Why Do You Ask? Some Thoughts on The Tough Interviews

By Michael Longinow

There are two questions every interviewed source wants to know about a journalist’s questions: “Why do you want to know?” and “How are you going to use what I tell you?” The second is closely related to one more: “Can I trust you to do what you say you’re going to do?”

They’re asking whether you care—about them, not just yourself and your story. The most compelling (and vulnerable) sources need someone to care enough to listen, to do the hard work of making otherwise invisible, unheard stories a reality. Voiceless, unseen people are among the most abused and harmed.

But the journalism about those people is a high calling, a delicate pursuit. We too easily forget that people’s stories, their ideas, their views are a precious thing—not just words. They’re an extension of someone’s identity, their job, their family, their reputation. The bigger the story, the more crucial the repercussions. And in stories like the ones told about women sexually abused by Southern Baptist pastors and youth ministers, they’re crucial. Because once the story about them gets published, the rest of the story—of their life, post-story—begins. The most powerful journalism, after all, is about cause and effect. The article might bring relief, help, change for the good. But maybe not. And it’s the quoted sources who bear the weight. Can those women go back into the churches they spoke about? Will they? And if they don’t, was the journalism worth it?

Ronan Farrow, with The New Yorker, got those questions from actresses and others in the film industry when he asked what happened to them after Harvey Weinstein came knocking. Many hesitated before talking with Farrow. They talked first to friends, family, attorneys. And some turned him down—or declined to give their names. The repercussions would be too much for them, they said. Some feared for their lives, or just for their careers.

Part of what dissuaded them, said Laurie Penny in an angry, profanity-laden rant in Longreads, is that the system seems not to be changed by journalists. She lists all the prominent men in the film and television industries who, because they were sexually abusive, have lost their jobs, yet walked away enormously wealthy. The problem is one that goes deep into what it means to be a leader, a person of power, and what that leadership and power mean for those who must work or must live under their power. The same can be said for systems within our churches that allow for and cover up sexual abuse.

Evil will not be eradicated by journalists—not those at the New Yorker, not those at the New York Times, not those at EPA member magazines or newspapers. There will always be bad people who harm and good people who suffer (Psalm 37:1-5). Then does telling the hard truths really matter—especially in an era when so many readers, viewers and listeners are tuning out journalists’ storytelling?

The short answer is yes. Evil flourishes where no one dares identify it or stop its spread. And Christians trained in journalism should be among the first to speak up about evil and injustice—should be among those who keep telling the story after others lose interest.

But the longer answer about whether an investigative project is worth the repercussions is that it depends. Some considerations are in order: Why is the journalist asking? Is it personal vendetta? Is the journalistic exposure and accusation premature? Sloppy, lazy or impatient journalism has done immeasurable harm to the cause of diligent journalism. Another question is about timing. Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker piece came at a moment in American history when those in positions of corporate and legislative power—and the entertainment industry—were ready to hear and act on the cascade of stories about sexual abuse as a tool of subjugation. It’s a topic that’s resonated into academia and, as we have seen, into the church.

Journalism that asks hard questions, that brings forward evidence of wrongdoing, is a prophetic calling. Ezekiel said those who do not warn a people about impending disaster will have blood on their hands (3:18). And the time has come for Christian reporters, editors and publishers to consider deeply the importance of telling hard truths, while considering carefully how and when they should do so. They should also be willing to care about their sources in ways no other journalists can, for theirs should be a humble, prayerful, spiritually attentive inquiry.

Michael A. Longinow, Ph.D, is a professor in the Department of Journalism & Integrated Media at Biola University. He is also the executive director of EPA partner Advisers of Christian Collegiate Media (ACCM).

Photo caption: Dean Nelson interviews Andrew and Norine Brunson during EPA 2019 in Oklahoma City. The interview was both inspiring and instructional as Nelson used the 50-minute plenary session as a means to teach the art of interviewing while drawing out the story of Andrew Brunson’s two-year imprisonment in Turkey. Photo by Karianne Kunau

Posted Sept. 3, 2019