A Christian Journalism (Bryan Chapell)
Speech delivered at the World Journalism Institute’s May term closing banquet (Washington, D.C., June 4, 2004)
By Bryan Chapell
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘This is mine, mine.’” What would happen if Abraham Kuyper’s famous profession of Christ’s lordship over the whole of life would extend even to the world of journalism—to Newsweek and the National Enquirer, to World magazine and the Hollywood Reporter, to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and USA Today? We may shrug off the question with the assumption that it is hardly likely that all such journalism will honor the rule of Christ. But if Christians are even to have a hope of being salt and light in the influential field of journalism, then we must consider the question of what should characterize journalism that honors Christ.
What right does a seminary president have to talk about journalism?
Though it is getting a bit dusty, I have a degree from the Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University. In my twenties I worked as both a radio and newspaper reporter. In my work as a minister and seminary administrator I have continued to use my journalism training and experience. I write articles and books, and I currently sit on the editorial boards of five Christian journals or magazines that have required me to address the ideas and activities of others—sometimes critically. Not only have I written about others, but also I have been written about—sometimes critically.
Listening to the “ouch” from others about things I have written and feeling the “ouch” of what others have written about me have led me to reflect upon what should characterize Christian journalism. I am concerned about two issues: What general principles should guide Christian journalists in all reporting, and what special principles should guide Christians when they specifically address issues about and to the church?
I. CHRISTIAN JOURNALISM MUST BE TRUE
The third commandment (which requires care for God’s name, particularly in taking oaths and vows in support of the truth) and the ninth commandment (which is more narrowly concerned with malicious slander) plainly forbid spreading falsehoods in either personal or public communication. (See also Westminster Larger Catechism, 111-113, 145; Westminster Shorter Catechism, 76-78, 53-55.) The Bible repeats the requirement of guarding the truth many times and in many ways in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Ex 23:1; Lv 19:11-16, 35-36; Ps 82:2-3; Prv 23:10; 31:8-9; Rom 12:9-10; 2 Cor 12:20; Eph 4:25; 2 Tm 3:3; Jas 3:17; 1 Jn 4:20). We are reminded not only to tell the truth but also to protect the reputations of others against slander, innuendo, false implication and even the damage to truth caused by inappropriate silence.
Thus far, I have told you nothing new. You expect respectable journalism to be truthful, but what may surprise many is that this is merely the ground floor of the biblical architecture that should support the efforts of Christian journalists. What this means in plain terms is that for the Christian journalist, simply telling the truth is not enough.
II. CHRISTIAN JOURNALISM MUST BE PROVABLE
The Bible does not allow us to publish what we think is true if we cannot prove that it is true. Before we disseminate favorable or unfavorable information we are required to ensure and evidence its accuracy. This means first that we must have dependable sources and factual support for what we report. Suspicions, idle speculation, quarrelsome suppositions and malicious rumors have no place in Christian testimony or the journalism of those who call themselves Christian (Prv 16:28; 26:20; 1 Tm 6:20; 2 Tm 2:16, 23, 24; Ti 3:9). The Bible admonishes us not to receive accusations without the confirmation of multiple witnesses (e.g., Nm 35:30; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tm 5:19) and not to accept the reports that come from foolish, undependable or malicious sources (e.g. Prv 10:14; 26:24-5; 28:26; Eccl 10:3).
When a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist confesses to making up her sources on a story about urban destitution, or when we hear an exposé whose foundation is largely “unnamed” sources, we rightly sense that the profession has been compromised because biblical principles for establishing truth have been compromised. I use the word “compromised” rather than “abandoned” because the protection of sources may on occasion require that they remain unnamed. This is a fallen world where the exposure of some evil may endanger those who need to make facts known. In such cases, unnamed sources must be used. Still, the integrity of the reporter or publication necessitates that editors, at least, be convinced that the sources are credible and that sufficient evidence of their claims is available. In addition, Christian reporters and editors should recognize that consistently resorting to the use of unidentified sources not only creates questions of the publication’s reliability and fairness, but may also jeopardize the biblical right of those being accused not to have their reputations stolen or unfairly damaged.
