Applying Biblical objectivity
Books | An excerpt from Reforming Journalism
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 11/02/19, 07:40 am
P&R recently published my new book, Reforming Journalism. It’s available in English and in Chinese, with the goal of helping Christian reporters and news consumers in the United States and in China to think Christianly about journalism. Last month, we ran an excerpt from Chapter 3. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 4, “Navigating the Rapids.”
The first decision journalists make is not how to write about particular issues and questions, but which topics to cover. The world is vast, resources are limited, and we always make choices. Even a local publication has more shoveled onto its plate than it can consume. An editor who simply says, “We’ll cover the news,” is not being honest with others and perhaps himself as well, for “the news” does not just happen. Some stories are obligatory for publications to report, but more often editors have considerable discretionary choice over which events to cover.
Agenda-setting is inevitable. Print publications have limited space. The internet has given journalists greater flexibility than we used to have, but we still have limited time. A lengthy examination of one issue may mean no time spent on another. Every editor who assigns a reporter to a story is thereby not assigning the reporter to another. Virtually every experienced reporter has some idea about a story line before reporting begins. Honest reporters have to be willing to change story lines when facts on the ground confound expectations—but each fact has a context.
Journalists emerge from the early reporting and interviewing process with a thesis—an idea of what the story is all about—either supported or changed. With a thesis in mind, reporters look for ways to tell a lot with a little. We train ourselves to observe and record the details that help to characterize a person, a meeting, and so forth.
At a certain point, a thesis solidifies and reporters are no longer looking for evidence that disproves it (although we should take into account any that emerges). Instead, journalists from that point on are building a case as an honest lawyer would, bringing out supporting evidence and refuting what appears to undermine the thesis but actually does not.
In this sense, all reporting is directed reporting, directed by some worldview. Many stories feature a protagonist who faces an antagonist and perseveres in his mission while overcoming obstacles—PAMO, for short. A normal template for a story is that the protagonist wants to do X as part of his mission, but Y (the antagonist) and Z (obstacles) are in his way. The protagonist may be an organization rather than an individual, and the antagonist may be a worldview.
For example, here’s a paragraph from WORLD’s China coverage (with names omitted):
On July 4 six women arrived at the top prosecutor’s office in Beijing with the names of their detained husbands pasted onto their summer dresses with messages like “I support you” and “Waiting for you.” The wives, joined by lawyers and several Western diplomats, came to raise their frustrations that authorities in the neighboring city of Tianjing had barred them from contacting their husbands, whom authorities arrested last year in a nationwide roundup of human rights lawyers and activists.
In that paragraph, the six women are the protagonists and their mission is to express their frustrations, so as to support their husbands. Their antagonists are government officials, and one of the obstacles is the order than bars them from contacting their husbands. WORLD is sympathetic to those women and their husbands. The story could be written from a different perspective that would have the authorities as protagonists with the mission of preserving law and order, and the wives, lawyers, and Western diplomats as antagonists ignorantly or maliciously wasting everyone’s time.
Even the simplest spot news story has a protagonist, mission, antagonist, and barriers. Here’s one:
Firefighters [protagonist] last night battled a blaze [antagonist]. Because of high winds and low water pressure [barriers], it took two hours to extinguish the flames [mission].
Police [protagonist] yesterday took a bite out of crime [mission] by arresting the East Side cat burglar [antagonist]. He surrendered only after he fired two shots [obstacle] and yelled, “You’ll never take me alive.”
Because only arsonists cheer for the fire, the choice of protagonist—firefighter or fire—is clear. The choice is not clear to all reporters covering abortion. Christian reporters normally see the unborn baby as the protagonist, since the baby’s life is at stake. Those who would kill the baby are antagonists. Other reporters make legislators or a particular reading of the Constitution the antagonists.
Compelling stories have a protagonist or protagonists on a mission, one or more antagonists, and obstacles to success. For example, in the United States children learn about the three little pigs: One who works hard takes the time to build his house out of bricks. The other two choose a faster alternative and build their houses out of straw or sticks. The three pigs are our protagonists. Their mission is building houses. The barrier to success for two of them is laziness— they don’t want to spend the time to build a strong house. They have an antagonist: a big bad wolf who huffs and puffs and blows down the houses made of straw or sticks.
Good stories have strong, vigorous antagonists. If the wolf’s problem was just big teeth and a pointy nose, officials could give him free orthodontist visits and free plastic surgery—but the wolf’s murderous disposition is integral to a gripping story. Communist Party stories, if true, are compelling. The protagonists are workers and peasants and their vanguard, committed CP members. They are on a mission to raise standards of living and free a nation from bourgeois or aristocratic restraints. Their antagonist is the ruling class or, once Communists take power, reactionaries who sabotage efforts to make sure all are well fed, housed, clad, and cared for. Obstacles include independent media, businesses, and churches.
