The Marks of a Christian Journalist (Robert Case)
This is a lecture given at the New York City course of the World Journalism Institute.
By Robert A. Case II
In 1970, Francis Schaeffer, one of the formative influences on the World Journalism Institute, wrote a short essay entitled The Mark of the Christian, in which he offers what he calls “the final apologetic” for Christianity in the post-Christian age. Schaeffer's final apologetic is this: “that just because a man is a man, he is to be loved by an observable love at all costs.”
The Bible points Christians to knife-edge living in a fallen world: living a life of holiness and love. There is no such thing as licentious love or heartless holiness. One cannot live an authentic Christian life without both holiness and love, because Christ’s life embodied both.
What does it mean to live a life of holiness and love at the same time–to live Christianly–in our post-modern, post-Christian world? More specifically for us, what does it mean for the journalist of faith to live Christianly in the midst of our post-modern, post-Christian world?
In some respects, being a journalist who is a Christian is no different than just being a Christian. However, as journalists, we do project to a public audience our private worldview.
If it is true that journalists write the first, rough draft of history, then it is critical for us Christians to be epistemologically self-conscious. Why is that? Robert Russell Drake (World & Life, 2004) has argued that historians have an advantage over journalists because historians select an event or person to investigate after the fact. This historical selection is possible because writing history starts with a known goal. The historian then looks back from that goal to see how it was reached through world events. So the historian always has guidelines and an intellectual gyroscope directing the content and interpretation of his investigation.
That historical, intellectual gyroscope or cognitive guideline is missing for the journalist because the journalist is writing contemporary, instant narrative. So the journalist is excluded from using a historical event or personage to guide the story. Both the historian and the journalist deal with facts, but the historian can wait for hindsight before making fact selections. The journalist cannot wait because fact selections are made daily, under the pressure of deadlines and competition.
The journalist cannot see the final consequences of a reported event, so story selection, framing, sources, content, and much more must be guided by her worldview. This is why a journalist’s presuppositions (i.e., worldview, interpretive framework or set patterns of thought) are critical to a story. Worldview governs the journalistic process.
WJI has the Francis Schaeffer Chair of Cultural Apologetics to introduce a Christian worldview to our journalism students because an understanding of one’s worldview is foundational for an honest performance of one’s calling as a journalist. So at WJI, worldview discussion begins the educational process.
Walter Lippmann (Public Opinion, 1922) recognized this fundamental hermeneutical principle when he wrote, “For the most part, we [journalists] do not first see and then define; we define first and then see.”
Having stated the importance of a journalist’s worldview, I want to suggest three necessary “marks” of a worldview for a journalist who is a Christian. These necessities are the essentials and therefore must be the self-conscious underpinnings of the mindset of a journalist who is a Christian:
I) The anthropological mark of a journalist who is a Christian
II) The epistemological mark of a journalist who is a Christian
III) The metaphysical mark of a journalist who is a Christian
I) The Anthropological Mark
Anthropology is the study of human essence and it is the fundamental idea for the Christian. A Christian understanding of anthropology teaches that humans are: A) valuable beings, B) moral beings, C) finite beings, and D) fallen beings. This understanding that every human is created in God’s image has huge consequences.
A) We are uniquely valuable beings.
Because of Christian anthropology, Schaeffer argued that there are “no little people,” no insignificant people. So the journalist who is a Christian approaches each interview, news source, meeting, event, and assignment with an understanding that every human and every fact in the story has significance. The Christian journalist is to treat all aspects of a story with integrity, demonstrated by fairness, accuracy, verifiability, carefulness and honesty, to the best of his/her ability. To love God is to love our fellow human in this way. To serve and love God and to serve and love our fellow human is to recognize that all individuals have this God-given right to be loved and treated with respect.
B) We are moral beings.
Every human carries within the human soul the “sensus dietatus,” the innate awareness or “sense” of his/her creator God. Augustine (the North African 5th century scholar and Christian, 354-430) argued that every human has the capacity to “rightly blame and praise many things in the conduct of men.” In our daily activities, we humans understand praise and blame because we innately recognize praiseworthy and blameworthy conduct, evidence of this innate “sensus dietatus” in our soul. The age-old debate over universal social and political rights can best be explained in this anthropological light.
C) We are finite beings.
We humans are creatures and not the Creator. We were made in a moment of time and space, so we are finite and limited beings. That means that we have to accept the imperfection of individual and corporate human culture. Reform is distinctly human. Utopianism is anti-human.
