Exploring Communication and Journalism from a Biblical Perspective
by Kerry L. Morgan
Next: Journalism Graduate; Unclean Lips; Write the Story; What Not to Do
News & Newsworthiness
(Heb 13:8 – Jesus: The Same Yesterday, Today and Forever)
(Jn 8:31-32 – Abiding in Jesus: The Word & The Truth)
The purpose of this Essay is to focus on what is news, based on a Biblical (and therefore objective) Worldview. The discussion will include: 1) a Biblical view of history which is consistent with Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever”; 2) its direct implications for ascertaining what is news; and finally 3) some comments on newsworthiness in accordance with John 8:31-32, “If you hold to my teaching, you are my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
This Essay is built on the foundation laid in Essays 1 and 2 and should be read in sequence with them.
In the widely held Information perspective, as outlined in Essay 2, current events are considered news, merely because they are current, not because they are true. This belief hinges on a chance view of history.
In a Biblical perspective, however, what is news (and therefore newsworthy) is a function of God’s true perspective of history. Thus, reporting current events qualifies as news only when it is in line with God’s standard of truth.
The Christian journalist and other people of good will who are interested in news take their view of history beginning and ending with God. Everybody else starts somewhere else, (usually the impersonal, chance universe) and consequently ends up with news as despair or news as utopianism. Both are in the area of fiction. To define news as merely current events, without seeing the world from God’s perspective (as best empowered), does nothing more than define a fiction. These are the only options in an Information perspective. The Christian journalist who does not have a Biblical view of history, is not able to consistently represent a true account of reality (an event or story etc.) and is bound to be systematically used to perpetuate an anti-Biblical view of life (contrary to the purpose of communication).
God’s Authority Over History
The first controlling principle of history is that God acts in history. He is not outside of it, nor is it out of his control. If news is defined so as to exclude the perception that God is involved in the event, then either the reporter is advancing a deistic perspective (the fiction that God is there but he is not involved) or advancing a humanistic perspective (the fiction that God may exist, but his existence is irrelevant.) Both ignore basic biblical themes.
Both Jesus and God state they are the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 22:13 & 1:8) The claim is exhaustive when it comes to history. They also claim history in between. Jesus says He “is the same yesterday, today and forever,” and God said “I am.” What is happening in the world (news) always reflects something of these declarations.
News is not separate from history and history is not outside of God’s involvement. History is something which God said He defines and to which Jesus is going to lend cohesion and continuity (Hebrews 13:8). It is incorrect to talk about news as simply current events or some sort of neutral declaration of facts. A sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without God taking notice. How can that concern be a neutral fact? Such talk reflects a very different set of assumptions about God and history and are contrary to a Biblical view of God in history.
A second principle of history is that Man can affect history significantly. He is not a robot living in a deterministic closed causal system. Although he is not almighty God, he can substantially affect history. This is because “God is so infinite that he could create a significant Man, in a significant history, without putting chance back of himself.” Significant means that man’s choices are meaningful, not meaningless.
This principle is important because man’s choices affect history for good or for evil. Defining news as a neutral assertion of today’s facts is absolute nonsense. If news is reporting ‘neutral facts,’ then man’s choices are meaningless. If a reporter indicates the ‘neutral fact’ “A” or the antithesis of “A” or does not report “A” at all, it does not matter because if his choices were really neutral, it would be because they were meaningless. To report news in this way perpetuates the false view that man is ultimately meaningless.
Claiming to report facts in a ‘neutral way’ entails the same error. First, it must be remembered that “facts” themselves are not neutral. Secondly, it suggests that news is outside of history. This view implies that a news report has no effect on the culture or on history. It is a specious way of saying that news is not advocacy. Reporting of news is a part of history and therefore cannot be neutral.
Building on this view of history–which includes a Sovereign God and Man whose choices are meaningful–several conclusions about news follow:
1) News must be perceived from God’s fixed perspective (essay 1);
2) News must reflect the truth in a truthful way (essay 1 & 2);
3) News must reflect what God and Man are doing in history downstream of 1 & 2. (This rejects ‘doing news’ in all the false ways that are pointed out in Essay number 2); and
4) News must reflect the continuity which Christ the Word brings to a given event or report. (This is the historical context in which the event takes place; news must reflect the wider context–yesterday and forever–as perceived from God’s perspective, and not simply describe current or isolated events.)
This means that news is not: 1) simply current information or events; 2) neutral facts; 3) false communication perspectives (essay 2).
“If you abide in me and my word abides in you, you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:31-32).
