The Eternal Lens: The Press as a Humanizing Institution

One person reflects on her vocation in the news media—one of our "last shared maps" through a million islands of opinion.
Appears in Fall 2013 Issue: We Believe in Institutions
September 1 st 2013

Institutions are not eternal. They are founded, created, made. They come to be and can pass away. Should we invest in “dying” institutions? Do we sit by and let them morph into something else? Or are there times when we should find new ways and reasons to sustain the pulse of an institutional legacy so that it meets a culture’s shifting demands?

Consider the institution known as the press. Eulogies for newspapers have become something of a cottage industry. Journalists seem to be going the way of blacksmiths. What value is there in keeping institutional hope alive?

Look at any morning’s newspaper and the stuff of human drama leaps from the headlines: “For Mandela’s Kin, Laws Offer Scant Guidance on End of Life.” “Egyptian Forces Storm Pro-Morsi Sit-Ins.” “Obama Says Trayvon Martin ‘Could Have Been Me’ Once.” Newspapers are bound to the human. They are devoted to this world and its inhabitants.

Herein lies the opening for hope—the public’s hope, but also the Christian’s hope. Newspapers are worth our institutional energies precisely because they can be uniquely humanizing forces in our culture, forces that bear upon our common good. And in this respect, I want to argue that Christians are equipped to leaven the news with a distinctively human touch, if only because their belief in human dignity demands it, and the discerning Spirit vested in them grants capacity for insight into depths mere materialists can’t see. Secular journalists can sense these depths and articulate their boundaries, although that is a rarer gift, and the reasons for so doing are not often identifiable beyond a respect for human glory. The Christian, by contrast, identifies first as a child of God, and sees others as children of God. She begins with an eternal lens crystallized by the confidence in a divine plan that God himself has revealed and is yet revealing. This lens changes everything.

Our Splintered Commons

It doesn’t take a long life in the modern era to recognize the fact of our splintered commons. There is little shared consensus on what “the common good” involves and requires, and newspapers are as caught up in this unknowing as any other public trust.

The summer sale of The Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos shadows industry-wide experiments teetering on a fractured commons. The news market has never been more pixelated, time-enslaved, and commercially driven. Investigative reports get skimmed in a latte line. Public figures are raked over the coals of their caricatures and the tyranny of the anecdote displaces original analysis. At the same time, we’re seeing the desire for so-called “humanization” flower in the proliferation of bloggers and personalized brands. Readers are craving the personalized at the same time they’re chipping away at institutional cohesion by demanding that the product be personal for them.

In the midst of all this is the Christian, who believes there is a great drama unfolding. Every day and night turns another two pages in the story of a fallen world being redeemed, of human beings ascending to God and falling away, of disasters unplanned and marvels unexpected. Newspapers, as the institution charged with keeping a running draft of history’s unfolding, reveal layers of this drama. Not all the layers, but chronological, plot-filled chapters of God’s creation churning about, chapters that reveal his image being displayed and glorified, tarnished and dismissed.

I’ve worked in a news bureau for three years and have swum around media lights for six. Over that time I’ve seen many reporters put their craft to new and good use: to shine light where there has been none before; to seek out unknown heroes; to draw from multiple disciplines in tackling a given story; to harness technological advances to create a more interactive reader experience (see The New York Times’s “Snow Fall” phenomenon if you haven’t already).

These are discoverers of general revelation and messengers of the same, even though most would never identify with that project. But as Christian journalists, who put this life within the framework of a bigger one, who believe in the facts of Heaven and Hell, who see human life and human history held in the hands of God, sustained by his power and love, who see the natural order as dependent upon the supernatural order, we consciously take part in the unveiling as we witness and report it. This fuels as much unceasing curiosity as it demands discernment and respect for the limits of what we can know.

