Good News: Enemy of My People
Strange, the things we grow used to.
A working journalist in 2019 learns not to flinch when the President, a public official, or their most zealous supporters cry “fake news” or classifies them an “enemy of the people.” Grave danger laces those words, yet thick skin—a professional must—does its job most days.
This month, my modest aim is to shine a light on a few of the principles shared by the average Christian and the average journalist, to challenge each to examine ways they hinder relationships, to help us all know each other a little better.
I’ll never acclimate, however, to relatives, friends, or fellow Christians seizing opportunities to disparage my profession in my presence. Without considering my feelings—or worse, without caring—they take the biggest, broadest brush and paint a black mark across “the media.”
My rare objection meets hasty assurances. The statement wasn’t intended for me; I qualify as an exception, not a rule. Even if I received that non-apology, I fail to accept what the sentiment means for friends, colleagues, and former classmates, for the students I will teach this fall at the University of Missouri.
My spiritual and professional lives clash, many assume, like storm fronts colliding. After a decade in newspaper journalism and a lifetime spent in evangelical spaces, the reality is far different: Journalism feels like the most natural possible application of my faith. Whether others believe it or not, I followed Jesus into the mainstream media. I’m not an enemy of the people—or an enemy of my people. Just a storyteller trying to thread together common grace with the something more Jesus offers.
This month, my modest aim is to shine a light on a few of the principles shared by the average Christian and the average journalist, to challenge each to examine ways they hinder relationships, to help us all know each other a little better. Together, we might tell better stories and revel in good news.
Sitting cross-legged in the perceived chasm between evangelical Christianity and mainstream journalism, I see acres of common ground. People of faith and the free press share a desire to amplify truth; to set justice in motion; to tell a story greater than their own; to reclaim as many square inches as possible from those who would steal, kill, and destroy at the expense of their neighbors and communities. What each party most misses is a common brokenness and an untapped power to change the world. Our misunderstandings push us to opposite sides.
The lines we’ve drawn in the sand will only be erased when we cross them in service of getting to know one another.
Journalists are people, too. The profession is not nameless or faceless, but made of human beings.
That starts by recognizing our shared humanity. David Dark reminds us, “There is no ‘the media.’” Of course, media movements coalesce into sweeping narratives. But Dark’s point remains searing and salient: Journalists are people, too. The profession is not nameless or faceless, but made of human beings—some of the smartest, strangest, and weariest among us. Imperfect people, they earnestly try to make sense of the world over long hours and for little pay; they ask questions the average citizen doesn’t have time to give their lives to.
Christians have names and faces too. We rightly want journalists to do justice to our beliefs.
We want journalists to dissect degrees of difference between Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Baptists; to know which theological issues make us tick; to acknowledge that some Christians dance in the aisles while others sit with pious posture; to ask more probing questions of those who call themselves Christian yet spew hate; to differentiate between those who fail to sew together the pieces between pro-life issues and those who wear seamless garments; to see the distinctions between mostly white megachurches and historic black congregations.
Yet, when tables turn, believers ignore the Golden Rule and the second great commandment. Everyday media critics rarely stop long enough for a second thought, projecting their frustrations with national media onto local media, their issues with TV journalism onto print journalism forever and ever, amen. Pausing to ask their own set of who, what, when, where, why, and how questions might bring issues into greater relief. Dark calls for specificity, and so do I.
Journalists must meet Christians halfway, asking better questions of people of faith, acknowledging their cultural importance beyond exit polls and the latest moral controversy. Without abandoning their inherent, necessary skepticism, journalists can appreciate the mystery, nuance, and wonder built into lives of faith.
Without signing off wholesale on every piece of reporting, Christians can fight for greater media literacy, contributing truly constructive criticism. This will only happen as they indeed put names and faces, especially locally, to the practice of news-gathering. Interacting with journalists whose work you appreciate, and asking thoughtful questions about how a story was reported, will reveal more about a reporter’s life and the various institutional challenges he or she navigates while running down a piece.
Journalists might make this easier on audiences and themselves by abandoning aloof distance and feints at objectivity, opening up their processes and procedures. The Trusting News project, led in part by my friend Joy Mayer, does excellent work toward that end.
Seeking a deeper and more personal knowledge will lead Christians to ask what journalism is for. Often, I see believers recoil when reporting fails to further “godly values” or stops shy of affirming their worldview. Journalists approach their work with shovels, not sacred texts, in hand, digging till they reach the most approximate version of the truth; they are not trained to handle the metaphysical.
When Christians and members of the press approach each other with this mindset, supposed enemies become friends and everyone enjoys the fruit of co-laboring.
At their most idealistic, journalists “provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing,” as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their classic textbook The Elements of Journalism. At their simplest, they tell stories that fulfill the news values scholars identify: timeliness, proximity, impact, prominence, oddity, relevance, and conflict.
Journalists should never be in the business of promoting a specific lifestyle or perspective; this happens, no doubt—especially as unquestioned narratives gain a foothold, assuming the appearance of fact. They can and do err on all these fronts, but an audience’s expectations should be based on what the craft means to be, not what they wish it to be.
Making purposeful motion toward our shared humanity, an understanding of each other’s roles and beliefs, and believing that we can work together to further our shared goals, we might abandon a transactional media model and establish a more relational one.
A relational model would find both parties investing equally, working in tandem, over the long haul toward a Jeremiah 29 sort of flourishing. Not Jeremiah 29:11, looped ad nauseam in Christian circles, but Jeremiah 29:7, in which the prophet ties individual well-being to collective welfare. When Christians and members of the press approach each other with this mindset, supposed enemies become friends and everyone enjoys the fruit of co-laboring.
We receive the journalism we support and, ultimately, the journalism we deserve. Christians occupy a unique position, and own a great capacity, to reshape that journalism by calling upon common values for the common good. Journalists can’t always tell positive stories, but together we have a responsibility to propagate good news.