The biblical requirements of dependable sources and provable information mean that there will always be some matters that are unpublishable for the Christian journalist. For instance, if we cannot prove the motive for an action, then we cannot publish speculations or assertions about motive without being guilty of spreading unsubstantiated gossip. In church-related publications the attribution of motive where it cannot be confirmed is, sadly, one of the most common breaches of biblical principle and often the source of serious tension in the church. With regularity I read reports that individuals, agencies or administrations are doing something that a publication disapproves because: 1) “they desire to lead the church to the right” (or “to the left”), or 2) “they just want the approval of their friends,” or 3) “they fear the reaction of their supporters.” While journalists may be sorely tempted to assign motive based on what they assume or suspect, what cannot be proven should not be published. The Bible says that only God “knows the secrets of the heart” (Ps 44:21; cf. 1 Sm 16:7; 1 Cor 4:5; Jas 4:11). Impugning motives without proof violates the ethics of biblical journalism.
While journalists may be sorely tempted to assign motive based on what they assume or suspect, what cannot be proven should not be published. A report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently claimed that in the face of declining attendance, mainline Protestant church leaders “seem reluctant to talk boldly about justice issues for fear of making members uncomfortable” (April 12, 2003). While non-mainline churchgoers may find such statements understandable and may even take delight in them, had this statement appeared without further substantiation, it would have failed to meet the standards of biblical journalism. In stark terms this report claims that thousands of ministers in numerous denominations are cowards and willingly compromise their ethics in order to gain the approval of parishioners. Such sweeping and disparaging claims about motive should not be published without corroborating evidence or credible testimony, even if a reporter believes or desires the story to be true. Any pattern of unproven accusation damages the societal benefits of the press and becomes a threat to all groups who have any potential to fall into public disapproval—including all other religious groups.
Christian journalists sometimes adopt secular practices and justify unproven attributions of motive with various usages of the word “allege,” as in, “He did this awful thing because he wants to promote a gay, feminist, liberal, fundamentalist, postmodern, secular, humanist, evolutionist agenda—allegedly.” In the secular press the use of the word “allege” can legally protect publications from libel suits. The publication can always protest, “We did not actually accuse the person of wrongdoing, we only alleged it.” Such a secular defense, however, ignores the biblical commands against spreading gossip and against stealing another’s name or reputation.
It may, of course, be newsworthy to report that a significant individual or group has impugned the motives of another person. When Pastor Jacobs says that Pastor Wells began this ministry in order to “line his own pocket,” then the fact that one of such stature has made such an accusation is itself a story to tell. But a journalist who relates such information must also make sure Pastor Jacobs is not let off the hook for what he said and is himself held accountable to prove what he has said is true. Further, if a journalist does not have a strong indication that the accusation is true and credible, then biblical mandates against the spread of gossip further restrict repeating the accusation (Ex 23:1; Prv 10:18; 1 Cor 6:10; 2 Cor 12:20; 2 Tm 3:3; Eph 4:31).
So, if we have met the biblical requirements to report only what is true and only what is provable, then have we fulfilled the obligations of Christian journalism? The answer is, no. Simply saying what is true is not enough, and even if we can prove what we are reporting is true, that is still not enough.
III. CHRISTIAN JOURNALISM MUST BE EDIFYING
The further biblical obligations of Christian journalists can be grasped by first considering a secular journalism distinction. Though in the minds of most non-journalists the terms “libel” and “slander” relate to spreading false information that damages someone’s reputation, this is not the full legal definition. Libel occurs when a person is “held up to public ridicule or contempt,” even if what is said is true. A classic example of libel is the publication of a story revealing that a homemaker with four children in a sleepy suburb was a drug addict fifteen years ago. Without a compelling public interest (and special rules of law do apply to public figures and issues of public interest) the law will not allow journalists to publish with the malicious intent of damaging personal interests or reputations—and neither will Scripture.
