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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Christian journalist: The importance of a biblical worldview for your reporting

If it is true that journalists write the first, rough draft of history (Mark Twain, Phil/Don Graham, whoever) then it is critical for us Christians to be epistemologically self-conscious. Why is that? Robert Russell Drake (World and Life, 2004) reminds us that historians have an advantage over journalists because historians select an event or person to investigate, after the fact. This historical selection is possible because writing history starts with a known goal, and then looks back from that goal to see how the goal was reached through events. So the historical investigation always has guidelines and an intellectual gyroscope directing the content and interpretation of the historian’s story telling. That historical intellectual gyroscope, cognitive guideline, is missing for the journalist because the journalist is writing contemporary, instant narrative, on the fly narrative. So the journalist is excluded from using a historical event or personage to guide her story telling.

Both the historian and the journalist deal with facts. The historian though can wait for hindsight before fact selections and interpretations are made. The journalist cannot wait because fact selections and interpretations are made daily, under the pressure of deadlines and competition. Since the journalist cannot see the final consequences of a reported event, the journalist’s pre-existing interpretive framework (i.e., worldview) must guide story and source selection, ledes, nut-graphs, voice and framing all in the midst of the story telling itself. As John McCandlish Phillips, the well-known former New York Times man and Christian journalist as said, “Christian journalists are always chasing after truthful information.”

Michael Polanyi

Michael Polanyi, the famous British chemist and royal scientist, wrote that “we must have foreknowledge sufficient to guide our conjecture with reasonable probability in choosing a good problem and in choosing hunches that might solve the problem.” It is the journalist’s “foreknowledge” or worldview which not only selects some stories and ignores others, but also guides the reporter in which facts and sources to pursue and how to pursue them. This is why a journalist’s presuppositions (or foreknowledge, worldview or interpretive framework) are critical to a story. Worldview governs the journalistic process, regardless of who the journalist is. Polanyi famously wrote, “The ultimate justification of my scientific convictions lies always in me. At some point I can only answer, ‘For I believe so.’”

Walter Lippman

Walter Lippmann, the famous 20th century journalist, recognized this fundamental hermeneutical principle when hewrote, “For the most part, we [journalists] do not first see and then define; we define first and then see” (Public Opinion, 1922).

In some respects, being a journalist who is a Christian is no different than just being a Christian. There is no private/public split in living a Christian life. However, as journalists, we do project to a public audience what our private worldview is, and so we must be self-conscious about our worldview.

The acknowledgement of this pre-suppositional aspect to journalism is largely suppressed and denied in today’s major mainstream newsrooms as they pretend to be objective.

But it cannot be so for the transparent Christian journalist.

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2 Responses

  1. Alan Orsborn says:

    I am interested in how your ideas play out with regard to the coverage of the activities of the Westboro Baptist Church. I may be wrong about this, but I have the impression that in decades past their protests would have been largely ignored as not newsworthy. Do you see a shifting worldview in the media that could explain the fascination with reporting outrageous behavior? Or am I wrong about this?

    • Robert Case says:

      Alan,
      The most fundamental aspect of a Chrisitan worldview is its biblical anthropology. Such a distinctive anthropology teaches that every human being is created in God’s image and this understanding has huge consequences: All humans are:
      A) valuable beings,
      B) moral beings,
      C) finite beings, and
      D) fallen beings.
      ——————–
      A) We are uniquely valuable beings.
      Because of Christian anthropology, Francis Schaeffer argued that there are “no little people,” no insignificant people. So the journalist who is a Christian approaches each interview, news source, meeting, event, and assignment with an understanding that every human and every fact in the story has significance. The Christian journalist is to treat all aspects of a story with integrity, demonstrated by fairness, accuracy, verifiability, carefulness and honesty, to the best of his/her ability. To love God is to love our fellow human in this way. To serve and love God and to serve and love our fellow human is to recognize that all individuals have this God-given right to be loved and treated with respect.
      B) We are moral beings.
      Every human carries within the human soul the “sensus dietatus,” the innate awareness or “sense” of his/her creator God. Augustine (the North African 5th century scholar and Christian, 354-430) argued that every human has the capacity to “rightly blame and praise many things in the conduct of men.” In our daily activities, we humans understand praise and blame because we innately recognize praiseworthy and blameworthy conduct, evidence of this innate “sensus dietatus” in our soul. The age-old debate over universal social and political rights can best be explained in this anthropological light (Amos 2:1).
      C) We are finite beings.
      We humans are creatures and not the Creator. We were made in a moment of time and space, so we are finite and limited beings. That means that we have to accept the of individual and corporate human culture. Reform is distinctly human. Utopianism is anti-human.
      D) We are fallen beings.
      Christian anthropology also teaches that while we humans are unique image-bearers of a loving and personal creator God, we are fundamentally corrupt and immoral because of Adam. And so our “sensus dietatus” is clouded and polluted by our rebellious and renegade Adamic spirit, and we are unalterably depraved, apart from the work of that same creator God the Father (through Christ the Son). Thankfully for all of us, we are not as bad as we could be, due to our fallen nature, because we are restrained by God’s common grace which restrains us. While our polluted nature is not as deep as it could be (i.e., we are not beasts in the jungle) our polluted nature is as broad as it can be. Everything about us is corrupted: our physicality, our emotions, and our rationality. The fall helps explain human evil (brutality, corruption and debauchery).
      Because the individual human is created in the image of God, each one deserves justice (Schaeffer’s “final apologetic”) in our reporting. Because God is just and eternal, justice is eternal. Public justice is discovered in private anthropology, in the structure of human nature with its relation to a personal, creator God.
      To repeat: All humans are image bearers of God and thus are to be treated with justice, even those with whom we have profound disagreement. The journalist who is a Christian understands that reporting, investigating, criticizing and exposing are only means towards a higher good, the advancement of justice and love for all humans.
      Unfortunately, the Westboro folks corrupt Christian anthropology, along with other fundamental tenets of the faith.

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