What’s interesting more recently is that the media find themselves in a position of cultural authority at the same time that the business is struggling to survive. As other civic institutions have weakened and splintered before pluralism’s surge, the news remains standing as one of the last shared maps to provide touch points for exchanges around dinner tables, classrooms, trading desks, and water coolers. We may never rally around the news in a devotional posture, let alone a covenantal one, but the inextinguishable fact of our basic need to know—what some have called the Awareness Instinct—has kept market demand alive, and likely promises to sustain it. This leaves newsmakers with a high responsibility. Christians, humbly, are needed to meet it.

I see a lot of newspapers these days taking it upon themselves to don clergy robes, to see themselves as securers of justice (as they define it). Editors lay out and organize their coverage from philosophical assumptions they seem not to recognize, and the cultural narrative builds from there. This example is too fraught to be clean, but for the sake of illustration, when gay marriage is proclaimed the leading civil rights cause of our time, no opposing viewpoint, however well-reasoned, gets ink. Debate is stifled, and behind closed doors the paper selfcongratulates over its role in enlightening the road to progress. Those pulling these strings feel active, I think, in what they deem a noble enterprise, unsatisfied with serving democracy’s more basic need to know the full picture—a picture that includes all arguments, all facts.

So although newspapers are facing heavy strategic and commercial uncertainty, institutionally speaking, they hold a resurgent monopoly on cultural influence. They remain one of the last fact-oriented missions in a society held captive by opinions. The public conscience is awake enough to know it doesn’t want to hand over the framing of these facts to special interests or commercial incentives. And as the web has fuelled a more active conversation between journalist and consumer, newspapers have to become sense-makers, not just gatekeepers. You see this in some of the more conceptual, explanatory pieces above the fold. You see this in the analytical tone undergirding most breaking news now. The media have to order the flow of what consumers digest or else we’d drown in the cacophony. This increased agency introduces as much opportunity as it does risk, so how the enterprise fulfills its purposes becomes all the more critical. And how readers treat and consume the news also matters.

A Two-Way Street

Insofar as journalism is a conversation between writer and reader, the Christian’s eternal lens and a reverence before the revelatory ways of God should pave the road between the coordinates, one that impacts the degree to which the news slides up or down the humanizing scale. Both the acts of communicating and consuming news demand a discernment rooted in the mind of Christ and an empathy defined by his compassion, even as each activity faces moral challenges that beg for his followers’ recognition, confrontation and overcoming.

Secularism generally assumes that the opinionated self is the only judge of truth, while the Christian proclaims divine revelation as the final arbiter. This fissure has continued to frustrate as I’ve tiptoed into the field. One of the strangest attitudes I see in a lot of journalists is this idea that they sit on islands of all-seeing objectivity, with a touch of self-preservation thrown in. Early in my newspaper experience I had a seasoned political reporter tell me that “journalistic ethics is not about right and wrong; it’s about protecting your career and not offending your reader.” He went on to say that he took the “truth-telling” role so seriously that he could not pledge his allegiance to anyone outside “the truth.” So he encouraged me and a few other rookies to forgo friends’ weddings if their professional affiliations at all touched our reporting, to not vote in elections, and to disavow faith in God. “We must not be coloured by anything,” were his parting words. “Society depends on us to be clear glass.”

He was serious and I didn’t doubt the nobility of his intentions, but there was something humorous about his self-conception, and arrogant and naive. I am all for “fair and unbiased” reporting, but to deny one’s baser allegiances in the name of objectivity is a fool’s errand. We are not constructors of truth; we are receivers and discoverers. Journalists are no less human than anyone else, with the same impulses to worship, to befriend, to honour a cause, and to stake a claim in some moral soil, wherever located and however deep. The profession of what, when, where tends to attract the emotionally avoidant, and that’s fine and sometimes necessary. But I wonder if the newspaper wouldn’t achieve its fairness aims more effectively if its people acknowledged their worldviews from the get-go. Would the newspaper humanize more convincingly if its reporters began by recognizing their own pains and uncertainties in “those other people” they’re covering?

