Ethical imperatives in journalism?
Reporting to emphasize common grace, not fear
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I plan to continue as dean of the World Journalism Institute even after I’m done with editing and writing for WORLD next year. One reason: the good questions I get from students like this one that came on Oct. 29 from Anna Timmis, a WJI student in our college course last May.
Anna writes, “I’m in an ethics course right now and have to write on an ethical problem involving journalism. You had described during WJI how some of the things you publish make your readers or evangelical leaders angry, because you aren’t doing PR for Christian groups or political candidates.”
Anna continues, “WORLD often doesn’t fit into one tidy category of a given ‘tribe.’ I admire that and the overall commitment to truth. Additionally, not everything that WORLD publishes is catchy or intense. Sometimes, it publishes stories that don’t foster the anxiety that gets a lot of views.
“My questions are: Do you face an ethical dilemma when certain content might promise more readers and a more loyal reader base, but you choose not to run it? Would you be willing to share whether you believe it’s an ethical imperative to avoid just sensational news? What are your standards?”
Anna, those are great questions. Let me start by saying, as we do at WJI, that one size does not fit all. Explicitly religious publications have different standards than secular ones. Those that are Christ-alone are different from those that are Christian plus some ideology. Reporting-centric groups have different standards than ones stressing opinion. So at WJI we teach a journalistic method, using a whitewater rapids metaphor familiar to longtime WORLD readers. We don’t demand a specific outcome.
Here, though, are some realities: The trend in journalism these days is to emphasize opinion, not reporting. Reporting is costly; opining is relatively cheap. It can lead to more “reader engagement” in terms of clicks, likes, shares—and subscriptions. Challenging readers or donors can be costly: Supporting proclivities and prejudices is better at cementing loyalty. These days it makes a certain kind of economic and political sense to abandon Biblical objectivity and become known as a liberal or conservative organ.
For me, it’s an ethical imperative to challenge readers and viewers, not pander to them. Our goal at WORLD is to feed hearts and minds, not merely raise blood pressure. We report sensational facts but try to use understated prose. That raises an important political and theological question: Do we report from a “Flight 93” mindset or a common grace perspective?
Some “Christian conservatives” think America is in a “Flight 93” plight. Anna, you were a small child on 9/11, but Flight 93 was the hijacked plane on which brave passengers rushed the cockpit. They knew they might die (and they did), but by then other planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. They knew if they did nothing, Flight 93 would probably crash into the U.S. Capitol or some other structure, and they (with many others) would die anyway.
If the Flight 93 folks are right, America now has a “ruling class” that’s hijacked the country: We’re heading toward civil war. Oddly, some of the rhetoric is like what I used when on the political left half a century ago. But in November 1973 I came to believe in God, purely through His grace—and I also believe in “common grace.” That means even in a polarized society like ours, God can still furnish the providential blessings and restraints that will allow us to muddle through—as long as we don’t treat opponents as enemies.
My reporting-centric vision of journalism and my hope for common grace may seem quaint, but to me they form an ethical imperative: Follow Jeremiah 29:4-7 and try to bless rather than curse our cities and our neighbors. Emphasize reporting that takes readers to people and places they might otherwise never meet or see and helps us learn from others.
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