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Journalistic shepherds

Our editorial staff must pass a rigorous three-part test


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Journalistic shepherds

I am glad and proud to say that Joel Belz is the best mentor I’ve ever had. I understudied him from 1992 to 1994 and then took over as editor-in-chief.

I’m glad to be about to handoff this magazine to Michael Reneau, with our editorial philosophy the same as it was when Joel 25 years ago published the column below: Dec. 14, 1996. The three qualities he looked for in reviewers and reporters still stand. A well-rounded Biblical point of view. The ability to write about complex issues and make it interesting. A shepherd’s heart.

Joel was also accurate in assessing the difficulty of finding people who can meet standard one: “The bad news is that it’s easier to find needles in haystacks than it is to find people who are truly gifted to see what is really going on.” Standard two, writing ability, further cuts the number of potential staff members: “You and I both know smart people … who can’t explain what they know worth a toot. … If the first search left only a handful of people, this second standard eliminates most of the handful.”

Joel continued, “It’s so painful to have to push on to a third level of elimination. … a certain confidence coupled with a “you-may-be-right” spirit. … never cocky and cavalier.” Joel’s summary: “We should take you right to the essence of the story, we should do it with color and interest, and we should keep in mind that thoughtful Christians might well disagree even about important issues.”

I’m proud that Joel concluded his column, “Two years ago this month, it was a joy to be able to pass on to Marvin Olasky, WORLD’s editor, the task of finding the right people to make such reporting happen in our columns every week. His skilled work in leading our editorial team week by week speaks for itself, and about 70,000 subscribers are now getting a kind of journalism I don’t think is available anywhere else. Thanks for being one of them.”

We’re about at that same number of readers now. Some are conservative. Some are moderates. We probably don’t have many liberals reading us regularly, but we’d like to have more, because we’re proudest not of our opinionating but our reporting—and everyone needs not Republican facts nor Democratic facts, but true facts. We’ve hired journalists, not politicians or advocates.

Joel has been supportive all of these years, as have been most of our readers. All our writers are Christians first. Nothing political, historical, or ethnic goes on the same line as Christ! Our emphasis on reporting has helped us to maintain our focus on Biblical reality and to question all human ideologies, projects, and leaders.

Here’s Joel’s astute analysis: Please read on. —Marvin Olasky

I used to think I needed to look for three specific qualities as I sought people who could write good reviews for the culture section of WORLD.

First, I needed people who clearly understood what was going on in the works they were reviewing. I enjoy an orchestra playing Tchaikovsky, for example—but that doesn’t mean I know what’s going on artistically. I might superficially appreciate a painting or a novel—but I still typically need someone with trained insights to tell me what's really happening. At WORLD, such insights must also incorporate a well-rounded Biblical point of view—or what we sometimes call a “God’s-eye perspective.” The bad news is that it’s easier to find needles in haystacks than it is to find people who are truly gifted to see what is really going on in a particular piece of art.

Yet once we’ve located a few of those needles, we still have to measure them by the second of my three standards. Such reviewers, besides having good insights, need also to be able to write with uncommon clarity and interest. You and I both know smart people—folks who understand things a whole lot better than we do—who can’t explain what they know worth a toot. WORLD’s readers deserve writers who can write even about deep and complex issues and make those matters interesting. But if the first search left only a handful of people, this second standard eliminates most of the handful.

That’s why it’s so painful to have to push on to a third level of elimination. It struck me as I studied reviews in WORLD and elsewhere that if readers were really to be served well by our writers, the reviews needed to be nurtured by what I call a pastoral or a shepherd’s heart. Arrogance has little place in such a setting. What’s needed instead is a certain confidence coupled with a “you-may-be-right” spirit. We have to keep in mind that not everyone goes to movies or thinks they’re important; not everyone tries to keep up with the latest musical releases; not everyone thinks last week’s best-selling novel is automatically must reading. WORLD needs reviewers, I decided, who will remember how scattered we readers are across that cultural landscape, reviewers who will never be condescending toward us in our unsophisticated tastes, who will pick us up like lambs and carry us along, who will be tender and careful—never cocky and cavalier. Neither, of course, are we looking for wimps; but good shepherds are rarely wimps.

The reviews needed to be nurtured by what I call a pastoral or a shepherd’s heart.

But then a startling thought overwhelmed me. If this was a valid three-level test for WORLD’s reviewers, why not for all our writers? For in one sense, a newsmagazine is itself an extended review. Yes, we review books and movies and television programs and music albums. But we also review political happenings, social patterns, educational developments, scientific breakthroughs, and economic shifts. Don’t the same qualifications apply?

To be more specific, if I attend a conference on the subject of “mere creation,” as I did a couple of weeks ago in California, and that conference included 18 very diverse speakers over three days, you expect me to tell you in relatively few words what the essence of the gathering was. You don’t want a long “and then, and then, and then” narrative. You want me to go to the heart of the matter and tell you what really happened. And you want to know that as I size up the conference, from start to finish, I’m keeping a Biblical perspective in mind—for that is the ultimate heart of any matter.

At the same time, you expect me to keep the account interesting. Unless you’re a Ph.D. in embryology, you don’t want a scientific abstract or a lab report. Your reading time is limited and this may not be a priority issue for you, so you want me to give you something colorful, memorable, and fairly basic to remember.

Like a good shepherd, I don’t want to lose any of you.

Finally, I have to remember that in WORLD’s readership are folks who are all over the lot on the subject of origins—serious Christians, mind you, but people who have quite a few theories about how God did his work of creation. Like a good shepherd, I don’t want to lose any of you. That affects the tone with which I write and the choices I make in quoting different participants. Without forfeiting anything by way of truth or fidelity to God’s word, I want to represent all the comings and goings of a very diverse group—and do it as well for a very diverse readership.

That is the task of a good WORLD reporter and writer. As a reader, that should be your expectation, whether the story is about the election of a congressman in Idaho, the plight of refugees in eastern Zaire, the use of educational vouchers in Cleveland, or any other topic we report on. We should take you right to the essence of the story, we should do it with color and interest, and we should keep in mind that thoughtful Christians might well disagree even about important issues.

Two years ago this month, it was a joy to be able to pass on to Marvin Olasky, WORLD's editor, the task of finding the right people to make such reporting happen in our columns every week. His skilled work in leading our editorial team week by week speaks for itself, and about 70,000 subscribers are now getting a kind of journalism I don't think is available anywhere else. Thanks for being one of them.


Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.

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Steve S

I love World Magazine for all of these reasons. The three tests you lay out have kept me a regular subscriber. I'd encourage World to apply these same tests to the "trusted voices" in the Opinion section. love the point Joel makes that "we should keep in mind that thoughtful Christians might well disagree even about important issues."