Journalistic Ethics and Conflict Reporting: A Biblical Pedagogy of Media Advocacy, Objectivity, and Social Responsibility
Bala A. Musa, Ph.D.
Azusa Pacific University
On both a local and global scale, conflict, particularly violent conflict, has and will always make news. While the definition of news has remained relatively the same through time and across societies, the values which shape what news events get coverage and how they are presented have evolved with changes in socio-political, economic, and professional norms. Using a historical-cultural approach, this work examines the journalistic philosophies of objectivity, advocacy, and social responsibility and their implications for teaching conflict reporting.
The study identifies the role and influence of media practitioners in creating awareness, setting the agenda, and framing the discourse regarding public issues and conflicts of interest. It analyzes how organizational culture and philosophy, professional codes of ethics, individual journalists’ values, and changing journalistic tools and practices facilitate conflict transformation and peacebuilding. It uses a biblical model to look at coverage of major global conflicts such as the world wars, the genocides in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iraqi wars, and the war on terrorism, as well as domestic culture wars in both secular and religious media. It argues student preparation has implications for professional conduct, particularly with respect to conflict reporting. It shows how integrating a biblical worldview on professional values in pedagogy can help would-be media practitioners navigate the challenges of objectivity, partisanship and bias in a polarized media environment.
It examines the convergences and divergences between journalistic ethics and biblical paradigms relative to seeking and promoting truth, neutrality, and objectivity as well as peacemaking and social responsibility. The research asks the question: How does a Christian journalist reconcile between the multiple, and sometimes conflicting, loyalties to and demands of her/his faith, professional ethics, organizational management, family, and personal convictions? It suggests a transformational model consistent with a biblical worldview and reflecting sound professional ethos.
For good or bad, conflict always captivates the news media; and conflict reporting has always shaped the practice of journalism. While the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and the Congo rage on, they seem to have become old news as they have been superseded in the news cycle by the recapture of Afghanistan by the Taliban, ethnic violence in Ethiopia, and political unrests in Myanmar, Cuba, South Africa, and Haiti – to mention but a few. This cycle is repeated almost weekly. From low-scale conflicts such as the perennial culture wars and clashes of civilization (Huntington, 2000) to such violent conflicts as the imperial expansions of ancient kingdoms and the contemporary confrontations between nations, socio-cultural groups, and ideologies, conflict has been the draft of history. This has given journalists a front row from where to observe world events (Willis, 2010). The ethic of journalism is summed up in the view good news is no news (Perloff, 2018; Christians, Ferré, & Fackler, 1993; Musa & Willis, 2014; Musa & Price, 2006).
Witnessing the end of the Cold War era and the approaching new millennium, Tehranian (1993) and Toffler (1980) painted bleak pictures of the much hoped for age of global peace and harmony. Tehranian (1993) observed instead of world peace:
[T]he end of the Cold War, however, has unleashed centrifugal, ethnic, and tribal forces within nation states …. It has led to the break up of the former Soviet Union, the world’s largest multinational empire, the breakdown of multi-ethnic patchworks such as Yugoslavia and Iraq, has threatened the breakup of other nation-states such as Canada and India and unleashed racial and ethnic violence in the United States, Israel, South Africa, and other multiracial and multiethnic societies. (p. 193)
Earlier, Toffler (1980) also noted the Third Wave of civilization, the information age, also known as the age of globalization, did portend more conflict for nations’ and groups’ peace, harmony, and tranquility. He saw emerging tendencies of multiple forces of conflict erupting along different fault lines:
Whether taking the form of open secessionism, of regionalism, bilingualism, home-rulism, or decentralism, these centrifugal forces also gain support because national governments are unable to respond flexibly to the rapid de-massification of society.
As the mass society of the industrial era disintegrates under the impact of the Third Wave, regional, local, ethnic, social, and religious groups grow less uniform. Conditions and needs diverge. Individuals, too, discover or reassert their differences …. As de-massification progresses, we can expect separatist or centrifugal forces to intensify dramatically and threaten the unity of many nation-states. (pp. 316-317)
Sadly, history has not disappointed. These predictions have not only been realized, but have been exceeded. The first two decades of the twenty-first century have been characterized by extra-ordinary advances in information and communication technology, on one hand, and intensified division, polarization, and conflict on the other (Perloff, 2018; Druckman, 2019). What shall we say of nation-states which have failed, broken-up or which continuously totter on the brink of collapse? From the Syria to Somalia, and from the Haiti to Belarus, conflict, crisis, and violence have been rampant. Long standing and mature democracies like the United States, Germany, India, and France are caving under the weight of ethno-nationalistic, religious, racial, and cultural tensions, which threaten their constitutional democracies. The golden era of independent and objective journalism is giving way to hyper-partisanship (Vivian, 2017; Street, 2019; Overholser & Jamieson, 2005).
