Three Callings of a Christian in Journalism (David Aikman)

Speech delivered at the World Journalism Institute’s Summer/fall term closing banquet (Asheville, N.C., July 26, 2002)

By David Aikman

Thank you very much for this generous invitation. I find it a particular honor, especially in light of my distinguished predecessors here in recent years.

It is especially kind of you to invite me and to put up with the inconvenience of a travel itinerary that is taking me around the world in two weeks, and that until yesterday had me speaking at two different conferences, respectively in Cambridge and Oxford universities in England. Yesterday I drove after my Oxford speech to Heathrow airport for the flight to Washington. Tomorrow I fly off to the big island of Hawaii for what has become an enjoyable annual diversion of teaching an intensive, week-long introductory course on world affairs at the University of the Nations in Kailua-Kona, the international headquarters of Youth With A Mission. Well, someone has to suffer for the cause of pedagogy.

I have a special affection for YWAM. It was the first Christian organization I had any contact with that had the slightest interest in journalism, and in the possibility that Christians might be able to function within journalism. I wrote an essay for Time Magazine in 1978 on the brutal massacres perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia well before the term “killing fields” was used for these atrocities. My essay argued that the massacres were not a Marxist aberration, but in fact the logical consequence of a Marxist-based worldview that deemed there were no absolutes, no good or evil, and no values worth honoring beyond those of revolution.

This was an unfashionable point of view in the days before the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia confirmed how monstrous the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-1978 had been. My essay was the first and last one that I wrote for Time. Some readers even wrote to the magazine huffily wondering what on earth Time Magazine could possibly be doing making moral judgments. I assume by this that they thought that the weekly newsmagazine never did anything of the sort. But other readers, obviously Christian, said they thought the essay had been refreshingly different. One reader, Landa Cope, a longtime YWAMer then based in Lausanne, Switzerland, rather daringly wrote: “From what you have written, I think you are probably a Christian.” That contact set in motion what has been a very fruitful relationship with YWAM for more than two decades. I have had two nieces and two daughters involved with YWAM discipleship training school programs, with wonderful results.

It is a special pleasure to be here at WJI. I know how diligently you work to develop a Christian worldview among journalists and a Christian presence in the wider profession. As a Christian, and as a journalist for almost all of my adult life, I have given some thought to these issues. As you may know, I am the founder of Gegrapha, a global fellowship of Christians in journalism.

I want to call this talk “The three callings of a Christian in journalism.” By “journalism” in this context, I specifically mean journalism within news organizations that do not define themselves as Christian: secular journalism, in a word.

The First Calling of a Christian in Journalism

Let’s start with the first of these “callings,” or if you prefer a different word, “calls.”

I am convinced beyond any doubt that journalism as a profession is a God-created occupation and thus a God-created calling for certain individuals. I won’t go into the process of how you recognize a divine calling. I’m sure you have already had good teachings on this topic.

But what do I mean by “a God-created occupation”? I am speaking from within the philosophical and theological worldview of the Reformed tradition. This view holds that every human endeavor that is not actually immoral has been created by God in the same way that nature and the human condition themselves were created by God. This view holds that God calls individuals into a broad variety of different activities in life. Just as a Christian is called upon to fill some role or other within the local church, or even within the Body of Christ universal, so Christians individually are called to some occupation or profession as part of their engagement with the world.

God’s plan, this worldview holds, is that we Christians are called to redeem those very occupations within which we are carrying out tasks and duties. In fact, we are all tasked with redeeming all of culture and life as we have the energy, talent, and divine grace to do so. Every human endeavor cries out to be redeemed by Christians. In this sense, I regard journalism as no different in essence from the profession of physician, teacher, or airline pilot. We Christians who are called into journalism are called to redeem journalism.

What does this mean? Of course, Christians differ among them-selves on how they go about the process of redeeming journalism. Let me elaborate just a little.

I believe that journalism has its own internal rules of conduct—“God-given rules” that need to be observed as closely by Christians as by Buddhists, say, or atheists. Just as an airline pilot needs to have the skills, expertise and experience to fly a plane safely, so a journalist needs to exercise the same degree of skill, expertise and experience to fulfill honestly and honorably the demands of journalism. In fact, I think there is something close to the journalistic equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath that, until quite recently, every new physician was required to uphold. Of course, what the terms of that journalistic Hippocratic Oath precisely are can be, and have been, argued over among journalists. Yet I have personally discovered, to my considerable amazement, that journalists the world over have a basic desire to be truthful to the facts. Moreover, it has seemed to me that, regardless of ethnic and cultural background, language, or even religion, there is a surprisingly broad consensus of conviction among journalists as to what journalism is really all about.