It is not enough that a story is true, or even that you can prove it is true. Christians are biblically obligated to report what will edify. This means that, in addition to being careful about judging the motives of others, Christian journalists must also consider their own motives when assessing the appropriateness of a news report. Secular journalists must consider whether there is a compelling public interest for their story. Christian journalists are under the further obligation (as are all believers) to consider how their work fulfills their calling of redeeming creation for the glory of the Savior.
I recognize that saying journalism should be edifying is a little like saying Tabasco sauce should be sweet. When our society’s journalistic tastes are accustomed to spice, we do not relish news that fails to burn somebody. I still want to affirm that for secular and Christian journalists the purpose of news is to expose to view what must be known to protect the public interest. By publishing reports of wrongdoing a free press in a democratic society keeps in check those who would abuse their power or freedoms. This understanding of the purpose of a free press, however, does not annul the requirement for edification, but rather underscores it.
The Christian journalist understands that reporting, investigation, criticism and exposure are means toward a higher good—the protection of the biblical ideals of human freedom, justice, mercy and love. Such edification biblically relates to “building up” a people or their institutions (Eph 4:12, 16). This goal is not fulfilled simply by being polite, courteous and sweet. True edification must “correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tm 2:4). Biblical edification may also include not reporting what needlessly damages others (Prv 11:13; 17:9; Jas 1:26; 1 Pt 4:8).
The guiding principle of edification helps address the perennial question of whether journalism can or should be “objective.” Most of us are sufficiently influenced by twentieth century philosophy to question whether anyone can truly be unbiased or objective. No truth that we experience can be reported without being influenced by our worldview. Thus, when the U.S. Senate recently passed a bill outlawing partial-birth abortion, some papers reported that “Pro-life Forces Had Won a Major Victory” while other papers reported that “Pro-choice Forces Had Suffered a Major Loss.” Whether one reported the bill’s passage as something positive or negative, or even worth mentioning, was entirely governed by a worldview not directly related to the bare reporting of true facts. More recent reports that American troops were engaged either in “Liberating Iraq” or “Invading Iraq” similarly reflect worldviews greatly affecting the “terministic screens” through which the same set of true and provable facts are presented.
The Christian journalist who is committed to glorifying God in everything does not deny bias but rather embraces it as an opportunity to bring faith to all of life by reporting what is demonstrably true to advance kingdom priorities. Thus, when I sat recently on an organizational committee that was designing the mission statement for a news magazine, we recognized that it was not enough to say that we would engage in accurate reporting. A commitment only to bare accuracy can simply provide an excuse for cynical, irresponsible and self-absorbed journalism. Truthful and accurate reporting is our methodology (our operating procedure) but even such reporting of true facts requires a moral compass to keep it fair, impartial and biblical. So we added that we would engage in accurate reporting “for the welfare of the church.” If we do not recognize the need for a higher goal than bare truth reporting in our journalism, then we will not see anything wrong with recording the true and provable positions of U.S. troops in a time of war (as a well known television reporter recently did).
What marks journalism that is edifying as well as true? It is responsible, respectful and fair.
Responsible journalism is not only true and accurate, it also seeks to inform in order to fulfill the universal Christian responsibilities of restraining evil, promoting the common good, defending the helpless and advocating priorities that glorify God and promote his kingdom on earth. At times, this means the Christian journalist will attempt scripturally to understand and avoid (or even counter) the temptations and worldviews to which peers may be blind—temptations such as materialism, consumerism, escapism, power, victimmage, secularism, humanism, racism and cynicism. In a similar way church-related journalism rightly seeks to hold the church and its leaders accountable to biblical standards that may have become cloudy, such as the requirements of purity, humility and sacrifice. But it is not enough that Christian journalism be biblically responsible, it must also be biblically respectful.
