Given it’s stood the test of time so well, the Gospel of Luke offers a great reminder of the essentials of good reporting, especially to an age where the demands of the 24/7 news cycle seem to challenge some of the basics of solid journalism. In fact, Luke outlines a five-point primer, or refresher, in his introductory comments:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, NIV).
Don’t be hasty. Speed isn’t everything. “Many” had already chronicled some of the events Luke went on to write about, but their accounts didn’t have lasting impact (v1). The early misreporting that often follows major catastrophes—understandable, given the typical confusion—illustrates how being too quick to hit “publish” can lead to misinformation. Too often today, the old adage of journalism being the first draft of history is recast as it’s being the first collection of rumors.
Find the eyewitnesses. Go to the original sources whenever possible (v2). So much “reporting” these days—digital and on cable news shows—actually isn’t. It’s really just rehashing what some other publication has already shared, or “expert” opinions about what might have happened. A grand game of telephone.
Do due diligence. Instead of rushing to press with the little you know, maybe it’s better to wait until you are able to tell people more of what they really need to know: Luke “carefully investigated” what had happened (v3).
Make it plain. Instead of writing for clicks, write for clarity. Luke set out to construct “an orderly account” (v3) that people could follow easily—something that is increasingly important to bear in mind as reading comprehension levels drop and people’s attention spans shorten. Many of us skim more than we really read.
Remember your audience. Luke knew who he was writing to (v3) and so should we. Identifying our core audience should direct our language and our level of its assumed knowledge of the subject. That way we don’t talk down to them or over their heads.
Know your ‘that.’ Luke wasn’t just clear on what he wanted to write about and to whom, he also knew why. He—and many other New Testament epistle authors—wrote “so that” (v4) their readers may know something. As with having a clear audience in mind, identifying what you want them to understand will help determine your content and guide your construction.
You could probably summarize these five principles as impact over immediacy, which runs counter to the prevailing media culture, with its emphasis on speed and sensation and the attendant glamor of being first with the news. We can’t ignore the reality that getting the scoop is appealing to the ego.
However, Luke doesn’t appear to have been setting out to make a name for himself. In fact, he cautiously offers that “it seemed good” to him (v3) to provide his version of events. (As an aside, it’s humbling to note that Luke wasn’t a “professional writer”; he was a doctor first.) He didn’t claim divine inspiration and he wrote for one person, but how many countless millions of lives have since been changed by his careful work?
By Andy Butcher
Andy Butcher is Editorial Director for Four Rivers Media’s book and magazine publishing. 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 has served EPA as a contest judge and board member. Learn more at andybutcheronline.com.
Posted Sept. 18, 2023