This scripture gives some insight into what is newsworthy. It provides the added dimension between news and newsworthy items. That dimension involves the need of the people or culture to be set free in the truth at precisely the point where they are being deluded. It takes spiritual wisdom and discretion to perceive at any given time the point of conflict or bondage.
Newsworthiness is not perceived by surveying a list of current events. Nor is it necessarily a function of polling to find that which is of sufficient interest to the general public to thereby warrant its reporting. It involves seeing from God’s perspective, with a renewed mind, the precise point where the real battle is being fought. This is emphatically not a plea to engage in spiritualizing physical events into some sort of metaphysical mush. It is not a ready-made pretense to buy into any of the utterly false forms of communication examined in essay 2, which Christians are so prone to embrace.
Some conclusions follow:
1) Broad liberty in the selection of content is given because all reality is under the created authority of God.
2) Any limitations on content are found upstream in God’s perspective on that content. What is newsworthy in its final form may not express content which is inconsistent with rendering a true account of reality, in a true way, as defined from God’s perspective (way, truth).
3) God’s perspective on the reality He created, and God’s perspective on man’s meaningful acts are fully newsworthy. This is not to say that presenting another perspective is impermissible. Another perspective, however, must always be presented in light of God’s true perspective.
4) What is newsworthy does not include reporting God’s perspective and any other perspective as equally viable options.
5) What is newsworthy is a function of the struggle for truth within the culture. It is a function of the need for freedom within the culture. (Essay 1 described this as life, the third aspect of Jesus’ declaration of the purpose of communication.)
1. What is a Biblical definition of “news”? Of “newsworthiness”?
2. To what degree, if any, does CBN News correspond to this definition? CNN? ABC? etc.
The Reporter v. The Repeater
(Mt 11:2-6 & Lk 7:29-35 – Testifying from God’s Perspective)
The Reporter of Truth
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me! (Matt. 11:2-6).
The Repeater of Information
To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to each other: We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions. (Luke 7:31-35).
This Essay should be read in sequence with the three preceding essays since they form the basis upon which this essay is structured. The general proposition that a communicator, reporter or journalist must seek to present God’s perspective, however broad or narrow it may be, is dealt with in those essays.
This Essay, however, focuses on the major issue every journalist, communicator or reporter must address–credibility. I want to focus on what credibility is from God’s perspective and how the reporter deals with credibility. But first I want to examine the present complicity of journalists with false Christian and secular perspectives, inevitably leading to bearing false witness or a true witness in a false way.
A Brief Review
To review briefly, prior essays pointed out that Jesus is the Word. As the Word, He defined the process, content and purpose of communication. The journalist, communicator or reporter is under an obligation to render an accurate and truthful account of reality, in a truthful way, as defined from God’s perspective, as broad or as narrow as it may be (way, truth). The journalist is also under an obligation to provide resolution of the account (life). This is an advantage for the Christian journalists; they can provide resolution because they can see in a sufficiently accurate manner from God’s perspective (mind of Christ). The reporter is not to lie, or present the truth in a false way. The reporter has an obligation not to leave his viewers in two minds (life, purpose). The reporter must ascertain what is news and what is newsworthy. This determination is based on that point in culture where truth is either advancing (Matt. 11:12) or is being subverted (Eph. 6:12). (This aspect produces far greater liberty in ascertaining what is news than is presently understood by anyone).
Truth: Sufficiently Knowable
The issue of the knowableness of truth was also raised in a collateral way. Jesus’ claim to be the same yesterday, today and forever–in light of himself as the word–gives to words and language a fixed, knowable and adequate meaning which the reporter should ascertain and reflect. Jesus’ declarations are a clear rejection of a multi-perspectival approach, which the discipline of communication has embraced, including Christian communication. This approach has been built on its accompanying philosophical premise – the unknowableness of truth. I am not saying that the reporter can know every fact in an exhaustive sense. That is not the issue. I am saying that the reporter can know God’s perspective sufficiently with respect to the facts which he has ascertained.
To embrace the idea that language is in a constant state of flux or evolution, however, results in using words as though they can never have a fixed meaning. Whether we use the communication terminology of multi-perspectivalism or philosophical terms such as subjectivism or popular journalistic phrases such as information and objectivity, these ideas and their results flow downstream from the idea that truth cannot be known. This perspective cannot be legitimated, using Biblical terms to communicate non-biblical concepts. Synthesis of Biblical and other perspectives are impermissible options for the journalist, reporter or communicator. These options, if embraced, are sinful. I can make this statement because we exist in an objective universe created in such a way that we can know our Creator.