This island ethos experiences an even taller moat today as journalism has shifted from a profession attracting blue collar kids to one that recruits from the Ivy League. Lately I’ve wondered if the surviving newspapers shouldn’t take a risk with their scrambling resources and pay staff to augment their writing and reporting time with the acquiring of an unknown, unrelated trade, something that would get them out among people unlike themselves. Something that would encourage the dirtying of hands alongside whatever toil is occupying their subjects, if only so that their core product could reflect a richer “taste and see” beyond advertisers’ preferences. Today’s subscribers are confessing hunger for this sort of texture— I think they might pay up if they saw the results.

Human relationships pervade journalistic means, a fact that opens as many warm avenues for the Christian as it presents quandaries around boundaries and professionalism. Journalists count on establishing useful semi-friendships. We act nice to get information. We develop long-term relationships with people and reward them with the promise of future knowledge. There are rules of this game that are unavoidable, but the access does give Christian journalists a peephole to subvert an ungodly utilitarianism. Instead of shaking before the doorbell of a mother who’s just lost her son to gang violence, bracing herself, as reporters naturally do, for the unpleasant task of gathering a quote from the bereaved, the Christian reporter has real freedom to set down her notebook and cry with the mother, because that is her identity first. To reach out in compassion, unworried about the call to collect right words because in the moment of genuine pain she will end up acquiring what is most important for the obituary. Christians don’t have to buy into today’s cult of exposure because they unapologetically include themselves in the cosmic drama. Great journalism springs out of great honesty.

There is also a Christian opportunity widened by the more recent dynamism in the relationship between the newspaper and its audience. The road between them has never been louder or more crowded—just check out any online comments section, blog, or Twitter feed. The reader is expected to be an active participant. Trends around “citizen journalism” have heightened my concern about whether Christians read the news well. Responding to the news involves as much humanizing and dehumanizing potential as producing it does. It is our contextualizing map, after all. Just as the Christian journalist ideally goes about his day with an appreciation for eternal souls and an eye for God’s ongoing unveiling, so the Christian reader should open the page prepared to greet the fallen world we ourselves proclaim in confession and creed. Discerned news should help inform our prayers, and sometimes our action.

Pointing to a Way Beyond

There are loads of excellent journalists out there, and most of them aren’t Christians. It’s aggressive to claim that Christians somehow have a distinctive reservoir from which to wield humanizing influence on the newspaper business. I certainly have a lot to learn from colleagues who care deeply about the integrity of their work, even if the wellsprings of our motivations rest in different places.

What I will say is that in the newspaper I’ve discovered a joyful invitation to express my love of God through mind and heart. The latter piece is less obvious, certainly tricky, but I do think godly affections can be an asset and a teacher. Journalism has given me access to people I never would have met, to souls that point upward to a most intricate, delighting Lord. It has deepened my despair that I really don’t know much, that the world is insane and yet somehow God holds all of it. It has helped chisel my prayers even as I find those prayers shading my own contributions as I try to honour those I’ve interviewed and bridge the gap between the unknown and those needing to know.

En route I’ve had to accept that I will never get the story right, that I will always leave things out, that I will shortchange whoever or whatever is featured. Years ago Philip Yancey quoted James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and it resonated so deeply with my current journalistic fears that I had to refresh it here:

In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger. It is that he exists, in actual being, as you do and as I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist. His great weight, mystery, and dignity are in this fact. As for me, I can tell you of him only what I saw, only so accurately as in my terms I know how: and this in turn has its chief stature not in any ability of mine but in the fact that I too exist, not as a work of fiction, but as a human being.

What is true for novels is true for news portraits. We’re all grasping for the truth of things, for the full picture, for how to master life within it. As one experiencing this in her own life at the same time I’m trying to articulate it for others, I’m revved for a life of silver medals. The gold, the ability to capture the essence of something, lies in the hands of someone else: the Creator. The Savior who restores broken essences and makes complete the incomplete. Thankfully He’s not left me alone to go about finding it. If I can just point to this hope in my life and in my writing, I will rest content.

 

Anne Snyder is the Director of The Character Initiative at The Philanthropy Roundtable and a Fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, a Houston-based think tank that explores how cities can drive opportunity and social mobility for the bulk of their citizens.

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