Reporting bad news
Media | Why WORLD feels called to cover sorrow, tragedy, and even evil
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 7/01/17, 08:45 am
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sensation” as “a condition of excited feeling produced in a community by some occurrence.” One of the hard questions for a Christian magazine is how to report bad news that, when reported, will cause a sensation. Observers for two centuries have condemned sensational stories that emphasize death and destruction—and yet, if the goal is an avoidance of sensation-causing news, we should indict the Bible itself.
Let’s start in Moses’s history book, Genesis. He quoted the first news report, Lamech’s announcement in Chapter 4 of killing a man who had wounded him. Later in Genesis come the original tales of sodomy, leading to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, followed immediately by the incest of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19).
Many more sensational events fill the pages of Genesis and the four following books of Moses. That part of the Bible culminates in the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience found in Chapter 28 of Deuteronomy. The culmination of the curses is especially vivid, with Israelites told that unfaithfulness will lead to terrible war and starvation in which “you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the LORD your God has given you.”
I’ll give you other Old Testament examples, but the New Testament also shows the streets declaring the sinfulness of man. Paul told the Romans that some men “gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:27).
Christianity is not a nice religion. Just as priests used hyssop to spray the blood of sacrifices on the people in Moses’ time, so Christ had to shed His blood, not just preach, to free us from sin.
Biblical journalism is the opposite of amoral journalism, the kind that emphasizes all the sound and fury in the world and presents people’s lives as tales told by idiots, signifying nothing. But I’d also distinguish Biblical journalism from journalistic moralism, which emphasizes the good and uplifting parts of life so people can feel better about themselves, without pointing them to Christ. Sugary journalistic moralism presents happy, smiling church people, removed from the sinful world and moving from one triumph to the next—but in a world filled with destruction, divorce, disease, and death, such reporting is not credible.
Sadly, Christian reporters need to cover sorrow, tragedy, and even evil. The Bible teaches that when man turns away from God, he acts like a beast, and that beastliness will show itself sometimes in awful crimes. We do not want to dwell on them, but if we ignore them, we’re ignoring evidence for the understanding of man’s sinfulness that is essential to Christianity—for if man without God is not a beast, then Christ’s sacrifice for us was unnecessary.
Our goal is to honor Paul’s injunction: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). We want to think of lovely things whenever we can. We also recognize that Paul could not possibly have meant that we are never to think of what is dishonorable, unjust, and worthy of condemnation, or else he could not have carried out his evangelical work amid a pagan and corrupt society.
To summarize: Most religions are predictable in their philosophy of exchange: You do something nice for a god. The god in return does something for his human devotees. The gospel, though, is sensational: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Biblical journalism is Christ-oriented, covering both crucifixion and resurrection. Our articles should suggest CFR—creation, fall, redemption—by showing how terrible man is, yet how wonderful, created in God’s image and worth dying for.
The Book of Judges is certainly full of ugly specific detail. When Ehud plunged his sword into the belly of the king of Moab, “Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it” (Judges 3:21-22). When Jael assassinated Sisera a reporter described the deed in five graphic ways, almost like a repeated slow-motion replay (Judges 4:22; 5:26). Abimelech murdered his 70 brothers. Residents of one town gang-raped and killed a woman, whose husband then cut her into 12 pieces and sent the body parts throughout Israel (Judges 9:5; 19:25-30).
WORLD has to cover misery like that, and some of the specific detail might even be too hard for us to handle. Look at this prophetic passage from Deuteronomy: “The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For in her dire need she intends to eat them secretly.”
By the time of Ahab and his son Joram, some of the curses for disobedience already were being realized. One woman told the king of her neighborly arrangement (2 Kings 6:28-29): “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’ So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him,’ but she had hidden him.”