The Bible has a complicated structure, but it is essentially a story of creation, fall, and redemption. God’s mission is to rescue His people and save them from sin. Christ is the protagonist, and Satan is the antagonist who seems to win in the Garden of Eden, seems to win often throughout the history of Israel, and seems to win on Good Friday—but loses in the end.
Each book of the Bible, sometimes each chapter, has its own drama. In Genesis 3, for example, Adam and Eve are the protagonists with the mission of continuing to be able to walk with God in Eden. Satan, in the form of a serpent, is the antagonist, tempting the first couple to sin. The fruit of the two trees are obstacles to mission fulfillment, which occurs through obedience. When Adam and Eve disobey, they are cast out.
PAMO analysis is also useful when looking at other chapters of the Bible. For example, Ezekiel 33 portrays watchers on the wall who have a calling like that of journalists. The protagonist is the watchman, and the antagonist is a literal enemy bringing a sword to the land—or a metaphorical enemy, sin. The watchman’s goal is to warn the people when a threat appears. Barriers to successful fulfillment of the mission include laziness (the watchman sleeping at his post), blindness (not seeing the threat), cowardice (fear that warning the wicked will bring retribution from them), and wickedness (siding with evil).
After I visited China and saw with my own eyes the burgeoning house churches movement, I wrote, “With house churches multiplying in cities and influential executives coming to faith, Christianity is growing so fast in China that Communist officials are having a hard time keeping up.” In that story, Chinese Christians are the protagonists, with a mission of spreading the gospel, and Communist officials are the antagonists. The protagonists face barriers: harassment, sometimes persecution, and their own fear and desires.
Near the end of a story with the literal headline “Dead ends in Darfur,” WORLD reported that janjaweed (“armed horsemen”) were raiding Sudanese villages, raping women, killing children, and torching property. The protagonists are innocent people, their mission is to raise crops and children, and their biggest obstacle is the lack of any obstacles in the way of the janjaweed.
Other stories aren’t as clear-cut. A WORLD article about the effect of soaring food prices on the poor concluded, “Many forces are at work in bringing about higher food prices. One of these forces—the diversion of land and crops to biofuel production at the expense of food production—is unlike the others: Congress has the power to change it.” Here the protagonists are poor people with the mission of obtaining less expensive food, the antagonist is biofuel production that raises prices, and the obstacle is a Congress providing biofuel incentives and thus indirectly raising the price of food.
Journalists write feature stories, in short, from a variety of viewpoints, but most have protagonists and antagonists, missions and obstacles. Stories don’t write themselves. Some journalists say, “I just report the facts,” but it’s important to understand that facts by themselves sit like lumps of coal. Those lumps provide warmth only when placed in a furnace. Facts heat our minds only when placed within stories—and the Bible places facts within stories.
A biblically objective reporter confidently knows that God’s revelation in the Bible is relevant to our daily lives. A convinced Marxist reporter is confident that the Bible is not our instructor and Karl Marx’s revelation is. Other nonbiblical reporters follow their own scriptures or at least their own instincts. Everyone worships something and tries to live by some code, whether written or not.
That distinction does not mean that a Christian reporter automatically knows how to report every story. We should live by the doctrine that became central in the Protestant Reformation five centuries ago: sola scriptura, the Bible only. Applied properly, the doctrine helps us to avoid overusing or underusing the Bible. If we overuse it by asserting that the Bible says certain things that it does not say, we feed our human tendency to make up rules that purportedly will help us save ourselves, or at least allow us to think ourselves better than others. Over-assertiveness feeds the legalism that has pushed many Christian students into animosity toward the denominations of their youth.
Underuse is also a problem. When we say the Bible is not clear on a subject when it actually is, that feeds into antinomianism, the belief (particularly familiar today) that we make up our own rules. In the United States, legalistic overuse harms some conservative Christians, and antinomian underuse is rampant among some modern Christians who prefer to say, “I read the Bible and decide what it says to me. No one has the right to tell me I’m wrong, and I don’t have the right to tell someone else—it’s between him and God.”
Overuse and underuse are the Scylla and Charybdis of biblical application. Three millennia ago, Homer wrote about those two mythical sea monsters. Greeks said they were on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between the island of Sicily and the Italian mainland. Few sailors could survive the passage.
At WORLD, we’ve tried to navigate our way through during the past two decades with the help of another watery metaphor based on whitewater rafting. Going down rocky streams in a rubber raft is a popular American activity, and experts talk of six classes of rapids where the water runs swiftly, from class one (easy enough for a novice) to class six (death with a roar).