Respectful journalism is constantly mindful that those individuals whom the journalist covers and critiques are made in the image of God (Gn 1:26-27; Jas 3:9). Even those who are guilty of gross misconduct are to be treated as a committed Christian would wish to be treated (Lk 6:31). The journalist’s responsibility to report wrongdoing accurately and vigorously does not annul the law of love toward neighbors and enemies (Lv 19:17-18; Mt 5:44; Lk 10:36-37; Rom 12:9-10; Jas 2:8; 1 Jn 4:20-21). This does not mean we approve of evil, but we write of evildoers with the prayer that the exposure of their sin will lead to their correction and repentance—and we never cease to desire good for their souls. Thus, all are always to be accorded “proper respect” (1 Pt 2:17).
If such respect is demanded for persons in general, then it is even more necessary for two classes of individuals that often receive the most scathing commentary of Christian journalists: political leaders and fellow believers. Recently, a pop singer got in trouble for saying that she was “ashamed” our nation’s president came from Texas. Public outrage forced a quick apology in which the singer said that “the office of the president” deserved more respect than she gave. Even in the secular mind, there is some understanding of the need to respect the office of a leader apart from the person holding the office. Christian journalists, especially, are never excluded from the apostles’ commands to pray for those in authority over us and to treat them with respect (Rom 13:1-2, 7; 1 Tm 2:1-2; and 1 Pt 2:9, 17).
Despite these clear scriptural imperatives, however, taking shots at the personalities and foibles of national and religious leaders is not limited to the secular press. Some of the most sarcastic commentary, offensive speech and demeaning labeling of leaders can come from religious pundits.
Toward Secular Leaders
Religious journalists often seem to assume they have a right to speak disrespectfully of another person because they have what they believe is a biblical cause to disagree with that person’s policies or politics. Such efforts often come in the form of sarcasm or ridicule designed to display the cleverness of the writer at the expense of a leader’s reputation or regard. While we can well understand such speech from secular sources, the journalist who believes his God is sovereign over all remains responsible for two determinations. First, the journalist must determine if it is biblically right to sacrifice another’s reputation to build his own, since the apostolic command is to consider the interests of others above our own (Phil 2:3-4). Second, the Christian journalist must decide if a leader has so betrayed the obligations of office as to have lost the right to be accorded the respect due his office and the electorate that put him in office. Of course, we must remember that respect does not mean agreement, nor does it deny the right to a respectful critique.
Too often the reason Christians are not credible in society is that they do not realize that ridicule of political or church leaders is implicit ridicule of those who support them. Our ability to be salt and light, as well as faithful ambassadors of Christ, rarely is strengthened by expressions of disrespect. There may at times be sufficient kingdom purposes to justify disparaging speech, but resorting to the ready witticism and sarcasm of the glib is rarely consistent with gospel priorities. We should remember that even when Paul was being tried and unknowingly demeaned a ruler who ordered the apostle struck on the mouth, Paul apologized as soon as he became aware of the priestly office of the one who gave the order (Acts 23:5). Luke records that Paul’s apology came because he remembered the Scripture “Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people” (Ex 22:28). Perhaps even more instructive for us is the reminder that Nero was in power when Peter commanded persecuted Christians to “honor the king” (1 Pt 2:17).
Toward Church Leaders
Proper respect for secular authorities established by God (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pt 2:13-17) may actually be less difficult for us than respect for fellow believers with whom we strongly disagree. We typically save our greatest rage for those we consider enemies within the camp. Church-related journalism—what we might identify as ecclesiastical journalism—creates specific challenges for us that the secular journalist does not face. For instance, how do we deal with those leaders among the covenant people whom Jesus was willing to call whitewashed tombs (Mt 23:27) and whom Paul would label as waterless springs and muddy pigs (2 Pt 2:17, 22)?
