|WORLD Magazine / Telling the Truth / Chapter Two|
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|Opposition to the worlds definition of objectivity does not mean that you should have in your publication more opinion writing of the kind that dominates newspaper editorial pages.* Your news and feature stories should have some implicit Christocentric content, which can come out in a variety of ways: by showing how man without God is a beast, by showing how Christians can make a difference by putting biblical precepts into practice, by showing the difference between the fraudulent pretensions of some Christians and the real thing, by exposing anti-Christian leaders and programs, by showing how individuals can glorify God even in Babylon, by showing how Christians enjoy what God has given. . . . But your stories should do this by showing.
Many Christian publications (as well as their secular counterparts) love to tell. Some tell bombastically: "Christians are coming forward and standing-up to be counted to return America to Christian principles!" Some tell angrily: "Well, we finally made the Big Time! Just as the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic [sic] fades into the sunset, Comrade Clinton steps into the picture." But such material talks down to the reader because it does not show. God tells us to taste and eat, to see whether it is good, and that is what we should also do for our readers. We should give them sensational facts and understated prosearomatic food, not just a descriptive menuand then allow them to taste and eat.
Later on we will go into the means of doing this in detail, but for now it is vital to stress that in what I call directed reporting, both partsbiblical direction and detailed reportingare essential. A directed-reporting article is factually accurate and based on solid research, but it has a clear point of view and an emphasis on showing rather than telling.
The search in directed reporting is always for specific detail. For example, to show that a law pushed by Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards to allow gambling machines at major Louisiana truck stops was also opening the door to gambling in places off the beaten path, give a specific example.
When a Caddo Parish store owner eight miles from Interstate 20 on a two-lane state highway decided he wanted part of the action, he applied to be certified as a truck stop. Neighbors objected, but he insisted that some loggers stop at his place. Besides, he got the governor to write a letter to the state police, which set up a special section to regulate the video machines at truck stops. And he included the required picture of his establishmenta photo of Edwards campaigning on the property.
In a similar vein, do not tell us that a Christian football player is big; give us his height in feet and inches, his weight in pounds; show him filling up an elevator or dancing with his girlfriend. Do not tell us that a candidate from the feared religious right is energetic: Show him running to meetings or racing around with his children. Do not tell us that a school-board curriculum is messing up children: Show us a child frustrated at not being able to read, a girl putting a condom on a banana, a boy joking about God; give us specific detail about the number and type of complaints from parents. Do not tell us that a teenager has good manners: Show us how he knew which of six forks to use, that he opened doors for elderly folks, that he wrote thank-you notes before the sun went down.
Directed reportingthe combination of a biblical worldview and precise, tough-minded reportingis atypical within Christian journalism for two reasons. First, it is time-intensive: It is much easier to pontificate about the decline of the Cuban economy than to go to Cuba, interview people there about tight rationing, and report that:
to get even those limited rations, Cubans stand interminably in line. "For four hours I waited for this!" one grandmother fumed to us as she stalked into her home late one afternoon. She raised a small plastic bag which held two tiny rolls and three small bars of soap.
Second, among those able and willing to do a good job from the field, there is sometimes a reluctance to merge opinion and reporting, even though the opinion in directed reported comes through the selection of specific detail, and it has long been recognized that all reporters inevitably select. Biblical objectivity, however, does not emphasize personal opinion: The goal is perspective that is grounded in a biblical worldview. If there is insufficient biblical rationale for a story theme, out it should go.
A Christian publication, in short, should teach, but it should teach effectively by showing rather than telling. Directed reporting is designed to show readers the salient facts in Bible-based contextualization, and allow them to agree or disagree with the conclusions reached. It differs from reporting that picks up here a fact, there a fact, because it is directed within a biblical framework; it does not dither. It also differs from theoretical writing that does not have a base in pavement-pounding reporting. Figure 6 clarifies this.
There is a simple way to check a story that you write or edit: Go through your article and circle each concrete detail, each specific example, each defining quotation. Then put a line through each generality and each nonspecific adjective or adverb. Here is an example of one article published in a local Christian newspaper that, besides containing obnoxious puffery, failed the circle-line test (try applying it yourself):
If you missed the Right to Life First Annual Fundraising banquet on October 9th, you missed history in the making. The Hyatt was pro-life headquarters for the evening, with hundreds filling the huge banquet room.
This material is embarrassing, to say the least. Try to avoid telling readers that something is awful or wonderful, and even try to avoid quoting people who say that. Try to be the eyes and ears and pores of readers, and then have fun making the metaphorical connections that readers will enjoy.
