Just how true is our journalism?
Remember when in the movie, Forrest Gump promises Bubba that they will be partners in his shrimp business and later gives half his earnings to Bubba’s mother? The poor woman is so shocked when Gump keeps his promise that she passes out on her front porch. Can our word be our bond? Can Christian writers and editors be “as good as their word”? As honorable as Forrest Gump? I believe God requires no less.
But there is another side to Deception and fabrication. It, too, is an issue of integrity for Christians who are journalists. It also relates to Double standards: Some organizations and individuals are responsive only when the glare of public light is thrown upon their activities. And sometimes they respond only when public pressure is brought to bear.
The secular press has a special role in holding up the mirror to what in the world is going on. And sometimes that task means pointing out that the emperor has on no clothes.
There’s a biblical mandate, in my opinion, for investigative journalism. Ecclesiastes 12:14 says, “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it is good, or whether it is evil.” Sometimes we are the instruments God uses to bring works into judgment. Let me give you a recent case:
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas paid $23.4 million to nine former altar boys who said they were molested by a priest. It was one of the largest settlements ever paid by a church in a sexual abuse scandal. Soon after, the Diocese of Stockton, California, was ordered to pay $30 million in anothers involving coverup and sexual abuse by a priest. Not pretty stories, nor ones which a journalist who is a Christian would take delight in writing.
The church had been accused of trying to cover up the allegations against the priest. And it’s doubtful the judgment would have been handed down without the spotlight of press attention. In an apology, Bishop Charles Grahmann told a press conference that the diocese had agreed to take steps to reduce the risk of sex abuse in the church, including establishing review boards to handle assignment of clergy and complaints, and background checks of employees and volunteers (‘Diocese pays $23.4 million in priest sex scandal,” Susan Montoya, AP, Santa Barbara News Press, July 11, 1998, p. A-3).
These positive results happened when secret things were brought to judgment.
We are called to dig beneath the “for-public-consumption” PR to the real behind-the-scenes facts -- the real beliefs, the real figures and statistics. Don’t uncritically accept anyone’s handout, crowd count, membership figures, or financial statement. (Even if there’s an honest mistake, it’s a falsehood nonetheless!) If we are not to deceive the public by bearing false witness, neither should we let the organizations and persons we write about.
“For God shall bring every work into judgment,” the preacher in Ecclesiastes said. “The truth shall make you free,” Jesus told his disciples. Freedom of the press to report the Truth ultimately keeps men and women free to practice their religious faith.
Do your homework. Demythologize. And keep your promises.
The next (4th) plank in my “novena” platform is Doctoring, otherwise known as Spin, and Hype. And sometimes, in a postmodern era of “no truth, no guilt, no shame,” it also involves Arrogance.