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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?”

Our goal at WORLD is to feed hearts and minds, not merely raise blood pressure.

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.


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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BBAU8755

Wise words. I see the Flight 93 mentality in many of my Christian relatives. I am concerned that this will lead to civil war. Of even greater concern is the damage it is doing to our Christian witness. Our culture desperately needs to know and understand the God of love and grace. Instead they see Christians modeling anger, divisiveness and looking out for our own interests.

JRAU5405

We are heart-sick over the departure of 4 major figures at World whom we have consistently relied upon for many decades. We pray that WNG will respond with honesty and clarity about the direction that they are taking with the addition of the Opinions section. As another commenter pointed out, the existence of an Opinions section is not necessarily concerning in itself. Our concern lies in the partisanship that such a section could create and the apparent shift from biblically-objective journalism. We will continue to subscribe to World until the concerns raised by readers are addressed and we can make a sound decision. Love hopes all things.

Steve S

I can accept an opinion section-- but not for one that is skewed from the get-go with the assumption of defending 'conservatism'. Why not have an opinion section that has a balance of support and critique for Democrats and Republicans? World magazine might have been able to pull this off, but alas, since Dr. Mohler and his band of 'trusted voices' has the wheel, the opinion section feels all too predictable and one-sided.
Mr. Olasky: Thank you for your years of service with WNG! You will be missed greatly... and I will miss World magazine when I stop subscribing.

FIMIKISteve S

Indeed. Opinion articles could be a good thing if they comprise a diversity of perspectives and maintain good-faith arguments about a topic. That would certainly be refreshing to see in this day and time! Some of the articles published have been self-conscious about the failings of the conservative movement and that's good to see, but even those start from the assumption that conservatism should be the default position of all true believers in America - an especially difficult pill to swallow for many brothers and sisters of color.

Ohioan

[Comment hidden due to low rating]

S LEWIS

Olasky has been a voice of sanity and hope, a lifeline in an increasingly polarized culture. For years as a PCA pastor I've recommended World precisely because it was not predictably conservative but was rather predictably biblical. Where will pro-life, pro-refugee, pro-godly-character readers go as Mindy's keyboard gathers dust, as Angela's pen dries, and as Marvin is marginalized? We can be deeply thankful we were discipled so well these past decades. Oftentimes our sovereign God uses a Diaspora for His glory. Those who had to flee Jerusalem ended up doing greater things in Antioch. But it's still very sad. Brace yourself for a circling of the wagons, excuse-making, vague and ineffective apologies, and empty pledges. Pray for something blessedly better. Trust that the world and everything in it is still very much in the hand of God. It's His (small) world after all.

OhioanS LEWIS

"Brace yourself for a circling of the wagons, excuse-making, vague and ineffective apologies, and empty pledges." Predicting these types of responses, and preemptively characterizing them as such, is uncharitable.

S LEWISOhioan

It really wasn’t a prediction. I had already heard excuses and such. I was just giving you the heads up to be ready for what I’d already experienced. Tell you what, we’re both World readers, let’s you and me at least be charitable to each other.

Joel

Thank you for your commitment to journalism that, as you say, challenges the reader rather than pandering, and does its best to stick to fact-based reporting. I understand you will be leaving your editorial post in January instead of May due to a view, apparently now taking root at World, that such journalism is less important than more subscribers, & that saddens me. As a charter member of World, the three people who have contributed most to my support for World's mission are Joel Belz, Mindy Belz, and since your arrival, you. Now two of the three of you are moving on. I'll continue to subscribe, but the trust I had in World's commitment to news from a biblical worldview has taken a major hit.

OhioanJoel

Assuming, without evidence, that those with whom you disagree are animated by base motives rather than virtuous ones, is uncharitable, and leads to exactly the kind of polarization that Mr. Olasky decries.

mrbobmac

If I may present an alternate *opinion*, I am not disappointed by the creation of an Opinions section for World. Most, if not all, major news outlets have an Opinion section. In The Wall Street Journal, for example, their Opinion and News sections are separate departments. An Opinion section allows the writers to go into the WHY behind a certain belief system, whereas a News article can only quote, generally briefly, the opinion of one side or another.

Justin858

"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. "

That seems to sum up why World started an Opinions section. It's disappointing.

OhioanJustin858

We are too quick to assume virtuous motives for our own actions and base motives for the actions of those with whom we disagree. What is your evidence of an intent to de-emphasize reporting?