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It’s been a long time since I’ve been asked to defend WORLD magazine against the charge that we’re nothing more than a rumor mill. Folks who trust WORLD as a news source know better than that. The men and women who report the stories WORLD brings you are news professionals. We check and then double-check the reliability of what we tell you. When there’s doubt or ambiguity about a story, we tell you so.
All that has to do with the “truth test.” Our pledge at WORLD is that we’ll never report something to you as truthful until we are certain of its basis in fact.
But there’s another test WORLD stories have to pass before you get to see or hear them. We’re also obliged to ask: “Even if we know it’s true, is this story significant and important?” And especially when we’re dealing with reports that cast a cloud over individuals or organizations, we find all sorts of disagreement—even among our readers, and sometimes within our staff—as to the propriety of including such stories in our coverage. “It may be true,” our critics ask fairly often. “But is it necessary?”
In the 28 years since WORLD’s 1986 founding, we’ve had to ask that question again and again. But especially in the last year, as ministries and ministry leaders from Maryland to Texas and from Washington to Florida have stumbled and tumbled, we’ve found ourselves repeatedly confronted not just with the “Is it true?” question, but especially with the “Is it something we’re obliged to report?” issue.
So let me repeat here what we’ve said in this space before. When ministries and ministry leaders appeal regularly to the Christian public for their support and maintenance, then that same Christian public has every right to hear details about what those leaders either are—or aren’t—doing to earn that support. “He who lives by the sword,” Jesus said, “also dies by the sword.” Those who use mass media to raise their millions of dollars of support should hardly be surprised if those same mass media become the means by which their foibles and failures become known to the public.
Here are some of the “dashboard indicators” we at WORLD will be tending to watch to suggest whether the Christian public ought to know more about any particular issue, story, or event:
Have financial safeguards been ignored or set aside? When an annual financial audit used to be part of the picture but is no longer available, or is available only in the sketchiest of formats, there’s frequently legitimate cause for concern. “Follow the money” is a worthy maxim not only with secular organizations, but too often as well with Christians who have lost their way.
Have normal channels of accountability been breached? Have important people been replaced—and maybe repeatedly? Worse yet, perhaps, have important people left without being replaced? Has a once-stable board undergone faster-than-usual change? Have reports you used to depend on disappeared?
Where there has been the “appearance of evil,” has that appearance been adequately and appropriately dealt with? Or is there more a sense of simply covering it over? In my experience, this is the trickiest of these several indicators—but maybe also the most important. “To whom much is given, much is required”—and that is especially true of Christian leaders. When word comes, and is verified, that someone has shrugged off the advice of friends and advisers and colleagues, and continues, against their counsel, in any pattern of behavior—financial, moral, or managerial—then such indifference is for us a reportable matter. The behavior itself is relatively beside the point. Moral slow-footedness becomes the central issue.
Room for disagreement as applied to specific issues? Yes, indeed. But at least you’ll know, the next time WORLD carries a story that makes you squirm a bit and ask if this was really necessary, that we’re not acting in a cavalier, sensationalist, and arbitrary fashion.