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, 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 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.