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Principles for reporters

Looking for higher ground in the battle between the press and the president

Principles for reporters

CNN reporter Jim Acosta does a standup before the White House daily press briefing on Thursday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

CNN’s Jim Acosta gave a dramatic performance this week when he demanded that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders disavow President Donald Trump’s declaration that certain media outlets are the “enemy of the people.”

Acosta nearly ordered Sanders: You should say otherwise, right here, right now.

Sanders demurred on the demand, and Acosta walked out. Apparently, even some of his colleagues considered Acosta’s behavior over the top, with one liberal commentator saying the move seemed “silly and self-righteous.”

Still, as a journalist, I can testify it’s unsettling when the president points to the press section you’ve been corralled into by security guards, and tells a crowd of thousands of fired-up supporters to look at the group of terrible people who are the “fake, fake disgusting news.”

The news that civility is at a low point isn’t fake or recent, but all the talk of the press-as-enemy has led me to ponder: How might a good reporter be a friend of the people?

Perhaps friend isn’t the best word, so I’ll rephrase: How could a journalist promote the good of her readers, no matter who or what she’s covering?

A few thoughts come to mind, and I think they might extend to good citizenship as well—particularly for Christians trying to navigate a coarsening and cynical climate, while maintaining a Biblical worldview:

Be truthful. Whatever your broader worldview or opinion about a story or trend, do your best to get the facts right. Lots of people may disagree about what the facts mean when considered as a whole, but the truth of the details matter. It weakens your argument when you mishandle facts, no matter how big or small.

Be cleareyed about both sides. Neither side is completely right all the time. Recognizing only the errors or faults of those with whom you disagree is disingenuous and unwise.

Be civil. We should speak the truth with boldness, but the book of Proverbs reminds us to use persuasive words—not perverse or demeaning ones. The Scriptures don’t commend matching insult for insult, even when making an important point.

Be humble. No one gets everything right, and when you’re wrong, you should say so. That doesn’t mean you have to back down from a worldview or opinion that others might disagree with, but if you get facts wrong, acknowledge it. On questions that don’t have clear Biblical commands, don’t presume you know all the right answers.

Be proactive. If you’re convinced you’re right, show why your argument is better through words and deeds. “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13).

Be hopeful: This especially applies to the Christian journalist or citizen. Be bold when needed, but don’t stake your hope on winning every political argument or every cultural battle. Politics are important, but they’re not ultimate, and they don’t produce the spiritual change that matters most in any man or woman.

Remember: “God’s truth abideth still—His kingdom is forever.”


  • E Cole
    Posted: Sat, 08/04/2018 03:18 pm

    We can establish guidelines for ourselves but unfortunately we can’t stop the endless propaganda from the extremes of both sides that is leaving people seemingly incapable of fairness and rational evaluation.  I read the comments on FB about this and couldn't help but wonder how many people even gave any thought to the points made before they started shrieking about the evils of the MSM. It breaks my heart to see the anger people spew (on both sides) while hypocritically condemning the hate on the other side.  Whether or not we are reporters we all need to give thought to these points. Please don't read them and think the guidelines only need to be learned by the other side. It applies to all of us.

  • JerryM
    Posted: Sat, 08/04/2018 07:37 pm

    Sadly the remedy you present, though good, points up another problem:  The state of our educational system and how we are training students to think crtically.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Sun, 08/05/2018 12:14 pm

    I think the biggest problem with journalism in the last 50 years is that it has moved almost entirely to advertisement sponsored reporting which makes it entirely difficult to be neutral on many issues. This used to be an issue only with television media outlets, but because of readership declining and loss of revenue from that source most all of media has turned to revenue from advertisement.

    At least 3 of the 6 points are seriously compromised by being paid by advertizing: Be truthful. Be cleareyed about both sides. Be hopeful. When we look at the top elite of most corporations who sponsor the media they are the more liberal, left leaning educated and tend to think with a specific mindset. In general business leaders want to support what will generate their companies with more revenue which tends to push inclusion and embracement of all idealogies.

    Also, with so many of the young hardly listening to the news/media these days I do not see this situation changing since revenue has to come from advertising and not subsrciptions.

  • Xion's picture
    Posted: Mon, 08/06/2018 03:26 am

    Your principles are good, but you violated the most important one:  Don't mischaracterize!  Trump's point, which he tweeted in response to his daughter's statement that the news is not the enemy of the people.  Trump agreed and tweeted, "Fake news is the enemy of the people", not all news.  That is Trump's real position and it is legitimate.  Sarah Sanders failed to clarify this as has nearly every other journalist.  Speaking the truth includes characterizing correctly!