Focusing on credibility, the premise is straightforward. Credibility is not obtained by compromising or accommodating Jesus: 1) the process (how you communicate, rendering an account in a truthful way); 2) the content (what you communicate, rendering a truthful account); or 3) the purpose (why you communicate, to provide life and life more abundantly to your audience by the resolution of conflicting accounts or appearances). These factors are defined from God’s perspective, broad or narrow as the Bible delineates.
Credibility is not gained by appropriation of Biblical words, religious phrases or spiritual mush. Credibility is never separated from truth. Those who are credible are capable of relating the truth in their reporting.
Credibility should not be confused with acceptance. Acceptance comes from a consensus approach to truth. Or if one believes that truth cannot be known or that there is no truth, the issue becomes one of agreement about information. Agreement does not require truth, though truth may in fact be present. Agreement only requires consent. Since consensus or acceptance is the principal criterion, the issue of truth is not generally raised.
Who is the credible reporter? It is the one who testifies to both God and men, from God’s perspective. If we do not testify in this capacity, we are repeaters of information. Though seeing, we do not see; though hearing, we do not hear. As journalists we testify to God and to men and thus we must comport to His standards. We never merely testify to men.
John’s disciples reported both what they saw and heard. Jesus pointed out that as a result of their reporting, those who did not fall away on his account were blessed. Now if John’s disciples said; “Hey, let’s report this to John and the rest of the world in an objective and neutral sort of way,” and we in turn suggest that Jesus didn’t really object to this sort of journalism, then it would be senseless for Jesus to say at the end of it all, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” For what reason would men fall away from Jesus, if after listening to John’s disciples, all they heard was some basic information in an objective, neutral sort of way? It’s a different story, however, when the audience is confronted in a true way and for the right purpose, with Jesus the truth.
A major problem today, however, is that after hearing a report, people don’t respond. Their reaction is to do nothing. I think this is because they have been given information rather than an opportunity to hear the truth. Mere information requires no response. It draws no distinction among views. It is not unusual therefore that the people respond like children in the marketplace. They hear a joyous song but do not respond with a dance. On hearing a dirge, they do not respond with mourning. They saw John and reported to the world that he had a demon. They saw Jesus and reported him to be a glutton. Their responses were distorted because their perception was distorted. Their perception was merely human. How different from Jesus’ declaration that John was a prophet from God; that among those born of women there had not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist, and that he was the Elijah who was to come. But the people, being without sight said he had a demon.
Are both true? Did both have the facts? The people had the facts that John came neither eating nor drinking. So did Jesus. But He saw reality as it really was and reported it faithfully, not ‘neutrally.’ My point is that Jesus could see the picture from God’s perspective and he charged John’s disciples with the same responsibility. That is a very crucial point. Jesus charged the disciples with carrying out this responsibility. It wasn’t something that only He could somehow do. We can do it as well.
As for the people of ‘this generation,’ Jesus likened them to children who did not understand what they had seen or heard. They were repeaters of information and yet they were not even accurate.
The repeaters of information will be ever hearing but never perceiving, for their hearts have become calloused. They hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart and turn, and God would heal them (Matt. 13:14-16; Isa. 6:9-10). We should aim to report the truth and avoid merely repeating information. The truth is as broad as all of life and all of life equally, apart from sin. Truth is not confined to religion nor should our reports about truth be thus limited.
1. What is the difference between credibility and acceptance?
2. Do you think credibility is often employed as a euphemism for compromising a report?
The FCC v. JESUS
(Jn 18:19-23 – Information and Neutrality v. Truth)
John 18:19-23 (Biblical Version)
The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. “I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews came together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.” When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. “Is that any way to answer the high priest?” he demanded. “If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”
John 18:19-23 (FCC Version)
The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. “I have always conducted myself,” Jesus replied, “as a proxy with obligations to present those views and voices which are representative of the community and which would otherwise not be heard.” When the officials heard this, they commended Jesus openly. Then Jesus said to them, “Where the discussion of public issues is concerned, I seek only to assure that both sides be given fair coverage.” Thereafter Jesus was granted a license to preach and teach information in an objective way, wherever he went in the land.
The purpose of this Essay is as follows: 1) to briefly outline the extent of the FCC’s regulatory and censorship scheme as it applies to broadcast media; 2) to contrast this scheme to the Biblical principles outlined in prior essays; and 3) to offer concluding remarks.
The present regulatory and censorship policy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is founded on the idea that a broadcast licensee is a fiduciary or public trustee. Practically speaking, a trustee is one who acts on behalf of another, to which the trustee owes a high degree of care and confidence. The FCC requires the broadcaster-trustee to:
1) Act in the Public Interest, and
2) Act in a Fair Manner.
