By Andy Butcher
What with fake news, partisan press, and click-bait, there may well never have been a time when we have more needed good Christian journalists practicing good Christian journalism.
Thankfully, having had the privilege of judging some of the categories in the EPA Higher Goals contest over the past couple of years, I am encouraged by the high standards out there. We have some admirable practitioners in our ranks.
But there’s always room for improvement—as the very name of the awards program itself attests. So, from my vantage point of having seen a good cross-section of EPA member publications, I offer these observations on what I saw to be some of the most common areas where things could be tightened up.
(Full disclosure: I’ve been guilty of all five at various times.)
Writing weak leads
More than ever, it’s vital to grab the reader by the throat with a strong opening. There’s too much else vying for readers’ attention, especially if it’s online where diversion is just a click away. Don’t take too long to set up a scene, don’t back into the story, and don’t presume people are going to read just because the topic is “important.” In the old days when journalists still smoked in newsrooms, and many had a little bottle of something in their bottom drawer, there was an aphorism about what constituted a great lede that I can’t repeat here. Let’s just say it borrowed from Winston Churchill’s observations on what makes for a good speech: Google it. In essence, your opening words must be crisp, clear, compelling.
Using quotes poorly
First, please be sure to have some in your reporting somewhere—otherwise you’ve just written a term paper. Those “ ” signal to the reader, “There’s flesh and blood involved in all this.” Remember, when it comes down to it, all journalism, like politics, is local. What you write has to matter to the reader on a personal level, and connecting them with others helps do that. Having said that, too many journalists seem to be intimidated by those inverted commas. There may be nothing worse than no quotes . . . but endless ones almost are. They put the reader to sleep. Just because people ramble in person when you interview them doesn’t mean you need to let them ramble in print. Equally as bad as rambling are those official “statements” assembled by committees. So paraphrase. Put simple facts into reported speech. Save the direct quotey parts for drama, opinion, inspiration. The words “in here” need to heighten the piece, not flatten it. I’m not talking about manipulating quotes, but like steers and church steering committees, they do need wrangling sometimes.
Deifying and demonizing
Christian media doesn’t do the world’s kind of porn, but it sure does a sort of spiritualized version we might call fawn. Can we tone down the way we write about our leaders, please? They’re good people, often doing good things, but they aren’t perfect and they have their stuff just like the rest of us. Let’s not be part of perpetuating the myth of the super-saint (or super-church, -organization, -ministry), by using all those superlatives. Or by airbrushing their lives: if the Bible did that, we’d have a much shorter read. On the other hand, there’s often a tendency to cherry-pick details to cast those “in the world” in the worst light. Let’s be a bit more real, both ways. There may not be 50 shades of gray (cue cute cultural reference), but not everything is always black and white.
Some articles seem to blur the lines between news and opinion—a tendency for which mainstream media (quite rightly) often gets criticized by Christians. There’s a difference between having a worldview and having an agenda. The first informs your reporting. The second infirms it, if you’ll allow me to invent a verb. It actually weakens what you are writing because it looks like you are trying to shore up the truth. Remember what Spurgeon said about preferring to defend a lion over defending the Bible: “Unchain it and it will defend itself.” Let the facts speak for themselves and give your readers enough credit to figure out what’s up or down, right or wrong, left or right, without inserting explanatory comments along the way. Save your own take for the clearly identified personal or editorial columns.
Badly written endings
I knew of a church where the pastor couldn’t speak without giving an altar call; he probably even did so when he gave his order at the drive-through. His motive may have been noble, but the context didn’t always fit. Similarly, not every article needs a “call to action” (whatever the marketing department might try to tell you), or an over-wrought conclusion that tries to tie everything up in a nice neat bow by bringing the reader back to your opening lines with a flourish and a swell of strings. You’re not making a movie. Sometimes it’s best just to finish saying what there is to say and then walk away—like this.
EPA Associate member Andy Butcher is a freelance writer and reporter, residing in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. He is a veteran magazine and newspaper editor with major stints as director of Youth With a Mission Press & Media Services, senior writer at Charisma magazine and editor of Christian Retailing magazine. He serves EPA as a contest judge and has also served on the board of directors.
Posted Aug. 15, 2017