It is important, therefore, for media professionals, and the academics who influence their training, preparation, and roles in society, to come to grips with the challenges of the new era. Analyses of the media’s response to the new conflicts have shown journalists largely rely on traditional tools of analyses and frames of perception as well as static understandings of their roles in the attempt to address postmodern and contemporary global challenges (Wall, 1997; Musa, 1999). Teachers, in particular, play significant roles in awakening the consciousness of their students in terms of personal and professional values.
Truth-telling can be shaped by many values when it comes to conflict reporting. These include concern for peace, care for victims of violence and wars, emphasis on justice, commitment to partisan interests, pursuit of sensational stories, or desire for notoriety and fame by the reporter. The Christian teacher can help students reflect on their motivations in light of biblical principles.
Interrogating Media and Conflict Reporting
According to Rasmussen (1997) conflict is an:
Escalated competition at any system level between groups whose aim is to gain advantage in the area of power, resources, interests, values, or needs, and at least one of these groups believes that this dimension of the relationship is based on mutually incompatible goals. (p. 32)
Conflict exists in a relationship when two or more parties pursue contradictory ends or means. Conflicts are not always negative in interpersonal or intergroup relationships; it is how people seek to avoid, manage, transform, or resolve conflicts which make them positive or negative forces in society. For Arno (1984), “Conflict is a state or quality of relationships among social entities, such as persons, groups, or organizations” (p. 1). This definition suggests latent conflicts exist wherever fault lines (nationality, race, religion, age, gender, class, etc.) exist in the social strata (Galtung, 1992).
When analysts observe “[t]he news media are naturally implicated in any conflict that is of significant proportion because conflict by definition makes news” (Musa, 1999, p. 101); or “news is defined by its conflict focus” (Arno, 1984, p. 2); they are, for the most part, referring to escalated or violent conflict. Although this study aims to address conflict in many forms, stages, and manifestations, it is beyond its scope to provide an in-depth critique of a biblical perspective on each form or level of conflict. In the light of prevailing realities, more attention will be paid to two forms of conflict which are more apt to engage the attention of the media and the general public. These forms of conflict are the ideological and cultural tensions ever present in society but which become more manifest in a political electioneering and campaign. Nowadays, such promotion seems to occur all the time. Debates over abortion, same-sex marriage, separation of church and state, and immigration become more vociferous. The basis and nature of this type of conflict is systemic and structural; the other is actual conflict or crisis, if you will. With this understanding, we will examine the role of the media and journalism ethics education in the media professionalism.
The role of the press in any conflict is, to a large extent, a function of the stakes of the news media in the conflict and the perception of the media’s role by the factions involved. Parties to a conflict may perceive a journalist or news organization as an ally (favorable to their cause), an enemy (opposed to their cause), neutral (non-partisan observer), or indifferent (disinterested and uninvolved). Plaisance & Skewes (2003) identify the professional orientations of journalists to include adversarial (courageous, independent, and just), disseminator (minimizing harm, fair, self-controlled), and interpretive (civic-minded, imaginative, and capable) functions. Generally, the media want to be perceived as neutral parties in any conflict. This goal is unrealistic and almost impossible when it comes to conflicts in which the journalist as a person or professional is viewed as a stakeholder in the conflict either because of personal, professional, national, religious, ethnic, or other affiliations (Olorunisola, 1995).
Tehranian (1982) identifies seven possible roles journalists may play or are perceived as playing in a given conflict. One of these is of “selfless revolutionaries” – acting as mobilizers, agitators, and/or propagandists for change. This description implies the role of the radical, sometimes underground, press under authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. The press under colonialism in the US and elsewhere fits this model. Foreign media established primarily to bring down “evil regimes or systems,” e.g. Radio Freedom whose main purpose was to instigate or accelerate the collapse of communism, may belong in this category. Again, to the extent journalists or the media are perceived to be stakeholders in a conflict, they could be labeled as revolutionaries even though they would not need to be revolutionaries nor would they need to present themselves as selfless, detached, or objective observers of conflict. The African-American revolutionary press and other media who fought for civil rights found themselves in those positions.