It was the last full day before the official arrival of spring when Kenneth Ryskamps hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee began. Outside the Dirksen Building the day was blusteryso windy, in fact, that the National Park Service closed the Washington Monument two hours early as a precaution. A spokesman for the agency suggested that such high velocity blowing could propel children away from their parents.
Description of that sort is both literal and metaphorical: high velocity blowing inside and outside, with geese close at hand. Through description, the writer humorously conveyed a sobering thought about judiciary committee hearings.
In thinking through each article, you will need to ask not only whether it will inform readers, but also whether it will have the action necessary for a story to come alive. You will want to know whether there are interesting personalities to be described, or whether the subject is a played-out mine. The thinking process involves how to give broad appeal to what might be a narrow story, and how to convey the essence of a broad story by looking at a microcosm.
The challenge lies in combining uniqueness and universality. Human-interest storieslearning how a particular individual puts into practice biblical principles, or lives apart from God and reaps the consequencesare valuable in this regard. Your publication can avoid ridicule and sarcasm but still have fun with the absurdities and inconsistencies of those who hate God. You should remember to entertain as well as crusade: Since we are to glorify God and enjoy him forever, journalists can begin doing that right now by showing Gods glory and providing readers with enjoyment.
Once you have your overall perspective figured out, you must then executeand that means determining a coverage strategy. The first decision to be made is not how to write about particular issues and questions, but which topics to cover: The world is vast, resources are limited, and choices must be made; even a local publication has more shoveled onto its plate than it can consume. That statement is obvious in one regard, but some editors simply say, "Well cover the news." (Or, in the New York Times famous line, "All the news that is fit to print.")
The trouble with broad, bland statements is that news does not just happen: Some stories are obligatory for publications to report, but more often editors have considerable discretionary choice over which occurrences to cover. Even editors who stress their objectivity generally acknowledge the inevitability of agenda setting: not telling readers what to think, but instructing them in what to think about. An influential evangelical publication, whether it admits it or not, is also an agenda setter and not just a transcriber of events.
Increasingly, leading news magazines are going further, and telling readers exactly what to think. Newsweek, for example, ended an article about an emergency operation aboard an airplane by sermonizing that:
our lives depend, moment by moment, on a series of tiny miracles. Physicists say that the universe had to surmount vast odds to exist at all; if certain physical constants had been even very slightly different, we would still be waiting for the Big Bang. No one stops to think about that, ordinarily, until an event like this one brings it into focus. Thousands of planes take off every day without a surgeon on board. But there was a surgeon on Flight 32.
Furthermore, unless your publication has a very large staff and a travel budget as large as the world, you will need to plan ahead for purposes of coverage and attempt to anticipate the news. This is not always possible, for in a frequently unpredictable world some assignments always need to be reactive. But if you read a wide variety of publications, attempt to detect social trends, and follow the legislative and court calendars, your publication can be on top of information concerning topics that will become hotand when they do, you will be ready with timely stories. Figure 7 shows how to position yourself in this respect:
Staying ahead will be easier if you become a Christian contrarian, proceeding on the principle that the conventional wisdom revealed in Time or Newsweek is backward: If they are campaigning for x, it is likely that x is wrong and others will see so. For example, if the top-down leaders are glamorizing homosexual activists, biblically oriented people will be opposing them. Editors can learn much by listening to the bottom-up concerns of Christian and conservative activists who are preparing to derail the secular liberal express.
You should also keep a running projection of when certain stories may appearbut be ready to change plans as new issues emerge or old ones proceed more quickly or slowly than projected. Update your projections every month or so, but hold on to your old ones so you can review whether your publications planning system is working. What follows is part of a listing from June 1994 of stories that World anticipated for the second half of that year:
Anticipatory Stories, JulyDecember 1994
Lengths: cover stories are 3,000 words; profiles, 1,000 words; inside stories, generally 750 words (one page), sometimes 1,500 words (two pages).
* = prospective covers
As can be seen, World covered not only obviously hot issues such as abortion, education, and homosexuality but also picked out other areas of the culture and attempted to familiarize readers with developments of which they might have been unaware. Other Christian publications should also try to provide a biblically conservative alternative in areas that have been captured by secular liberals and their allies among evangelicals.
For example, many Christian publications that are edited by, and predominantly read by, white evangelicals have not given blacks much coverageand readers thus have not been helped to realize that most blacks share their predominantly conservative values on social issues. If a Christian publication commits itself to more coverage of blacks but takes its cues from the major media, it will pay attention largely to those who have been anointed by white liberals and radicals.
The knee-jerk tendency for Christian publications wishing to reach out to blacks has been: Interview the Jesse Jacksons. There is a more thoughtful approach, however. The black conservative movement, often arising out of black evangelical churches, is now growing rapidly, despite the hostility it faces from the civil-rights establishment. As the NAACP is seen more and more as an ideological interest group, new black organizations are arising to oppose it. Several black conservative magazines, including National Minority Politics, Destiny, and Issues and Views, have emerged recently.