Before we would attach such critical labels, we must be very sure that we can also speak with the apostle’s certainty about the flawed character and ideals of those we are describing. Additionally, if we are not sure that we are describing unbelievers, then we also have an even higher obligation to remember that we are speaking of those united to Christ and indwelt by his Spirit (Gal 2:20). Such persons are as precious to God as Jesus himself. They are his covenant people, his treasured possession and citizens of heaven with all of its rights, privileges and protections (Eph 2:19). With such persons we are required to keep the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace as much as we are able (Eph 4:2-3; Rom 12:18). We are biblically required to treat fellow believers with even greater respect than secular authorities and, in fact, always to address them as members of our eternal family (Gal 6:10).
Some time ago, a publication ran an article that implied a professor of ours had taken a position contrary to the principles he has fought for all of his life. I phoned the writer of the article and acknowledged that, while he had said nothing factually untrue, his insinuation was unfair and wrong. I reminded the writer that he was obligated not only to present what was true but to defend the reputation of a fellow believer from false innuendo. I said to the writer, “The Bible says that you are to ‘treat older men as fathers…’ (1 Tm 5:1). Not only do you have no right to deal loosely with the truth, you are bound to defend the reputation of this man as though he were your own father until you have proof that he does not deserve this honor.” The writer simply replied that he did not feel that these principles applied in this situation. But they do!
The compartmentalization of life that excuses living by one set of principles in one sphere of life and another set of principles in another is the very approach to life that the Bible condemns. Christ is Lord over the whole of life (Phil 2:9-11). As the psalmist writes, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1). The principles that govern how we treat fellow believers in the church and in our homes do not disappear simply because we move to the publishing sector.
So how do we deal with a fellow believer whom we believe is wrong and whose deeds need to be brought to light? We must deal with such a person fairly. We do not show partiality simply because one is poor or powerful, attractive or destitute (Lv 19:15; Rom 12:7; 1 Tm 5:21; Jas 2:1-9). We present others’ thoughts, ideas and explanations as accurately and credibly as possible. A rule of thumb I learned as a debater is that your own arguments are the most credible when you state your opponent’s view better than he can. Straw men caricatures of another’s position or person are not fair because they do not fully honor your fellow believer or the full truth of his ideas. In order fully and fairly to represent other persons, a Christian journalist is obligated to get their views directly and allow them to interact with what will be reported—especially if it is an accusation. In essence I am saying that the principles of Matthew 18, giving a person direct opportunity to respond to personal accusation, do not disappear from our Christian obligation simply because we are engaged in journalism.
Though seminary students are busy, every now and then a student newspaper gets started. I always encourage it—on two conditions. The first condition is that all characterizations of persons or positions must be respectful. The second condition is that before anything critical is published, the writer of the article must allow the person(s) being criticized to evaluate if the piece is accurate and fair. You will probably not be surprised to note that the simple requirements to be respectful, accurate and fair often kill the incentive of those interested in the newspaper who are so accustomed to secular media practices that they see no reason for a paper that does not allow them to vent venom. A student said to me one time, “But we want controversy.” At whose expense and to what end? Controversy and insult will sell newspapers just as surely as a fight behind the gym will gather a crowd. But the Apostle Paul wrote, “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the pagans do” (Eph 4:17). Those whose faith differs from that of the world must have principles that differ from the world in worship, in business, in education, in the arts and in journalism.
IV. CHRISTIAN JOURNALISM MUST BE REDEMPTIVE
Fundamental to our principles is the joy of participating in the redemption of creation for the glory of our Savior and Creator. The glory of journalism is using demonstrable truth to edify—and if edify is too mild a word then substitute the words that Christian journalism is to champion truth, dignity, justice and mercy. We are advocates for what advances the kingdom of God. Such advocacy under the banner of our Savior is truly noble and will be full of enough controversy for anyone willing to fight on his terms. You will find, however, that even fellow believers will often resist fighting on Christ’s terms because of what such battles require. They always obligate us to consider the heart and soul of those we are fighting as well as those we are defending. Name-calling, the desire to shame and the demand to take political scalps are found almost as frequently among the journalistic tastes of Christians as they are among secularists. Many who call themselves Christian simply will not tolerate journalism that honors Christ in manner as well as in message. The lust for power and retaliation remains powerful even in the church. Yet the Bible forbids any action motivated by malice toward others (Lv 19:17; Eph 4:31; Col 3:8; Jas 1:20).