The other orientation of the press toward a conflict Tehranian (1982) identifies is of “fearless truth seekers.” Included in this category are the aggressive and courageous muckrakers and investigators who are committed to uncovering official corruption and abuse of power (Miraldi, 1990, 1995). This daring posture is often the case in democratic societies where there is a greater guarantee of freedom of expression. In such societies, where journalists perceive the role of the media as watchdog or fourth estate of the realm of power, media feel a certain sense of mandate to investigate the activities of those in power and alert the public of activities detrimental to public wellbeing. Writing about Charles Edward Russell, whom he termed “chief of the muckrakers,” Miraldi (1995) said Russell who “considered himself, first and foremost as a reporter, an ‘impartial observer of events and people’…was neither impartial nor merely an observer” (p. 2). In Miraldi’s view, Russell was a truly crusading reporter and advocate for socialism in the Progressive Era. Ida M. Tarbell’s “shocking stories on political corruption in big cities and…crooked practices in the railroad industry” (Dominick, 2002, p. 123) is another example.
There are journalists who function as “responsible agenda setters.” The agenda setting orientation is in keeping with the social responsibility function of the press. In this tradition, journalists perceive their roles as not only reporting events but also providing perspective through in-depth analysis and interpretation. Other categories include “development promoters,” “hidden persuaders,” and “sinister manipulators.” While those considered as hidden persuaders have been mostly interest group advocates in corporate and civil society (lobbyists and public relations practitioners, for instance), they along with those Tehranian (1982) dubbed sinister manipulators play significant roles in conflict transformation. As will be explained later, journalists of all ethical persuasions, including propagandists and lobbyists, have influenced the reporting, perception, and management of conflict. Sometimes such roles are positive and sometimes less so.
In a survey of 239 newspaper journalists from both large metropolitan and small-scale newspapers, Plaisance & Skewes (2003) asked the journalists to rank twenty-four values (mostly from the Rokeach Value Survey index) in order of importance. The result showed the journalists deemed “honesty,” “fairness,” and “responsibility,” the top three most important journalistic values (p. 839). They also found journalists believed their personal values and outlooks to life often impacted their professional lives and decisions.
Biblically-grounded pedagogy requires interrogating which orientations align with or deviate from Christian values. Is the Christian journalist called to be a selfless revolutionary, fearless truth-seeker, or sinister manipulator? What is the Christian journalist’s duty when one’s goal is to report the truth responsibly? Ethics pedagogy should enable the learner to wrestle with the age-old question of “What would Jesus do?” It is not about finding simple answers. From a biblical perspective, not all ethics philosophies are equal. Agape, communitarian, and justice ethics are certainly more consistent with biblical principles than egoism, extreme teleology, and epicurean ethics (Christians, Ferré & Fackler, 1993).
In addition to personal values, professional codes of ethics and organizational norms influence how journalists report conflict. Due to limitation of resources, competition, and the need to cut costs, journalists basically adopt an episodic frame in their news coverage. This frame is even more so with regards to international news and conflict reporting. Studies of coverage of international conflict from the first Gulf war to Bosnia-Herzegovina and to Rwanda show a predominant emphasis on the episodic (event-oriented) rather than thematic (process-oriented) frames (Iyengar & Simon, 1993; Drake & Donohue, 1996).
It is tragically true the growth of the news media and conflict have been intricately linked. Nelson (1987) notes “the escalation of the nuclear arms race almost year by year parallels the development of television. There has been a very strange synchronism or timing there, actually (p. 29). History shows the perceived parallel between the growth of the media and the ebb and flow of conflict has been more than coincidental (Mosco, 1993; Smith, 1985; Noble, 1984; Musa, 1990).
From the invention of the telegraph to modern multimedia technologies, the need for military superiority and the effort to control public opinion in times of conflict have shaped the advancement and deployment of information and communication systems and strategies. In World Wars I and II, the telegraph, the telephone, and the radio played significant roles in information dissemination. Fortner (1993) underscored the parallel between the growth of the media and the rise of war propaganda, noting the Nazis launched a “radio war” (p. 128) to mobilize German citizens to join the war. Thereafter, all bets were off; every country tried to surpass the other in the art of propaganda. Each party aggressively sought to dominate world public opinion by controlling the channels of communication, using every technique in the book, from setting up clandestine stations to jamming, ghost voicing, and code breaking. The art of propaganda was perfected in this era and massively deployed in the Cold War era which followed (Pratkanis & Aronson, 2001). The war of words and ideas even escalated with the end of World War II.
