Just how true is our journalism?
We need to ask ourselves about our work: Does it have the ring of reality? Will our readers find the people we write about “believable” — real characters, warts and all?
Do we apply the same brush of consistency, the same standards of scrutiny, to those we personally agree with as those with whom we may significantly disagree? Are we as fair to our villains as we are to our heroes? As hard on our heroes as our villains? That’s the way the Bible does it. No papier mache saints. David committed adultery and promoted murder by sending the Hittite into the front lines of battle so he would be killed. Yet God called David a man after his own heart.
Take Abraham. Abraham’s life was a mixture of faith and faithlessness. Scripture doesn’t gloss over his moments of wavering or the superstition mixed in with his faith. So the people of the Bible are believable–they are “just like us.” We do not need to “protect” the image of those we write about–if we are careful to be as consistently fair as we can in portraying them. And it’s worth taking the extra time, thought and research needed to bring out that truth, that believability, whether your subject matter is simple and straightforward, or whether it’s complex and subtle.
The third plank is Deception, Duplicity. Two “D” words. And they can even deteriorate to two ‘”F” words: Fraud and Fabrication. The postmodern world says, if there is truth, then it is relative, and it doesn’t matter a lot if you don’t get the facts quite right.
This last April, a writer for the New Republic was fired for fabricating the characters in a story about a teenage computer hacker. The writer devised a phony voice-mail recording for a fictional company he invented, along with a bogus corporate Web site on America Online. The writer, Stephen Glass, even included scathing–but bogus–online criticism of his own article (Howard Kurtz, “Hype and Hoax in the New Journalism,” Washington Post Service, International Herald Tribune, May 14, 1998, np).
Probably most of you remember how, a generation earlier, a young Washington Post reporter named Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer for a fabricated story about “Jimmy,” an 8-year-old heroin addict. Ambition to get off the paper’s weekly staff apparently motivated her bogus 1981 story. Of course when her deception was uncovered she was fired and the Pulitzer returned.
Hopefully, no Christian journalist would resort to outright deception or crime and try to sell a lie. But it’s easy to take “shortcuts,” to make up a quote here or there, to invent a situation, to conveniently forget to give attribution or that you promised a source to keep a remark off the record.
Part of what we Christians who are journalists need to pledge to ourselves, our readers, and to the God of truth whom we serve, is to Dig, to Do our homework, and to Keep our promises. I believe there’s a great hunger these days for both truth and for People of Promise. We sense an international yearning to find those who seek, receive, make and keep promises, to cite the foundation of the popular Christian men’s movement, Promise Keepers.