More recently these obligations have been required on the additional ground that broadcast media are a pervasive influence in society to which access is inherently limited.
The First Amendment does not prevent governmental insistence that a licensee “conduct himself as a proxy or fiduciary with obligations to present those views and voices which are representative of his community and which would otherwise, by necessity, be barred from the airways [due to scarcity].” Red Lion Broadcasting Company v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367, 388-90 (1969).
The public interest means in practice that the television spectrum is allocated according to tradition and the current political climate. In order to renew a license, the broadcaster’s track record on adherence to tradition and compromise with the prevailing political climate must necessarily be considered.
This requirement is based on an Information theory of communication. The requirement that the broadcaster present those views and voices representative of the community is the mainstay of information theory.
The FCC has for many years advanced “the requirement that discussion of public issues be presented on broadcasting stations, and that each side must be given fair coverage.” Id. at 369.
The fairness doctrine requires the broadcaster to be “objective.” This means that differing points of view or ‘both sides’ must be presented. Objectivity in this sense is the key star in the information theory constellation.
The FCC v. Jesus
Essay 1 indicated that the Bible held up Jesus as the word. Jesus defined communication and its sub-disciplines, including television broadcasting. Essay number 2 illustrated how present communication practices within and outside of the Christian community are built on various communication theories which are inconsistent with the Bible and Jesus as the Word. (Essays 3 & 4 focus on Newsworthiness and a reporter’s duty).
It is clear that the FCC is advancing “information” and “objectivity” (as defined and discussed), by threatening non-renewal of a license. Information theory is not value-free. Objectivity is not neutral. Both concepts are value-laden and project a worldview inconsistent with and antagonistic toward a Christian worldview. The antagonistic nature of these ideas is defined and discussed in Essay 2.
Simply put, the principal defect of Information theory is that truth is not an essential component. Information is concerned only with differing views and voices, not necessarily accurate or true views communicating significant events or views defined from God’s perspective. What is representative of the community is not necessarily in accordance with God’s fixed perspective. The FCC’s requirements are based instead upon “evolving standards of decency” in an increasingly complex society, in which only the voices reflecting the information perspective will be permitted to speak. The broadcaster is also bound to the requirement that both sides of an issue be presented fairly. This view of objectivity is based on the idea that its implementation will produce the broadest possible freedom to choose among competing ideas. Consequently the widest possible spectrum of interpretation is expected from the broadcaster.
Sadly, however, a liberal-humanistic perspective does not constitute the other side of a conservative-humanistic perspective. Countervailing political opinions built on the same perspective (if God exists, he is irrelevant) do not fall into the category of objectivity. Objectivity is not a choice between countervailing humanistic mis-perceptions, but is rather a direct function of God’s perspective on a subject as broad or as narrow as it may be.
In the final analysis, a Christian broadcaster is not the mere fiduciary acting in the public’s interest as the FCC has insisted. Certainly a Christian broadcaster should have a concern for the culture. Essay 1 pointed out that Jesus, as the purpose of communication, was to impart life and life more abundantly. Imparting that life does not consist of presenting countervailing humanistic ideas or of reducing broadcasts to any of the pseudo-Christian theories addressed in Essay 2. Moreover, the concern for restoration of the culture must draw its guidance from the Bible and not from other sources or perspectives. In a Biblical perspective the broadcaster is under a duty to its neighbor and may not include intentional disinformation for the sake of FCC objectivity. Further, it may not include an unresolved broadcast of both sides of an event merely because those viewpoints accurately reflect social awareness, surveys, or proven mass marketing techniques designed to pacify viewer demand.
Information and objectivity must be recaptured and viewed as they come into play downstream of basic Biblical principles of communication. As they are presently understood, however, they must be rejected.
The requirements of the FCC with respect to television broadcasters is directly contrary to the Biblical obligations of a Christian broadcaster to render a true account of reality in a true way from God’s perspective with resolution. Jesus spoke the truth in an open way so that his word and work would go forth. He did not shirk this duty in order to comply with the insistence of the high priest of communication that he communicate according to their standards. (“Is that any way to answer the high priest?” he demanded.) Instead, Jesus said that the key issue was truth. (“If I spoke the truth, why did you hit me?”) Truth is the issue, not the relative requirements of the FCC.
This conflict will be resolved in time one way or the other. Either the broadcaster will set the standard, or it will be set for him and he will be required fully to submit to it. A legal strategy needs to be developed which will extricate Broadcasters from this impermissible state of compromise.
1. How is the information philosophy of the F.C.C. used to control the content of religious and non-religious broadcasters? Give an example.
2. Did God give jurisdiction over the airwaves to the civil government?