Across the country, newspapers are closing, downsizing, and becoming a less visible part of our daily lives—victims, we’re told, of progress, giving way to the Internet just as trains surrendered to cars, vinyl records to CDs, and typewriters to personal computers. Economists call this “creative destruction,” and in a world where innovation flourishes it’s inevitable, usually good, and always irreversible.
But in the case of journalism, the logic’s faulty. And if true journalism passes from the current scene Christians, along with their non-believing neighbors, will be left uninformed and ill-equipped to live as God has called them.
News consumption, especially among young adults, is in sharp decline. But for Christians, ignorance of civic affairs isn’t a practical option. And though the Bible doesn’t mention newspapers—or the Internet or blogs or podcasts, for that matter—it does tell us, more than once, to be engaged in the life of our cities. In Jeremiah 29:7 we’re instructed to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” Moreover, we’re to “pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
For Christians then, young and old, whether they prefer a newspaper, mobile phone, computer screen, or iPad—apathy must be shrugged aside. Jeremiah, Jonah, Paul, and Jesus all instruct Christians to be active citizens, to pursue peace, to pray for those in authority, to pay taxes, and to have compassion on their neighbors—those downtown and in the suburbs, those who attend public schools and run businesses and practice law and sit on the city council.
In a fallen world populated by power-hungry politicians, greedy businesspeople, nihilistic artists, unaccountable teachers, and agenda-driven scientists we need to know where the peace has been ruptured, and to see the gaps between “what is” and “what ought to be.”
The Journalist’s Obligation: Shining Light in the Darkness
When journalists do their job, citizens have the information they need to make informed decisions. Likewise, in the absence of good journalism, citizens—of cities, states, and the nation—are susceptible. We’re prone to be misled, or to remain ignorant of the true state of society. Author and former journalist Alex Jones points out that democratic accountability means keeping government accountable. He says that over time, and especially in the last two years, accountability has expanded to include business and the media themselves.
According to Jones, trained journalists go to work each morning on behalf of their fellow citizens. They take notes at city council meetings, interview the mayor, read the memos, emails, and policy documents of anonymous bureaucrats and regulators. It’s their duty, he says, to keep the powerful accountable to the people, and it’s that obligation that justifies the enormous costs and countless hours required to sustain investigative journalism.
Bob Case is the president and founder of the World Journalism Institute at the King’s College in New York City. Writing specifically of Christian journalists, Case talks about the obligation to shine light where there is darkness. “If there is one practical calling of a journalist,” Case says, “it is to investigate.” Christians are children of light, therefore, Case argues, “we should be purveyors of light in dark places.” It’s the journalist’s job “to expose corruption, evil, injustice, malfeasance, and even sin.” Case is currently at work in New York training a new breed of Christian journalist—“modern-day muckrakers” he calls them, who are fearless and insatiably curious.
But for Case’s muckrakers to make a difference, Christian citizens must take the time to be informed and to act boldly on the news they’ve been given.
The Truth We Need Versus the Gossip We Relish
Unfortunately, this brand of “accountability news” is becoming scarce. Economic pressure has forced newspapers to appeal to a broader audience, to the civically disengaged who care more about entertainment and sports than the political health of the city. More and more, content is based on what will attract the biggest audience, rather than what will equip readers to become involved citizens.
Pick up your daily paper. In all likelihood it mirrors the frilly news found on local television: “Wrecks, fires, and features,” Jones says, “but little politics, policy, accountability, and watchdog journalism.” Or tune in to cable news. According to Jones, CNN recently shifted its focus from hard reporting to opinion—a change to combat Fox News, which routinely blends news with advocacy. Or consider Time magazine, Jones says, and their recent decision to shift emphasis away from original reporting to analysis—a shift from verifiable truth to crowd pleasing, less costly opinion.
In the March/April 2010 issue of The Columbia Journalism Review, Terry McDermott examined the philosophy, content, and business model of the Fox News Network. In comparing Fox with its competitors McDermott found a number of striking differences and yet, he claims, there’s “one overwhelming similarity: whatever it is that dominates cable news, it is largely not journalism.” Rather, McDermott says—and this comes after days of studying each network—it’s just talking. It’s reporters talking to themselves, to other reporters or co-hosts, to guests, political operatives, experts—who, McDermott suggests, are mostly expert at being guests.
