When the worlds of faith and journalism collide, who wins?
by Doug Trouten
It was a knock-down, drag-out fight over on the e-mail listserver for the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers. It's been a few years now, but I still remember it vividly.
My 20 years with the Minnesota Christian Chronicle left me with a continuing interest in the Christian newspaper industry. The folks with the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers are kind enough to let me continue to sit in on their e-mail discussions. (EPA has e-mail discussion lists too, but they're not nearly as active. We'll have to see what we can do about that.)
It started innocently enough, with an editor's request for a recent interview with Sandi Patty. Some on the list suggested that unresolved problems related to the breakup of her marriage should be considered when deciding whether or not to publish stories promoting her current projects.
This led quickly to a heated exchange of views on topics including divorce, forgiveness, repentance, and judgmental Christians. Bible verses were quoted, "caps lock" keys were used. I'm not sure, but I think I'm supposed to fight somebody after school.
After the smoke cleared, I started wondering why the discussion had generated so much heat and so little light. I'm still working this out, but I think it has something to do with a culture clash.
We work in an odd corner of the journalism world. Some have suggested that "Christian journalism" is an oxymoron – like "jumbo shrimp" or "rap music." Some come to this field with journalism backgrounds, and share some of the values common to that craft. Others have traditional ministry backgrounds, and come to their publications with attitudes forged in the fires of local church ministry. At times, these differing approaches seem to be at odds with each other.
For instance, traditional journalism still doesn't handle positive stories very well. Although it's slowly changing, the motto of modern journalism could well be "good news is no news." Hard-nosed journalists dismiss "feel-good" stories as fluff. But in the local church, inspiring stories of God at work in the lives of believers are aggressively sought and shared.
Another area of difference involves conflict. Many church workers shy away from conflict, wanting desperately to avoid seeing their church split because of a fight over the color scheme for the fellowship hall. Journalists, on the other hand, are taught to seek out conflict.
In fact, conflict is one of the basic qualities of newsworthiness that journalism teachers pound into the heads of their students. (Others include timeliness, proximity, impact, novelty, human interest and prominence.) If people are fighting, journalists want to hear about it – and photograph it if possible.
It's easy for folks from a ministry background to dismiss their journalism-oriented colleagues as scandalmongers. And it's easy for folks from a journalism background to see their ministry-oriented critics as pablum peddlers.
But while we don't always realize it, we need each other. Hard-news sensibilities have a place in the lives of people who worship a God of truth. And some of the lessons learned working in the church are only now being explored in the cutting-edge "public journalism" movement. There's a place for both in EPA.
Things finally calmed down on the CNA listserver. Then somebody mentioned that Jim Bakker is making a comeback.
Doug Trouten is the former executive director of the Evangelical Press Association.