I remember once discussing this topic with a Palestinian woman journalist in Nablus who was dressed in formal Islamic religious clothing: long dress, arms covered to the end of the wrist, headscarf obscuring the hair, and so on. To an unthinking observer, she might have seemed the very epitome of Islamic militancy, perhaps even of antipathy to the concept of truth-telling.

But I discovered to my surprise and delight that the formal religious attire this young woman was wearing had nothing to do with how she felt about journalism. She was administrative assistant to a Palestinian legislator who focused greatly on human rights issues. In a conversation with me and with the film-crew accompanying me to conduct the interview with her boss, she showed exactly the same kind of unforced curiosity and genuine interest in our journalistic topic that any American college kid with a bent towards journalism would have shown. There wasn’t a whisper of cant, dogma, or bigotry about her. She had that splendid sense of wonder, curiosity and enthusiasm that is such a pleasure to encounter among reporters. There was no cynicism or smart-alecky glibness at all. Nobody had told her that, ideally, she was behaving exactly as journalists should always behave. Her understanding seemed simply intuitive and intelligent. In my view, she was quite simply responding to life as though she had been called by God as a journalist, even though she certainly had not prior knowledge of the Christian concept of calling and might have been surprised at what it was all about if someone had told her.

I admit that, in the course of the conversation, some of my own prejudices evaporated. It was possible to be open-minded and truthful, I realized, regardless of one’s outer clothing. It was possible to be truth-seeking and honest, I understood, despite an upbringing amid a very legalistic interpretation of a religion not known for its pursuit of truth in any absolute way. Yet part of what melted down my initial inner frostiness—I’m actually pretty good at being externally polite with people with whom I actually feel little in common—was her cheerful acknowledgment that her family and her religion teachers were all very unhappy with her iconoclastic truth-seeking and openness. That endeared me greatly to her. As I listened, I became convinced that what I was hearing was an almost prophetic expression of the heart of a God-called journalist from the mouth of someone who had no notion of what a calling was, and indeed a very different idea of God from the Christian one. I am well aware that in some parts of the English-speaking world, journalism isn’t even described as a profession. In Australia, for example, it’s called an “industry.” I certainly don't think of journalism as an “industry.” It’s no more about churning out X number of widgets per hour than brain surgery is. Journalism is a profession in the sense that, across a very broad spectrum of cultural, religious, even political boundaries, there is a broad measure of agreement on how it should be conducted, what the ethical standards of its practitioners ought to be, and how you recognize when a person is really good at it.

I admit fully that, here in the US, there is an ongoing debate over the content and philosophical tenor of what is sometimes called “mainstream journalism,” or “secular journalism.” I think this is a healthy and important debate, for reasons that I don’t have time to examine right now. I maintain, nevertheless, that even among reporters who in some personal instances are very hostile to the Christian Gospel, there is often a more reasonable and even a more generous understanding of journalism than what we are sometimes willing to admit is the case. That basic understanding goes approximately like this: something is happening or has happened. We are not exactly sure yet what took place, and we are uncertain that we will ever know all of the details. But we believe that, if we use certain well-tried investigative techniques, if we ask enough questions in enough different places, we will come up with a reasonably accurate picture of what happened, or in the case of an ongoing event or development, what is happening.

It has been both fascinating and striking to me for a long time that the first real journalists in English were Puritan clergymen. They had all been deprived of their living under Charles I of England, as the king sought to use the powers of the state to assert a particular view of church governance and worship. They believed passionately in freedom of conscience. They believed in truth and in the calling of reporters—the term wasn’t in use then—to uncover it.

I have met journalists—reporters, editors, producers, columnists —in dozens of different countries all over the world. Everyone I have met and respected and liked has had an instinctive and passionate belief in truth and a determination to locate it if possible. As you all know, some journalists, in Ireland, in Central America, in Russia, even here in the US, have paid the ultimate price for this passion—their own lives.

This confirms that a passion for truth will not make a journalist invulnerable to violence. But what it will do is make the perpetrators of violence know how much they are hated among the public whom truth-seeking journalists try to serve.

I believe we Christians who are called to journalism are called to redeem it in the sense that Reformed Theology speaks of redeeming our culture. We are called to align the profession as closely as we can to God’s own standards of truth and integrity. We are also called to defend the integrity of the profession itself. This means we may have to defend it against attacks upon it by well-meaning, but often quite misguided, Christians, who think journalism should be a vehicle for Christian propaganda. Of course, even if journalism—Heaven forefend—were to be a vehicle for Christian propaganda, people would always be asking yet another question: which Christian propaganda? I cannot tell you how horrible it would be if newspapers became nothing but broadsheets of one theological faction attacking another. The best way to ensure this never happens is to prevent newspapers and magazines from ever becoming Christian propaganda outlets.

