wonderful, as we know all too well. There are wars and crime and terror and selfishness – much of it because of human sin and our neglect to follow the Good News. God’s action in the world is counteracted by Evil and the power of Satan.

But please don’t get caught up in the web of negative truth. Yes, the bad news has to be told. Investigative reporting often must “dig up the dirt.” But we should fear and beware negative media bias. More than we should fear liberal media bias.

In a 1999 lecture at Duke University, Washington Post columnist William Raspberry said, “Scandal has a thousand stringers, but good news can’t even find the editor’s phone number. If journalists had been around 2000 years ago . . . [they] would have covered the Crucifixion and missed Christianity.” (From Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists, by Robert Haiman, published by the Freedom Forum.)

Don’t miss incredible stories of the triumph of the human spirit. Who can forget the touching and even miraculous stories following the Attack on America? Lisa Beamer, the then-pregnant widow of Todd Beamer, one of the men who took on the hijackers in the final moments before Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. The blind man, who with his dog, Roselle, safely made it down 79 flights of stairs before the Trade Center tower collapsed. The New York train master who diverted five trains from unloading passengers in the station under the World Trade Centers just before 9 a.m.

Here is opportunity to lift up the effects of love and grace and healing and goodness and sacrifice.

These stories often don’t get mentioned as frequently as the bad stuff. Partly, thank God, it’s because the horrible and the bizarre and the tragic are uncommon enough that they rate as news, which by definition is that which is unusual and often unexpected.

The Good News shows up in our finest moments as journalists. And we as a people need to feed upon and be nourished by these stories. Stories of faith and courage and determination of will.

Former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser wrote that “presenting an accurate picture means showing the courage and joy and victory” that surround reporters. “Avoid framing everything as conflict,” she advised, “letting wedge issues drive the report. Emphasize substance over process. Don’t exaggerate problems and pathologies.”

And I add: Report them but don’t wallow in them.

It’s the job of reporters who see through the eyes of faith to report how God is at work in the world in unusual and unexpecte, d ways. And to hold up the yardstick of revealed truth to compare what people worldwide are actually saying and doing – and how that measures up, or falls short.

That’s a grand and high, maybe even holy, calling!

I started my career as a young reporter at The Modesto Bee (now a famous dateline, the hometown of murdered Washington intern Chandra Levy). Many years ago now, while working in Modesto, I chose a life career verse. It’s John’s Gospel, 8:32, where Jesus says, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (RSV).

There is a freeing, liberating quality to the truth, both in civil society, and in the spiritual realm. If the people don’t know the truth – if it is not displayed – then it loses its freeing, liberating power.

I determined that my job as a reporter-writer was to hold up the mirror as faithfully and accurately as I could, to what was going on in God’s world. And, as a religion writer, I especially was concerned about what in the world God was up to. That kind of truth helps set people free. That’s the intersection of the Good News and the Daily News. Of faith and culture.

So don’t sound the Requiem for the Written Word.

No, not yet. For in the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word WAS God. This is the Power of God. Now and, forever.

Go. Increase your Word power. Write Powerful Words! Wonderful words! Wonderful words of life! In an Age of Image.

Go! In the Power of God’s Word.


Russell Chandler is the author of this monograph. With a background of 35 years writing about religion as well as extensive reading, research and travel, Chandler is an entertaining, informative and inspirational speaker. A religion specialist for The Los Angeles Times for 18 years, Chandler was considered “one of the finest voices in American journalism.” The Religion Newswriters Association three times named him the John M. Templeton “Reporter of the Year” for excellence in religion newswriting. The Religious Heritage of America honored Russell in 1993 with the “Faith and Freedom Award,” given for creativity in communicating ethics and principles. Although he is an ordained Presbyterian minister, Russell’s insights set aside denominational differences, and he has been a frequent speaker at secular as well as religious conferences and events. Russ has a BS in Business Administration from UCLA, a degree from USC's Graduate School of Religion, and he earned his M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.