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Journalism and sin

Journalism and sin

Grappling with big issues at our Journalism Institute

On May 1 I noted that we were looking forward expectantly to the inaugural four weeks of the World Journalism Institute (WJI). Now that 25 students who were admitted have come to Asheville-alas, we had to turn more away-we've plunged into study of the differences between moralistic, happy-talk journalism and biblical journalism that I described in that Mayday column three months ago.

The overarching, continuing theme of World, I'm explaining, is that the heavens declare the glory of God and the streets declare the sinfulness of man. Other Christian magazines tend to leave out the sin, but without that news we might fool ourselves into thinking that we do not desperately need Christ. Acknowledgment of sin, however, puts journalists in a quandary: We report people missing the mark, but can we ourselves see straight?

This is a particularly serious problem because the ninth commandment-you shall not bear false witness-indicts us all. If it merely said, do not lie, then sometimes we could defend ourselves, because lying implies a conscious state. But we can be bearing false witness even when we think we are sincere, if our presuppositions and attitudes propel us away from honest accounts. Operating from our own understanding, none of us can hope to stand before God and be told: Well done, good and faithful reporter.

Some of our WJI students know that the classic formulation of our condition goes like: Before Adam and Eve's fall in the Garden, man was able to sin-and our first parents converted that ability into reality. Since the Fall, we are not able not to sin: Our inevitable direction is toward wrong action and wrong understanding. Once we are converted to Christ, we still have natural dispositions but we are graced with a new ability: We are sometimes able not to sin. And our hope is in heaven, where God will complete the work He has done on us and leave us not able to sin.

The students and I can all see that non-Christian journalists have no hope of getting things ultimately right, because they are not able not to sin. This does not mean that our daily newspapers are useless: Through common grace, which is rained on the just and unjust alike, they can often get the who, what, when, and where right. And yet, non-Christians will often be mistaken on the how, and they will certainly be wrong on the why.

But when we point one finger at others, we're also pointing four toward ourselves. Christian journalists also cannot claim to get everything or even most things right: Our limitations are great, and only in heaven are we not able to sin. But through God's grace Christians are sometimes able not to sin, and our way to maximize that possibility is to stick very closely to God's Word.

I'm summarizing all this in class by observing that all reporting is directed in some manner; there are no neutral facts. (The theologian who has best dealt with such issues is Cornelius van Til.) All reporting naturally drifts toward evil, although through common grace the worst of our tendencies are often kept at bay. Those we report on are also often directed toward sinful activity, although once again common grace has an effect. Christ-directed reporters, and Christ-directed objects of reporting, can sometimes can get things right, but only if we let our reporting be directed by God and not our own egos.

This formulation answers some questions but leads to others: How can we put aside our own interests and be God-directed? Do we have any hope of being "objective" by "balancing both sides"-to use some of the godwords of secular journalism? Or when we think about balance should we keep in mind basketballer Sam Mitchell's analysis of the NBA lockout last winter: "There are three sides to this: the players' side, the owners' side, and the truth."

We should not prostrate ourselves before secular definitions of objectivity. Since the first commandment tells us to have no gods before God, one of its practical applications is that we are to have no godwords before God's Word. So the key for all Christian journalists is to study the Bible and emphasize its themes of sin and redemption rather than our own feeble attempts to arrive at what is called "objectivity." That's World's goal-biblical objectivity, not man's varieties-but how to do that is something we struggle with week to week.