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Mon, 08/06/2018 07:55 am

    But what exactly is the "fake" news that Pres. Trump has in mind?  He has tended to call whatever criticizes him fake, regardless of its truth.  Calling something fake does not make it fake.





  • MamaC
    Posted: Mon, 08/06/2018 09:24 am

    These are excellent points, as you say, not only for journalists, but for us everyday citizens as well, and I would recommend them for all who comment on WORLD mag articles.

  • CovenantWord
    Posted: Mon, 08/06/2018 03:41 pm

    Ms. Dean summarizes eternal, powerful truths, of course. May I suggest four specific applications apropos to the cultural divide currently afflicting our nation? These suggestions seek to apply the strong New Testament themes of humility and respect, in seeking peace with all men (e.g. Romans 12:18).

    1) Seek to understand the opponent's position before refuting it. Candidate Clinton's "deplorables" comment was, I believe, not a slip of the tongue, but the summary expression of the attitude of much of the major media's apparent belief that support for President Trump is beneath contempt. To be sure, the insult does not sting, because it is obviously misplaced; but it is frustrating in that it seems to have the effect of prejudicing coverage with a thicket of self-blinding presumptions. Surely the reading public would be better served by journalists who have made a concerted effort to understand why many Americans voted for Candidate Trump.

    2) Frame the opponent's position in the best light possible. The purpose of Christian discourse is not to persuade the world of one's own opinion, but to aspire to the most beautiful and efficient expression of edifying truth humanly possible. That goal is furthered as one assists the opponent to express his position better.

    3) Words matter. I met a number of folks during my visit to the UK last summer, and nearly invariably they quickly asked me my view of President Trump. The obvious began to dawn on me, that what happens over translates into significant collateral effect over there -- in the economy, in prospects for peace, in social movements, etc. In light of the ensuing conversations with my new acquaintances, it struck me a as possible that the typical UK subject knows as much about the character and policies of President Trump as the typical American citizen. Accordingly, the pettiness and failure of perspective of our domestic squabbles are all the more embarrassing.

    4) Selection of facts and emphasis of presentation convey crucial information. Is news exonerated from the charge of being "fake" if it confines itself to verifiable facts and logical conclusions? Not necessarily. Any significant policy or complex motive will present both pros and cons. To report on only one side, while neglecting the other, is to seriously misrepresent a decision and its advocates.

    An excellent summary of the principles supportive of edifying journalism may be found in the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 144.

  • David Troup's picture
    David Troup
    Posted: Wed, 08/08/2018 11:56 am

    Like Covenant Word

  • DWBrown
    Posted: Tue, 08/07/2018 09:08 am

    I started paying attention to the news media with Nixon and over the years have seen very well their efforts to deceive the simple by word smithing and not telling the whole truth, but how they want the simple to know it. Anytime there has been any leader that contributes to good character, values, morals, and standards, the media hounds them until that person's efforts are stopped. It has been evident in their actions and words during clinton and obama that when decisions were made and actions taken that adversely effect our Country and people, the media in unison word played the truth for the simple to cover and smooth over the real truth. I don't see the media changing, I believe that any political news out of their mouths will always be played based on their intention to deceive the American public for their agenda. President Trump has exposed to the simple so much that was going wrong with our Country and so thankful Jesus's Father heard our prayers and gave us a President with a strong enough spine to stand strong against the fighting and screaming evil that is doing it's best not to release it's grip on America.

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 08/07/2018 03:20 pm

    DWBrown, your logic puzzles me.  First , it is not true that the media always hounds leaders that contribute "to good character, values, morals, and standards."  Billy Graham comes immediately to mind.  (He was not President, but he sure had a lot of influence.)

    Second, Pres. Trump contributes to the "fighting and screaming" by showing bad character, values, morals, and standards.  Media hounded two of our greatest presidents--Lincoln and Reagan--throughout their presidencies.  Nobody can reasonably argue that these two added fuel to the fire by behaving poorly.  So while I am also thankful for the dredging, Pres. Trump resembles the muck that is being dredged too closely for me.

  • Debi
    Posted: Sun, 08/12/2018 07:21 pm


    Thank you for expressing so well what many of us are thinking and feeling right now. 

    We pray for President Trump and his family every day.