D) We are fallen beings.
Christian anthropology also teaches that while we humans are unique image-bearers of a loving and personal creator God, we are fundamentally corrupt and immoral because of Adam. And so our “sensus dietatus” is clouded and polluted by our rebellious and renegade Adamic spirit, and we are unalterably depraved, apart from the work of that same creator God the Father (through Christ the Son). Thankfully for all of us, we are not as bad as we could be, due to our fallen nature, because we are restrained by God’s common, restraining grace. While our polluted nature is not as deep as it could be (i.e., we are not beasts in the jungle) our polluted nature is as broad as it can be. Everything about us is corrupted, including our physicality, our emotions, and our rationality. The fall helps explain human evil, brutality, corruption and debauchery.
Because the individual human is created in the image of God, each one deserves justice (Schaeffer’s “final apologetic”) in our reporting. Because God is just and eternal, justice is eternal. Public justice is discovered in private anthropology, in the structure of human nature with its relation to a personal, creator God.
To repeat: All humans are image bearers of God and thus are to be treated with justice, even those for whom we have a profound dislike. The journalist who is a believer understands that reporting, investigating, criticizing and exposing are only means towards a higher good, the advancement of justice and love for all humans.
II) The Epistemological Mark
Epistemology is the study of knowledge (i.e., how we know what we know). A Christian understanding of the process of knowledge is fundamental to truth-telling. Because verifiable objectivity is the current sought-for standard for the journalist, the notion of “objectivity” must be defined in at least two different ways: A) metaphysical objectivity, B) methodological objectivity.
A) Metaphysical Objectivity
Because of Christian anthropology, there is no such thing as metaphysical or ultimate objectivity. Why is that? Because every bit of our rationality (i.e., our thinking about comprehensive and true knowledge) is limited by our finite and fallen essence. All human thought is subjective. Every human is biased. Every human is prejudiced. Human interpretation is unavoidable, given Christian anthropology.
All of us use initial affirmations or presuppositions in our thinking, because thinking without presuppositions is impossible. Presuppositions are like the glasses through which we view the world. If the lenses are green, the world has a green tint. If the lenses are red, the world has a rose-colored tint. The lens determines what the eye sees. In the same way, our presuppositions, the ideas (glasses) we use to first view humans, events, and objects in the world, affect (color) how we understand the world. A person’s presupposition might be, for instance, that nothing can be true if it isn’t rational or logical, or that nothing can be true if it isn’t sensed or verifiable. That foundational idea or belief will be the launching pad as well as the judge for all subsequent ideas. Thus, there can be no such thing as a neutral, uninterpreted or objective fact.
The point for the Christian journalist is this: We humans are not neutral witnesses of the world in which we live. We attempt to understand the meaning of everything either through a lens of divine revelation–the objectivity of God–or through a lens of naturalistic reasoning. Everything observed in reality is understood in these two fundamentally different and sometimes conflicting ways. The Bible speaks of the condition of the heart determining the vocabulary of the mouth. To the journalist of faith that means knowledge is never morally neutral, because sin corrupts our wills, cripples our minds and perverts our actions.
Because Christianity teaches that sin has crippled our minds, general revelation, which is manifested in the world around us–the arena of the journalist–needs to be explained and interpreted. We need all the help we can get, from any quarter we can get it.
B) Methodological Objectivity
Journalistically, does that mean that since we can only be biased and subjective in our thinking that we are constrained to report from only a biased and subjective, predisposed point of view? That is, since epistemological bias is our only intellectual option, is journalistic bias our only professional option? To a certain extent, I think so. But even though we reject metaphysical objectivity, journalists who are Christian are to embrace methodological objectivity as our standard of journalism. What does this mean? Methodological objectivity is the courageous search for the facts, the correct context for the facts, and the enlightened interpretation of the facts.
An important point to be made here is that writing for a mainstream publication is different than writing for a religious publication. A word written for everyone has no individual integrity. The Christian always takes into account the audience to which she is communicating. It is a matter of simple compassion and sensitivity to the listener/reader. Badly written words sweep away the prospect of good and leave an unfortunate impression. This principle is taught in numerous places in the Bible (e.g., Proverbs 10:32; 15:23). In Proverbs 25:11 the Jewish Tanakh even translates the phrase “word spoken at the right time” as “a phrase well turned.” The lovely medium of well-chosen words enhances the truth of a situation. Proverbs 12:14 is interesting because it combines appropriate words and actions–good advice for the Christian journalist in a secular newsroom. The calming words of Naaman’s advisers are a fit application of this principle (2 Kings 5:11-14). We see Paul enunciating the principle that words must fit the audience in 1 Cor. 3. Paul was realistic about the ability of his Corinthian audience to understand his language. The Christian journalist needs to be likewise sensitive.