A class one rapids issue is one on which the Bible is explicit. Murder, adultery, theft, and other sins clearly and specifically identified as such in the Bible are wrong. In reporting such issues, Christian journalists should be careful to describe non-Christian views accurately and refrain from caricaturing opponents, but we should not feel any need to give equal time or space to ungodly views or to pretend we don’t know right from wrong.
For example, when World praises long-term marriages, we don’t balance reportage with scorn for golden anniversaries. Similarly, Bible-oriented reporters describing the sad consequences of heterosexual adultery or homosexuality do not need to balance anti-sin and pro-sin perspectives. The Bible is also clear on abortion, although clarity requires combining “You shall not murder” with the explicit recognition that unborn babies are human beings “fearfully and wonderfully made” and knit together in our mothers’ wombs, as Psalm 139 declares.
A class one rapids story is not a paint-by-numbers exercise. Journalists must show discernment in exploring nuances, but it’s easier in some ways than higher rapids stories because the overall perspective is clear.
Clarity is not as great on class two issues. For example, the Bible (Deut. 6:7) says Christian parents are responsible for teaching their children about God’s love and commands: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Does this mean that parents must homeschool their children or send them to Christian schools?
It is clearly wrong for parents to abdicate, and WORLD is positive about Christian schools and home schools, but they are not problem-free. We do not say it is sinful for parents ever to send sons and daughters to government schools, as long as they find ways to counter the propaganda their children are likely to hear. We do report on the difficulties, including the puzzlement when first graders are told that boys may be girls and vice versa.
Class three stories are those in which partisans on both sides can quote Bible verses, but careful study results in definite conclusions. For example, a biblical understanding of helping the poor means an emphasis on generosity, but not the kind that just makes the giver feel good. The goal should be challenging, personal, and spiritual care for widows, orphans, aliens, prisoners, and others among the unemployed, uneducated, or unwanted. Since the apostle Paul wrote that even widows are not automatically entitled to aid, broad entitlement programs are suspect, and all who are able to work should do so.
Still, applying this principle in modern society is not easy. Should we give to all who ask on a city sidewalk or at the entrance to a freeway? Jesus in John 5 asked the key question to a man who had been lying by the Bethesda pool for thirty-eight years: “Do you want to be healed?” I’ve interviewed several hundred homeless men and learned that many are sadly used to degradation and do not want help that pushes them to give up drinking and drug use. Peter in Acts 3 does not give silver or gold to a panhandler at the gate of the Jerusalem temple, but responds with a message of far deeper salvation.
On class four issues, we should humbly bring to bear the Bible’s perspective on human nature. For example, biblical objectivity on international issues emphasizes striving for peace without appeasing aggressors. Those who believe peace is natural emphasize disarmament, but a biblical understanding of sin leads to some tough questions: What if war is the natural habit of sinful man? What if some leaders see war as a useful way to gain more power, believing they can achieve victory without overwhelming losses? History is full of mistaken calculations of that sort. Leaders have a tendency to overrate their own power, and so they may plunge ahead, unless restrained by the power of potential adversaries.
Since the Bible does not say explicitly that one kind of anti-addiction program will work and another won’t, a WORLD story about drug prevention programs is likely to report on a variety of proposals. We do know, though, that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and any program that leaves out the spiritual is an incomplete program. This understanding undergirds our reporting on contemporary scourges.
We do not have clear biblical teaching regarding class five issues, but historical understanding can break us out of our natural tendencies toward thinking our side is right and others are wrong. For example, Western Christians should recognize that England sinned against China during the 1839–1842 Opium War that forced the country to allow opium imports from India.
Class six issues are those in which there is no clear biblical position nor other clear indications, so people equally well-versed in the Bible will often take diametrically opposed positions. Technical economic issues—whether to raise or lower interest rates, for example—are often of this nature, as are complex questions of international diplomacy. Biblical understandings will often help analysts in sorting out the relevant questions, but Christians should be careful not to state that there is one biblical position on these subjects to which all should ascribe, or else.
Overall, the rapids metaphor suggests a framework for biblical objectivity that allows us to push hard, but avoid twisting Scripture. When we take a strong biblical stand on a class one issue, we are objective. When we take a balanced position on a class six issue by citing the views and approaches of a variety of informed sources, we are also biblically objective, because we cannot be sure about an issue when the Bible is not clear. Biblical objectivity is a faithful reflection of the biblical view, as best we can discern it through God’s Word.
From Reforming Journalism by Marvin Olasky. © 2019 by Marvin Olasky. Published by P&R Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used with permission.