And for the most part, according to his analysis, they’re dissecting a single morsel of concrete news, endlessly probing its possible meaning.
Christians should be wary. As Bryan Chapell, the president of Covenant Theological Seminary (and a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism), once told an audience of aspiring journalists, “We should use Christian principles to evaluate the journalism that pervades our culture.” We can’t consume today’s media without biblical discretion, Chapell warned. If we do, we’ll soon accept and imitate what is now secular and pervasive. “The reason that some of today’s advocacy journalism is so dangerous to Christians is not because we are blind to its bias,” Chapell said, “Rather, the danger lies in our tendency to think that since we agree with the politics of certain commentators, the witticisms and disrespect of leaders and opponents are acceptable among us.”
Talk show hosts and commentators often add perspective. They bring context, depth, and a historical framework. Still, Christians in pursuit of biblical peace will likely have a different agenda. “We are obligated,” Chapell told his audience, “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 not the objectives. “Our most rigorous critiques still require us to desire the good of those we are correcting,” Chapell told students.
Tripe, Twaddle, and Its Effect on Community
As far back as the 1930s Henry Luce, the cofounder and editor-in-chief of Time magazine, denounced what he saw as a dangerous trend for news organizations to merely give people what they wanted. The result, Luce predicted, would be “rampant vulgarity and sensationalism and the creation of an enormous financial incentive to publish twaddle … square miles of journalistic tripe.” Some 80 years ago Luce complained that the press was failing to provide the news that nourished democracy.
Soon, Alex Jones suggests, “tripe” may be the goal. “Cold metrics,” he maintains, “will determine what’s spent on news.” Which means the nation is about to lose a lot of solid, investigative reporting. There’ll be plenty of talk, Jones says, plenty of “the news of assertion,” but serious stories, reported by professional, investigative journalists, are disappearing.
Jones cites a 2009 analysis of the reporting strength in the nation’s state legislatures. According to Governing magazine, there’s been a wholesale abandonment of statehouse reporting by the nation’s news organizations. That, for Christians who’ve studied the Jeremiah 29 passage, is ominous because, the author points out, government at the state level has the most impact on people’s lives. And it is where corruption flourishes without a watchdog press.
Christians need accountability news to pursue their cities’ best interests. More than that, they have a responsibility to know the truth because, Bob Case insists, the God of truth will use it “to eventually bless our neighbor. It is part of the way God created human society.” It is truth, Case maintains—not assertion, advocacy, or entertainment—that “always leads to blessing.”
Nevertheless, market realities, now defined by a civically detached public, are cramming traditional news into a tabloid mold. Newspapers and magazines are focusing on profit first, and therefore casting about for content with broad, and often shallow, appeal. Christians, therefore—concerned about justice, mercy, and truth—may soon be left in a mire of gossip and entertainment news.
News For Faithful Citizens
The Web is now the favorite medium of younger audiences, and for plenty of good reasons. Yet, despite the economic pressures just mentioned, studies show that newspapers still create between 85 and 95 percent of the world’s accountability news. And though a recent report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) notes an increase in the number of online, news-related start-ups, the report also confirms that digital media still rely on “legacy news organizations” for expensive, hard-to-get stories.
Other studies cited by Jones and David Mindich (author of Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News) report that Web journalism doesn’t support in-depth news or investigative journalism. “The culture of Web journalism,” Jones points out, “is one of multi-platform storytelling … .” It’s often gripping, he says, “but an article of more than 150 words is generally considered too long and unlikely to be read.”
Despite the Web’s overwhelming popularity, it is still newspaper reporters who track down leads, cultivate sources, verify facts, and pound the pavement in search of corruption. We may watch news on television and browse websites on iPhones and iPads, but the news we need to be faithful citizens is still researched and written by newspaper reporters.
And the painful irony, regardless of one’s media preference, is this: As online audiences grow, newspapers and magazines are forced to cut staff, which means they produce less news, which not only saps their publications, but the digital media that wait downstream. That’s not creative destruction; it’s destroying your own supply line.