The evangelical tendency to imitate secular trends in music and publishing, generally about ten years late, often has been noted and even lampooned. Christian magazines can interview the usual liberal suspects and make blacks seem like alien creatures to most white evangelicals"its a black thing, you wouldnt understand." The alternative, though, is for once to get ahead of the curve by profiling emerging black conservative leaders, and in doing so show readers that family-oriented people of both races have similar political and cultural goals.
World in May 1994 decided to follow that more adventurous path. The first fruit of the new approach was a June 4 cover story"Emancipation: Black Political Leaders Cast Off Liberal Ideology"that pointed out the new trend and gave it a face, that of Houston congressional candidate Beverly Clark:
When Beverly Clark sat on the Houston City Council, she was considered a bright new leader in the black community. Her initiativesincluding one that established a daytime curfew for teenswere hailed as boons to black neighborhoods besieged by a rise in youth crime in early 1991. During her two-year term as a council member, she blasted liberal philosophies that put early-release parolees back on the streets in minority neighborhoods and failed to steer young blacks away from crime. Those philosophies werent in keeping with what most blacks believe, she contended, and had helped sink the community in a morass of unimportant issues and self-defeating lifestyles.
World then ran other stories about the political changes as well as profiles of Bible-based black conservatives. When Christian publications deal with racial issues, and in doing so challenge readers to go beyond the nostrums of the left, editors are not preaching to the choir; they are pushing the choir to sing better. That should be a goal of your publication.
As long as you provide good reporting, your articles can offer direct challenges to readers without alienating them. For example, one World cover story discussed transracial adoption by reporting the challenges that particular families have faced and the satisfaction they have gained. The article contained specific detail about the process, the opposition of many social workers to transracial adoption, and the apathy of many white Christians. It also included questions.
If a society is judged by how it handles its children, as pro-lifers often say, then what about adoption? And what about transracial adoption? Ultimately, are American Christiansblack and whitewalking the pro-life walk, or just talking the anti-abortion talk?
Some readers who become angry with you will cancel subscriptions, but if you print their angry letters and are doing a good job generally, new subscribers will hasten to take their place. Besides, it is exciting to find stories that lend themselves to lively reporting and the opportunity to propose practical alternatives. If you are active rather than reactive in deciding what to cover and when to crusade, you can show how Christians extend the good news outward.
Terri Cooney, 48, and her husband Jim, 54, were just providing foster care for infant Nathan. They already had two childrenboth whiteone by birth and another by adoption. But as the months went by, their attachment to Nathan grew deeper. The fact that he was black and they white mattered less and less.
Try also to be active rather than reactive in examining evil, based on your understanding of the sinfulness of man (all of us) and the holiness of God. For example, instead of merely decrying homosexuality, why not send a reporter into one particular heart of darkness?
There was little leather visible in the Phoenix, a small, dark bar in San Franciscos Castro district. A few blocks down were the real "leather bars," such as the Eagle and the Barracks, but the Phoenix seemed to be for men intent on drinking away inhibitions, trading raunchy innuendo, and working up the nerve for an evenings outing. These werent the militant gays seen in the videos circulated by Christian groups; these were homosexuals in their own district, in a city they won in a fair fight; gays in their most secure environs and yet in their most vulnerable, insecure state. Now began "the nightly search," as one homosexual would term it later that evening.
This article in World then went up close and personal with people most evangelicals do not meet.
Denny and Michael were arguing about how deep into the Castro district they should go before driving down to San Jose for a Gay Pride celebration. June 27 marked the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the accepted birth of the homosexual rights movement, so in nearly every sizable city activities were scheduled on that day and during the preceding week. Rallies were also held in the heart of the countrys smaller towns, such as Missoula, Montana, and Tyler, Texas. But it is in San Francisco that homosexuals have moved beyond Stonewall and have established a gay fortress.
Then came a tour of the homosexuals city, along with a portrayal of their brave and beleaguered opposition:
Pastor Chuck McIlhenny agreesits "their city." Beginning 25 years agoor by some estimations, since World War IISan Francisco has been the model, the experiment, and the proving ground for the gay agenda. For the last 20 years, McIlhenny has watched the city fall, despite the efforts of a tiny band of evangelicals. McIlhenny and his church, an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation, have been the victims of firebombing, assault, vandalism, a lawsuit, and almost constant threats.
The story went on from there to show the battles; overall, the story was strong in its description and characterization, and also provided some comic relief through the sad antics of Michael and Denny.