Methodologically we can approach journalistic fairness, accuracy, veracity and, yes, objectivity to a large and reliable measure. The Lord of the universe has so structured reality and the human mind that we can observe reality and report on what we observe, in such a manner that enough truth will emerge from multiple human reports that we can claim that journalistic fairness, accuracy, veracity and limited objectivity can be achieved through “eyewitness” accounts (Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16; John 8:17; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19).
Let’s be clear at the outset: The journalist of faith is a rational, reasonable journalist. She is not a mystic. By that I mean the journalist reports and writes that which accords with reason. As I have stated, there are certain pre-set patterns of thought in the human mind which enable us to determine the veracity of propositions. For instance, when I say, “A circle is square,” you automatically object that circles cannot be square. If I said, “I am writing in Spanish right now,” you would retort, “That is not true. You are writing in English.” Any proposition which claims to be true rests on reason, human rationality. Our reason tests a proposition in two ways:
1) by examining the self-consistency of the proposition, and
2) by seeing whether the proposition agrees with other knowledge of reality.
To repeat: Can absolute objectivity be achieved? No; there are simply too many subjective decisions made in any story by the journalist, editors and publisher. But there can be enough objectivity that we can, in humility, claim to present a picture of the verifiable truth of a situation. Genesis 2, after all, teaches that God has given humans the ability to use language to accurately define reality. We cannot know reality fully, but we can know reality sufficiently to enhance our flourishing as human beings.
I can think of nothing more gallant or valiant than attempting to get at the facts of a given situation and to relate events as they really are. Nothing is worse for the Christian journalist than to lie about reality (John 8:44). We will fail time and time again to get it right, but the honest attempt to get the facts correct is at the core of a Christian view of journalism. The Christian journalist is constantly learning from the dominant journalism culture in order to be the most truthful reporter possible (see Exodus 18). Reality, though never fully understood because of our finiteness and fallenness, can be described in a useful way. After all, reality is that which, even when you don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away (see Matthew 19).
Let me give you a Biblical example of this methodological objectivity that is to characterize the journalist who is a Christian. We see an example of radical truth-telling in the reports of the crucifixion of Jesus. Matthew 27 records the dying Aramaic words of Jesus as, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” meaning, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These last recorded words of Jesus would have been better left unrecorded as far as I am concerned because they have been a problem for the Church for 2000 years. Why? Well, here we have God the Son lamenting His death at the hands of God the Father–God killing God. Why didn’t Matthew and Mark leave well enough alone and omit these troubling words? The reason is that the Holy Spirit-inspired gospel reporters were not afraid of the truth and so they wrote the truth and left the consequences of that truth (body of facts) to someone else.
Christian journalists are never to be afraid of relating the truth of reality because truth will never lead us astray.
III) The Metaphysical Mark
Metaphysics is the study of reality. A Christian understanding of reality is the source of comfort, confidence and compassion for the journalist. The metaphysical mark of the journalist of faith is that he understands: a) God is in control, b) God is a public God, and c) God requires our minds.
A) God is in control.
The Christian journalist understands that God is a loving God, as He reveals Himself in the Bible. There is nothing that escapes His attention or concern. He speaks, and the winds calm down, the waves subside (Mark 4) and death is defeated (John 11). His fingerprints are on everything (Colossians 1). We call this aspect of God’s work, “providence” (Latin =“forethought”), and it means the entire universe is dependent upon the sustaining power and personal care of its Creator. Because of this divine care, there is always hope in reality because a personal, loving God is always present and is guiding His creation. We do not live in a random, chaotic, purposeless, Sartre/Vonnegut universe. This means that the Christian journalist always has a positive orientation toward the future because she knows that the universe is in the trustworthy hands of God. Because of this sure hope the Christian journalist has a basis for reform, renewal and even redemption. Hope infuses the world which the journalist observes.
B) God is a public God.
Christianity teaches (Job, etc.) that the physical, created world (i.e., general revelation) is the public stage on which are enacted God’s dealings with humankind. God did not and does not act in secret. He acts before a watching, skeptical, fallen human society, and He understands this (Acts 26:26). Because He is so transparent, God is justified in bringing light to the darkest places and to exposing that which is hidden.