Ezekiel was disgusted at what Israel had become: He wrote of how Judah “lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. So you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when in Egypt your bosom was caressed and your young breasts fondled” (Ezekiel 23:20-21). WORLD’s publication of such language would bring angry letters to the editor, but Jeremiah explained God’s methods simply in 19:3: “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.” How can ears tingle if descriptions are mellow?
Should it be said that those passages are inappropriate for us, we need to be reminded of God’s promise: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We cannot do better than the inspired authors of the Bible: They show us that even the grotesque, in Bible-based context, is useful for our education and sanctification.
Christian publications during the early 19th century regularly ran sensational accounts. For example, the Boston Recorder’s coverage of “Earthquake at Aleppo” in 1822 included a first-person account of destruction in Syria. Reporter Benjamin Barker wrote that he was racing down the stairs of a crumbling house when another shock sent him flying through the air, his fall broken when he landed on a dead body. He saw “men and women clinging to the ruined walls of their houses, holding their children in their trembling arms; mangled bodies lying under my feet, and piercing cries of half-buried people assailing my ears; Christians, Jews, and Turks, were imploring the Almighty’s mercy in their respective tongues, who a minute before did not perhaps acknowledge him.”
The sensational scene included “hundreds of decrepit parents half-buried in the ruins, imploring the succor of their sons,” and “distracted mothers frantically lifting heavy stones from heaps that covered the bodies of lifeless infants.” Sounds included “the crash of falling walls, the shrieks, the groans,” but also many persons “falling on their knees and imploring the mercy of God.” The Recorder treated the earthquake as Jesus did the fall of the Siloam tower, and asked why all of us, standing “on the brink of eternity, and liable by a thousand means as fatal to life as an earthquake, to be hurried into eternity,” do not “seek the Lord while He may be found.”
WORLD has covered ugly examples of sin, such as sexual molestation in schools, importation of prostitutes/slaves, and partial-birth abortion. Some people cancel subscriptions when we run such stories. But here’s the type of letter we now receive frequently: “My heart was broken by your article. Thanks for printing this ‘hard to read’ information. Because of it, God has called me to prayer and action like never before.”
Paul himself commented on and wrote about evil in the world because it was important for the Christian community to address sin appropriately. Just as Paul was called at times to write about evil, so are journalists. We are called to witness and describe the bad as well as the good. When and how to run photos of war and disaster with dead bodies or streaming blood is sometimes a hard call. We have sometimes shown from a great distance—charred bodies in Fallujah, people jumping from the World Trade Center on 9/11—what we would not show close up.
It’s hard to have a hard-and-fast rule here because we are pulled one way by our goal of Biblical impartiality and another way by the recognition that children look at WORLD. Here’s a letter from E.S., an Iowa reader: “I am a 14-year-old homeschool girl who enjoys your magazine very much. However, I have one criticism: Sometimes I think you do not take into consideration that young people may be reading WORLD.” She saw the importance of sometimes having disturbing details, but suggested, “It would be good if at the beginning of such an article, you could warn readers of such violent content.”
We now go by the E.S. standard: Don’t eliminate material, but give a warning. Taking into account news value, visual accuracy, and likely reader reaction, editors have to make hard calls on photos—run or don’t run, and if run, size and placement. At the same time, we don’t want to shelter adults or unduly shelter children.
Ann Voskamp, in One Thousand Gifts (Zondervan, 2010), writes about chaperoning her church’s youth group, made up of farm kids, through Toronto’s mean streets. She’s scared when a man with a wild mane of graying hair puts on a clown mask and starts yelling at the children: “I’m masking the real me! Know what I mean? … I’m *&%$* messed up man. Look at me! … Fried my brain on crack, know what I mean? … Don’t do crack, know what I mean?”
Voskamp writes, “He steps into the company of young people. Some look away. … His rage shakes us. Shakes the drowsy, shakes the slumbering, shakes us to look at what we really came to see, to look straightway into it and really open the soul wide to see and it terrifies.” She thanks the wild man for shaking her and them.
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. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.