Our most rigorous critiques still require us to desire the good of those we are correcting and, if they are believers, to engage them in such a way that the Spirit will lead them to repentance and reconciliation in the church (Rom 12:21; 15:2; Eph 4:29, 32; 1 Thes 5:15; 2 Tm 2:25; 1 Pt 2:1). Our published words should seek to safeguard the opportunity for unity that is the church’s unique testimony and power. Responsible, respectful and fair journalism may well cause you to suffer, but such is the redemptive pattern that the Master left us to follow (1 Pt 2:21).
For those who are not specifically called to the journalistic professions, there remain responsibilities. First, we should use Christian principles to evaluate the journalism that pervades our culture. Consistently imbibing contemporary media without biblical discretion will cause us to consider what is secular and pervasive to be acceptable and imitable. The reason that some of today’s advocacy journalism is so dangerous to Christians is not because we are blind to its bias. Rather, the danger lies in our tendency to think that since we agree with the politics of certain commentators, then witticisms and disrespect of leaders and opponents are acceptable among us. Initially, Christians may appreciate such commentators because they may be willing to say what we know biblically we should not. With a certain guilty pleasure we can relish our “enemies” having to squirm and to take the kind of insult that we feel they have dished out. However, over time we grow accustomed to the verbal ridicule and we can begin to believe that it is permissible for us to speak as the secular media does.
We must determine whether our journalistic tastes have been cultivated by the world or by its Creator. Returning evil for evil is not a Christian option. When the habits of the world become the unexamined practices of the redeemed, we should object. Write letters to editors. Voice with charity and respect the Christian principles that should guide our journalism. Finally, do not honor or subscribe to what claims to be Christian and does not honor Christ’s commands. Remember that it is just as wrong to receive gossip and slander as it is to spread it.
By contrast, we should seek to honor and support journalism that is true, substantiated, fair and devoted to the principles of the kingdom of God. Journalism remains a truly noble profession when words with all of their craft and power defend the helpless, repulse evil, promote mercy and further justice. When you support journalism that is courageous, competent, charitable and—in the truest sense—Christian, then you safeguard one of the principal guardians of our nation’s freedoms and one of the primary culture-penetrating agencies of our Savior’s reign. A Christian journalist who maintains integrity with the principles of our Savior will at the same moment be radically counter to culture and redemptively transformational of culture. Such Christian endeavor testifies of the Savior and equips his people to extend his kingdom.
The author of this monograph, Bryan Chapell, is president and professor of practical theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Chapell is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University. In his twenties, he worked as a radio reporter for WEAW (Evanston, Ill.) and as a newspaper reporter for the Evansville (Ind.) Press. Dr. Chapell has served as president of Covenant Seminary since 1994 and began teaching there in 1984 after ten years in pastoral ministry. Before becoming president, he served for six years as vice president for academics and dean of faculty. His book Christ-Centered Preaching has established him as one of the nation’s most recognized teachers of homiletics. In addition to Christ-Centered Preaching, Dr. Chapell has written The Promises of Grace, In the Grip of Grace, Using Illustrations to Preach with Power, Each for the Other, The Wonder of It All, 1&2 Timothy: To Guard the Deposit (with R. Kent Hughes), Holiness by Grace, the children’s book I’ll Love You Anyway and Always, and many articles. Dr. Chapell also holds degrees from Covenant Theological Seminary, and Southern Illinois University.