Try also to find serious stories that anticipate the news but lend themselves to humor. For example, it became clear at the beginning of 1994 that the Clinton administration would propose a welfare-reform package in a few-months time, but that it would stop, start, and weave back and forth. A story combining three elementsa bit of humor, some critical reporting, and presentation of a biblical alternative to secular liberal programmingbecame possible.
The story began with a nursery rhyme: "The Grand old Duke of York; / He had 10,000 men; / He marched them up a hill; / Then marched them down again." It then detailed the administrations retreats on "ending welfare as we know" it, and pointed out that "relying on Clintons New Democrat rhetoric is risky business, Moynihan and others are learning, especially when it comes to reform."
Crucially, the writer did not just settle for criticism, but went on to describe a biblical alternative.
If Clinton, "the man from Hope," were to look for a model for how welfare should work, he could do worse than to examine Dallass Voice of Hope Ministries, founded by Kathy Dudley. Mrs. Dudley developed the principles by which she runs Voice of Hope not in a Washington think tank or during a White House all-nighter; she learned them growing up poor in rural Appalachia.
The program emphasizes personal change through prayer and hard work, not giveaways.
Those changes wont all be comfortable for their clients, Mrs. Dudley says.
World escalated its welfare, and welfare-alternative, coverage in 1995, as Congress took up welfare reform. For example, correspondent Amy Sherman visited Rosedale Park Baptist Church in Detroits inner city to hear Pastor Hamon Cross Jr. tell those who have been sucked into dependency, "I gotta hurt ya before I can help ya." The church offers free counseling services, but clients must pledge to study specific Scriptures that bear on their problems, to discuss them in counseling sessions, and to hear and take notes on a good sermon each week. The goal is transformation, not just training.
In Michigan, to get a more accurate portrait than that offered by liberal social workers, World interviewed Mary Jackson, a cheerfully maternal, middle-aged black woman who eleven years ago deliberately moved into the Smith Homes, a rough inner-city project, in order to help youngsters there. She runs a weekly Bible-club program for about three dozen children and is frank about the problems of "lazy" project residents who have been on welfare for years and have a "deeply embedded" entitlement mentality: "They just want to stay in their own little worlds. . . . They think somebody owes them something."
World showed how some AFDC recipients are heroically trying to turn their lives around in very difficult circumstances, but it was also honest and important to quote Ms. Jacksons irritation with welfare mothers who refused to pay $50 for their children to attend a week-long summer camp: "Its not like they dont have any money. They can afford to get their hair and nails done and wear leather coats that working people cant afford." Michigan welfare reform will succeed only when the moms that Ms. Jackson sees begin treasuring their children above their nails.
Similarly, managing editor Nick Eichers welfare alternatives reporting from Missouri went much deeper than the conventional wailing about "what will happen to the children" if significant welfare reform kicks in. He spent time not with Childrens Defense Fund press releases but with Jerry Hayes, who heads the Sunshine Mission in St. Louis and has set up an MBA programMind, Body, and Attitudefor kids likely to fall prey to the street culture of irresponsibility.
Hayes personally understands the difference between that culture and an opportunity culture: As a child he lived part of the time in a government housing project with his mother, and part of the time with a great aunt who made it a priority to quiz him each day on Bible verses and teach him the value of hard work and thrift. He understands that the cultures cannot readily be merged; they have antithetical values, and a person needs more than a government training program to move from one to another.
Coverage of that sort was part of the overall goal of showing, through solidly analytical reporting, the vitality of biblical principles, the usefulness of a biblical worldview, and the emptiness of the current dominant culture, which is secular liberalism. Story planning for the first several months of 1995 reflected interest in attempts by congressional conservatives to dismantle governmental bulwarks of that culture. (In the following partial listing, C stands for cover story (34 pages), I for inside story (12 pages), S for a series of inside stories, and P for profile.)
Battles Against Secular Liberalism in Politics
Battles Against Liberal Aggression in Education
C Black Christian school in Atlanta
P Polly Williams
I Why go to college? Return of the trade school?
I Home school curriculum materials
I Franchising Christian schools
War for the Family (Includes Abortion)
Thinking through stories such as those listed above will be one of your major tasks if you become a Bible-based editor. You will plan coverage within a broad vision of what you hope your publication will accomplish. You need to make sure that your magazine has a distinct identitywithin the country, if it is a national magazine, or within the community if it is local.
Remember: Your goal is to glorify God, and then turn word into flesh by walking the talk and helping others to do so also. You will need to decide on the correct mix of the familiar and the surprising, in order to innovate at a speed that will fascinate and not alienate the bulk of your publications readers who relish the predictable but desire an escape from boredom. At the same time you must be an advocate for your writers, working to establish a friendly environment for creativity within a biblical framework.
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