The journalist of faith reports and writes before a watching and skeptical world. Emulating God, Christian journalists should shine light on the hidden and unexplained. Neither should believing journalists be afraid of public scrutiny of their work and lives. If the Christian journalist can’t hide from God, why try to deceive anyone with wrongdoing? Christian journalists should hold themselves to the same standard of accountability and transparency they have for others.
C) God requires our mind.
Christianity does not exalt the un-informed, ill-informed or mis-informed. The Christian standard is to take all ideas and examine them in light of God’s reality. To that end, the Christian who is a journalist is to be careful of an epistemology called empiricism. The theory of empiricism denies a reality beyond experience. Empiricism says that there is only what we perceive or experience with our five senses and that there is no universal definition of reality behind these particular objects that we sense. Or, if there is a reality behind these experienced objects, we can’t really know that unsensed reality. Or, if there is a reality behind perceived objects, it is not important for public discussion because it is a private matter. This widely accepted pragmatic theory of epistemology asserts that all we know of importance is what we sense. To an empiricist or pragmatist, a metaphysical understanding of the world is non-sense.
Empiricism is nothing more than a presupposition which can’t be proven. Still, the journalist of faith appreciates and uses the empirical theory of reality. We are all Thomases–touching, smelling, tasting, hearing, seeing God’s activities around us. But we understand there is an unsensed reality behind the sensed reality of the physical world. We believe in an unseen God who sees and acts.
Here are five Biblical examples of a Christian metaphysical understanding of reality versus a rational understanding of reality:
1) Paul’s report on what happened on the road to Damascus (Acts 9, 23, 26)
Saul, the brilliant and faithful killer of God’s people, was on his way to Damascus in order to persecute the believers in that city. On his way, Saul had an extraordinary experience that literally drove him to the ground. What was his remarkable experience? Well, it depends on whom you talk to, who is telling the story. If you are Saul, it is one story. If you are Saul’s companions, it is another story. Saul experienced one thing. His companions experienced another thing. Saul understood one thing. His companions understood something else. Saul would subsequently base the rest of his life on his understanding and perception of what happened, and his companions, who were not so impressed, would apparently base the rest of their lives on their understanding and perception of what happened. So this event was a turning point in a number of lives.
I would suggest that this Sauline experience (known later as the Pauline experience) is the most dramatic illustration of the difference between understanding events as a Christian and understanding events as a non-Christian, because we have reports of this event from a Christian perspective and we have reports of this event from a non-Christian perspective.
What really happened on the road to Damascus? Did Paul have it right or did his companions have it right? Was it a “spirit,” an “angel,” an illusion–or was it the risen Christ? It all depends on who is illuminating the story-teller’s mind.
2) The thunderous voice to Jesus (John 12)
All parties mentioned in the Johannine report heard something. No one said, “I didn’t hear anything.” But we have three different accounts of what happened, and only one is the truth. What’s the difference? One needed to have faith in Jesus to know the truth, that is, to hear the distinct words spoken to Jesus in “thunder” out of the “sky” by His heavenly Father. It all depends on one’s metaphysical understanding, on one’s understanding of reality.
3) Daniel on the Tigris (Dan. 10)
It is noteworthy that Daniel had a similar experience reported in Daniel 10. Daniel and his companions were standing on the bank of the Tigris River in Babylonia, and he saw a “man dressed in linen,” ablaze with light. Daniel saw the man; his companions did not, but they were, nevertheless, “overwhelmed with terror and they fled to hide themselves” (10:7). Eventually, understanding came to Daniel and he wrote about the incident.
4) Ezekiel and the windstorm (Ez. 1)
It was reported by Ezekiel that he was with other Israelite exiles on the Kebar River region in Babylonia when a desert windstorm came up. For all appearances, to the other exiles it was a typical Persian windstorm–clouds, lightning, spectacular heavenly displays–but not to Ezekiel who was driven to the ground by the personal appearance of four living creatures (1:28). We have no report of what the other exiles saw or heard. Obviously there was more to this storm than met the exiles’ eyes and ears.
5) Psalm 145
Ps. 145:6 contains a very interesting contrast that is not clear in the NIV translation. One must not build too much on this one verse because the Hebrew is not absolutely definite, but the King James Version has an interesting contrast. It reads,
“And men shall speak of the might of your terrible acts, and I will declare your greatness.”