The future then—with digital media, citizen journalists, bloggers, and countless sources of narrowly niched news—promises an endless stream of information. But, Jones warns, “it will be plain vanilla news.” It will be generated by a handful of news companies “and sold cheap, like mass-produced fast food.” Far less certain, he says, is whether “high-quality news will be part of the daily life of any but the rich and powerful.”
This, regardless of age, interests, or current fashion, has to be unacceptable to God’s people. As Bob Case says, the journalist, and especially one who’s Christian, must be an unrelenting “striver for verifiable truth.” Journalists, Case writes, are to discover and observe the truth; they’re to inform the public, to supply them with what they need to know so they can “make salutary decisions based on verifiable information.”
Christians, as pursuers of their cities’ peace, must demand essential information and with it, make wise choices.
Cultivating A Civic Culture
At city hall, in public parks, and at school auditoriums we’re sometimes forced to contend with, and accommodate, our flesh and blood neighbors. In the real world, David Mindich says, your neighbors have different goals than you do. They view issues from a different perspective, their values and priorities are often at odds with yours. In the real world, he points out, there’s opposition and confrontation. But in virtual communities, such barriers are non-existent.
On the Internet, we can banish an annoying presence with a couple of clicks, and just as easily find a new friend more to our liking. That’s why, says author Lewis Friedland, place, not technology, is the most important sphere of civic participation.
William Saletan, a writer for the online magazine Slate, recently posted the story of a Korean couple. The pair practically lived at an Internet café, and were so entangled in their online world that they forgot their real-life daughter. The little girl died of malnutrition and dehydration while her parents frolicked, 12 hours a day, in a virtual world of their own creation. An extreme case to be sure, but the story got Saletan thinking: “Every time you answer your cell phone in traffic, squander your work day on YouTube, text a colleague during dinner, or turn on the TV to escape your kids, you’re leaving this world. You’re neglecting the people around you.” Cyberspace friends, he says, “are more alluring and less flawed than your friends in the physical world.” He concludes with an admonition to “Get … out of here [referring Slate’s website]. Go kiss your spouse, hug your kids, or walk down the hall and say hello to your colleagues. There’s a beautiful world out there. Live in it.”
When we choose our news we must stay mindful of where, in God’s providence, we physically live. To love our neighbors (to say nothing of our children), we need to know what affects their health and prosperity. We need to know the truth about our politicians and policymakers. We need to see the city’s blemishes, so we can help restore its beauty.
Finding the Truth, And Doing Something About It
In the last verse of Jonah, God asks the reluctant prophet: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” The question, according to Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York, is argumentative. There are 120,000 people there and God, it seems, doesn’t understand why Jonah cares more about a vine than he does for them. Many of us, Keller later reflects, “often think of big cities as immoral, terrible places. But God is concerned about the city. He cares about the peace—the shalom—of the city. He cares about its economy and safety, He cares about the educational system, He cares about housing … .”
Which, if our cares reflect His, leads to a pair of questions: Where can we learn the true state of our city’s housing and education? And, given the complexity of government, business, and media; given the racial and economic barriers that divide our communities, who will point us to economic folly, failing school systems, inadequate police protection, corrupt officials, dilapidated housing—all the sin that destroys the shalom God intended?
Bryan Chapell, standing before the assembly of aspiring journalists, told them: “The glory of journalism is using demonstrable truth to edify—and if edify is too mild a word, then let’s say that Christian journalism is to champion truth, dignity, justice, and mercy.” Journalism then, the kind that investigates, is verified, and speaks truth to power, reflects God’s concern for the city.
“To diligently report the truth,” Bob Case writes, “is to take part in the cosmic struggle to redeem human culture.” To be truthful with our neighbors, he continues, “is to love them as we love ourselves … because truth is the power of the incarnational lifestyle.” Case encourages journalists to report the facts even when they’re ugly. Because, ultimately, he says, “God will use the truth to work His perfect will for our neighbor.”
There is again, however, a corollary. If Christians are responsible to report the truth, they’re also responsible to know it. And, mirroring God’s compassion for Nineveh, they’re responsible to act on the news they’ve been given.