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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Uncertain sources

Double-checking our stories has to be a way of life

Uncertain sources


Over a quarter-century ago I got one of my most unforgettable lessons in journalism. I should have known it well through an acquaintance with Proverbs 18:17: “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” But I had to see that truth illustrated in a real-life situation.

It happened during the closing days of the bitter conflict in Nicaragua—and I wanted to know whether the Contras or the Sandinistas had the moral upper hand. Even with WORLD’s limited travel budget, I decided to go to Managua for a few days and see what I might learn.

But then, shortly after I returned, I had lunch with a good friend who worked for the Asheville fire department. He was terribly distressed, he told me, with the corruption he saw in the personnel office there. “How you do on the tests,” he complained, “doesn’t have much to do with who gets promoted. What matters is whether you know the right people to give you advance copies of the tests you have to take.” I was startled by his certainty. “Everybody knows what’s going on,” he said.

God’s notebook calls for much bigger handwriting than most of us are used to.

The very next day I was with another friend who was a detective with the local police department. That unit happened to be under the same personnel jurisdiction as that of the fire department. So I asked him whether he thought there might be anything askew in the way promotions were handled in the two departments—that I had heard everything there wasn’t on the up-and-up. He was almost scornful in his response, telling me six different ways why such charges couldn’t possibly be true.

I honestly didn’t know then, and haven’t decided until this day, whose story was closer to the truth. I still trust both fellows and am persuaded each of them earnestly believed he was telling the truth. But their stories were as far apart as those of Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi.

That’s when it dawned on me in a new way how careful we all must be with what we call “the truth.” Asheville’s City Hall was less than 2 miles from my office. There was no foreign language barrier between us to confuse the issue. There would be no problem making repeated visits to the scene. There was no war going on to make it lethally risky for people to speak up. My reports came from personal friends in whom I had developed trust over the years. And still, I didn’t know.

How could I possibly know what was going on in Nicaragua? I didn’t know my sources personally. They were a time zone and a foreign language away—even if I could talk with them in person. It would be costly and inconvenient to go back to confirm various details. And there were enough guns pointed in both directions to make folks cautious about what they said.

All that has remained a good lesson for me as we try here at WORLD to do a faithful job of reporting the news from day to day. We could pretend to know exactly what’s going on everywhere in the world and try hard to impose our own preconceived notions of exactly what it all means for you as a reader. But just as surely as we’d do that, God would upset world affairs again just as He has done so often in the past.

The point is not to discourage us from seeking facts or seeking the meaning of those facts. The point—at least for me—is to make me just a bit more modest in all my assertions. God’s notebook calls for much bigger handwriting than most of us are used to.

Just in the last few days, I’ve had readers and listeners suggest to me that WORLD is missing the boat by failing to report: (1) how developments around the temple site in Jerusalem will dominate world affairs within the next 90 days; (2) how diet policies in New York’s public schools will affect food prices around the world this fall; and (3) how the major automakers, in cahoots with the big oil companies, are buying up patent rights for carburetors that otherwise would be giving our cars 100 miles to the gallon.

The one about the carburetors has been around for years. I might have to visit Nicaragua to see if there’s any truth to it.


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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 08/28/2017 05:03 am

    Good reminder. True.

    I find most criticisms of World, while likely well intentioned, to miss the mark by a wide margin. Most seem to not understand World's mission, its limitations and simple journalistic integrity. 

    Thanks Joel... and World.

  •  austinbeartux's picture
    Posted: Tue, 08/29/2017 12:27 pm

    What Steve said.  : )

  • jclark53
    Posted: Tue, 08/29/2017 02:12 pm

    I read World to get the 'other side of the story' after events hit the main media. I don't look to World to be the ultimate resource of truth, just a place to see what kind of questions weren't answered, what answers were ignored, and mainly to see how the event could be seen from a Christian point of view. Thanks for doing the work that you do.

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Wed, 08/30/2017 02:58 am

    Mark Twain observed that people who don't read the news are ignorant and those who do are misinformed.  Modern news is not about truth, but about ginning up narratives that sell.  They feed their audiences the fiction they want.  Whole segments of society desire the false narratives that support their false world views.  Cable news is about finding the worst idiots of an opposing agenda and painting everyone they disagree with that way.  It is a lucrative game, much like sports and other entertainment.  It does not edify.  It is vanity and vexation of spirit.  But it pays the bills.