Let me mention Gegrapha briefly. We’ve been around for four years and have held two international conferences. The most recent one was in August 2001 and drew 200 journalists from 50 countries. In all of our discussions at such gatherings, and at other journalistic meetings overseas, I have seldom seen such a strong consensus from committed Christians as the one among these Gegrapha-gathered journalists that journalism should not be used as a platform for Christian propaganda. That is not to say that Christian organizations don’t have every right to publish newspapers and magazines articulating the Gospel and extolling the joys and advantages of the life in Christ. But journalists who claim the privilege of belonging to the profession I have spent some time defining and alluding to have no more right to use their profession as a platform of propaganda for their religious convictions than a dentist has the right to propagandize his patients about his political views during a root canal, or an airline captain has the right to argue a marital dispute before his passengers while making aircraft arrival or departure announcements.

Journalism is a God-given profession with internal standards of integrity and ethics. We Christians who are called to it are also called to protect it, enhance it, and in the fullest sense, redeem it.

The Second Calling of a Christian in Journalism

Now the second of our callings as journalists is to our colleagues. God put us alongside these men and women professionally to bless them, to befriend them, ‘to build them up,’ and if we can, without compromising standards of ethics and decency, lead them privately into a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

The first of three stated objectives of Gegrapha is to build up Christian brothers and sisters already in the profession to encourage more Christians to enter it. The second is to model standards of Christian excellence and virtue within the profession. Both of these objectives constitute part of our calling to our colleagues.

How does this work? It may at one level mean simply a graciousness, generosity and openness as human beings that will encourage other journalists to open up to us. You all know that journalism is a highly demanding, stress-filled profession. Yet most of the high-achieving professionals that I have met within it have been extraordinarily closed about their own feelings and needs. I have always found it difficult—though certainly not impossible—to draw them out. I know of one Christian woman who went to work at the city desk of a medium-sized American city. She didn’t at the outset tell anyone at the paper that she was a Christian. She simply made it a habit to read the Bible at lunchtime for a few minutes while sitting at her desk. One by one, needy and sometimes deeply troubled colleagues made their way to her, slowly unveiling their own lives and their needs. One by one, over about two years, she led 17 of them to Christ. She was certainly fulfilling the calling of a Christian in journalism to her professional colleagues.

I don’t propose to spell out other ways to live out this second aspect of our calling as journalists. But I think you have the basic idea. People often talk about relationship evangelism or on the job evangelism. I am sure our calling to our colleagues involves both. But above all it requires us to recognize that even though they may not share our Christian worldview, each of these colleagues is called by God to the same wonderful profession that we are called to. It is part of our responsibility to help them become aware of that calling in a Christian way.

The Third Calling of a Christian in Journalism

The third calling of a Christian in journalism is a calling to bless the world in which we all live. I would sum it up in this way: just as our Lord Jesus Christ Himself said that He was the Way, the Truth and the Life, and even as the search for truth and for Christ expresses itself powerfully in many lives, so the desire for truth, I believe, is a true constant in the human race as a whole. In fact, I would generalize from my own experience in reporting from nearly 60 countries that people all over the world, once they have satisfied their material needs of food, clothing, and shelter, have basically three other needs in the realm of philosophy and ideals: for freedom, for truth, and for justice. Sometimes the sense of these needs among people is so strong that they take precedence over the material needs. I remember powerfully in China, on June 4, 1989, the morning after the terrible massacres in Beijing, an old Chinese man approached me on the streets of Beijing. Now Chinese are generally reserved and polite, and are very reluctant to approach strangers openly, especially foreigners. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, “for telling the world the truth of what the Chinese government is doing to the Chinese people.” That comment almost made me weep. In some countries people have risked their freedom, and perhaps even their lives, to let me see something that they felt desperately needed to be conveyed to the outside world.

Some people might say our role as journalists is, in a way, to speak prophetically to society at large. That may be true, but I wouldn’t want to focus on it too much. Journalists can be self-important enough as it is without adding to their sense of worth the notion that their real names should be Elijah or Malachi. But it is certainly the case that, as we are true to our profession, and diligent, and as godly as God’s grace can make us, our truth-telling and truth-seeking will speak loudly to our society about God’s truth and the truths of life in every sense. We do not heal diseases as physicians sometimes can do. We do not move passengers with great skill and safety from one part of the world to another. But we can play the role of speaking the truth to power, or speaking the truth to people who in general are unwilling to hear it. We are not preachers, but we are interpreters. We are not historians, but we are first-hand observers. We are not reformers, but we often reveal the pathway to reform. We are not diplomats, but we can be peace-makers. Finally, we are not judges, but we can be critics, and through criticism help purge from our midst the unclean, the unjust, and the untruthful.

That may not be a job-description for John the Baptist, much less for Moses or Elijah. But it’s not a bad job-description for a Christian called into journalism.

Thank you and God bless you.