What we may have here–and I am not alone in seeing this verse in this light–is a contrast between a correct understanding of historical events from God’s perspective and an incorrect understanding of historical events from the human perspective. Verse 6 tells us that while men are preoccupied with God’s “awesome works” (or “terrible acts”), David looks on these awesome historical events as divine acts of providential kindness and mercy and greatness.
So what is the metaphysical understanding that is being taught in the Bible? I would suggest at least the following:
a) The journalist of faith must look for understanding or reality behind the sensed events.
b) The struggle for the journalist who is a Christian is not only to understand reality using the five senses (like everyone else), but also to understand reality using the sixth sense–the God-given spiritual insight.
Let me conclude with the statement that working out these three marks (anthropological, epistemological and metaphysical) in the competitive daily chase for the news is a never-ending application and particularly difficult in the post-Christian newsroom because of pervasive skepticism one finds in the profession.
Let me suggest three applications:
1) The anthropological application
The anthropological mark of a journalist of faith would inform the journalist that when reporting and writing a story, all actors are to be treated with radical integrity and respect, even those with whom you disagree. For instance, there should be no such thing as “gotcha” interviews, ambush interviews, or adversarial interviews. The journalist who is a Christian does not lie in wait for the subject to stumble and then pounce like a jungle animal (Ps. 10, 59; Prov. 12). No, the believing journalist seeks to have the subject fully disclose his or her views on a particular point of the story without injection of invective or approval. The model interviewer for the Christian journalist is Jesus, who had no room for cynicism in His thinking (as Dick Keyes of L’Abri has so eloquently argued in Seeing Through Cynicism, 2006)–skepticism, perhaps, but not cynicism. We know that cynicism is not a Christian virtue because Jesus, who knew the heart of each person, still loved and treated each person with integrity and dignity–even his enemies. So should we.
2) The epistemological application
The epistemological mark of the Christian journalist would inform the journalist that every story has hundreds of points at which the bias, prejudice and worldview of the journalist will be expressed. From the story idea itself to the research path, sources chosen and quotes selected, the shape and timing of the story, the frame of reference and voice of the story, the questions asked, and more. And that is just with the reporter. The editors of the story have the same bias and prejudice problem (John 20, 21). It is unavoidable given our finite and fallen condition.
What is the journalist who is a Christian to do in such a pervasively biased and subjective environment? Three suggestions:
a) Be honest in admitting your bias and inability to be completely objective.
b) Be fair, accurate, balanced and careful in your coverage of a story.
c) Be quietly seeking the mind of God on every given story through prayer, counsel and the Bible.
3) The metaphysical application
The metaphysical mark of a journalist who is a Christian would inform the journalist that appearances might not be the entire story. This is the most difficult professional aspect of being a journalist of faith because in the rush of the chase for news, the unseen truth and reality may not be readily apprehended by the journalist. In a very real sense, the journalist may never see the full unraveling of the string of a story because there may not be time. The full unraveling is the historian’s prerogative. However, just the recognition that your article is a snapshot of time in the framing of a story will be a great step towards the truth of the matter. The unseen hand of a sovereign God at work will probably not be apparent to the temporal scribe. So:
a) Be humble and contingent in your story conclusions because you seldom know what the conclusion will be. You may know what the conclusion of a phase of a story will be: the death of a person, the election of an official, the consummation of a project, the result of official action, the happening of a natural disaster, etc. But you may never really know what part that phase means in the stream of history.
b) Verify, verify, verify. And when you think you understand the story, look for the untold side of that story and follow the rabbit trails. Don’t be satisfied with first impressions and those aspects of the story which confirm your bias and prejudice. The journalist of faith knows reality is far more complex and hidden than we can ever ascertain. Multiple accounts verify and advance the truth (Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19; 1 John 5:7-8).
The believing journalist knows that reality has two vantage points for every event–human perspective and God’s perspective–and it is impossible without God’s help to understand the dual nature of events. There is, of course, no pathway to the divine perspective unless God has so revealed Himself in the Bible, but there can be the gentle urging of the Holy Spirit leading the Christian journalist to be wiser than usual (examples: Joseph-Gen. 45; 50; Asaph-Ps. 76; Peter-Acts 2; 3; Peter & John-Acts 4; Paul-Acts 13; Rom. 8; Phil. 1; Jesus-John 18).
So, Christian journalist, go forth, be excellent in skill, ethical in craft and first with the story!