Times of conflict are always the high points of propaganda. The more intense the conflict, the more people resort to the war of images, symbols, and meanings. In the information age, the preponderance of information, the difficulty of distinguishing between truth and falsehood, and the ease with which information can be misrepresented or distorted calls for both communicators and their audience to be on guard.
Pratkanis and Aronson (2001) painted this scenario to underscore the need for vigilance on the part of the public:
Consider the case of war propaganda, with its goal of convincing a nation to commit acts of aggression against an evil enemy. If the appeal is successful, the act of war becomes consistent with our values and the most blatant propaganda is labeled “news” and “information needed to pull the nation together.” In such cases we may let our guard down just at the moment when we need it the most. (pp. 265-266)
Similar situations have arisen in the course of the War Against Terror and the on-going Iraqi conflict. Journalists have lost their jobs for being too critical of the government and, therefore, unpatriotic. In this time, as at other times, researchers find a spiral of silence pervades the public as well as the media (Allen et al., 1994; Eveland et al., 1995).
Journalistic Ethics, Individual Values, and Professionalism
Ethical approaches to conflict reporting can be located at the intersection of philosophy and professionalism. Philosophical foundations of ethics derive from the conceptual worldviews of media practitioners which in turn reflect the values of the times and societies in which journalists exist. Philosophically, ethics is concerned with the view of the good and the ideal. The journalist’s worldview assumptions dictate what motivates her/him, and one’s ethical philosophy functions at the level of motivations. Goodwin (1987) argues “[j]ournalists in the United States have some major problems in coming to grips with their ethics” (p. 4). In Goodwin’s view, this difficulty stems from the tension between the “conflicting pulls of journalism the profession and journalism the business” (p. 4). Berkowitz and Limor (2003) identify multiple “levels of influence – individual, organizational, professional, societal – the socializing factor of journalism education [which] instills an appreciation for the ideals of professional ideology, particularly those about journalistic independence” (p. 784). Berkowitz and Limor (2003) also agree with Borden (2000) concerning ethical decision- making, journalists are constrained both by the situations and contexts of the moral dilemma as well as their individual values and loyalties.
Every journalist always has to balance between competing loyalties to one’s profession, employer, colleagues, audience, family, friends, and self. Above all, the professional journalist has to be loyal to oneself and one’s integrity. Instruction in journalism ethics should equip the student to grapple with the tensions between professional, corporate, and religious values which the Christian journalist has to navigate. The instructor can use case studies to help students respond to potential real-life situations where there is minimal risks and consequences. It will help them examine their personal as well as professional values.
The ethics of journalistic objectivity offers Christian believers an opportunity to affirm their commitment to truth, care, and social responsibility. Objectivity and truth-telling are cardinal virtues in journalism. Objectivity entails more than balance, says Miraldi (1990):
It is how a reporter approaches his sources, his material, and his public; it is the hidden frame of reference around which the American press organizes its existence; it is an unwritten guidebook that is passed on, unquestioningly, from one generation of journalists to another. (p. 14)
There are those who regard objectivity as the highest ideal to which the journalist ought to strive; they believe it is what distinguishes a professional journalist from an activist or a charlatan. Proponents of objective reporting argue journalists’ credibility lie squarely in whether or not reporters are perceived as presenting news stories factually, without bias and opinion. To this school, once journalists discard this hallmark of the profession, they have lost their identity and primary mission.
In the era of 24-hour news shows, where there are more talk shows, “news” interview programs, and opinion-laden news magazines, it makes sense for people to revisit the primary definition of a journalist and be able to make distinctions between newspeople and other media personalities. Baum (2003) has shown in the new media environment, traditional news outlets compete with entertainment and soft-news programs for legitimacy over whose domain it is to report on significant war stories and how they should be told. To those who view objectivity as the journalist’s badge of honor, such a tool, once discarded, would ruin the credibility of journalism. Recent instances of heroic coverage of conflicts in the face of danger, survival, and rescue behind enemy lines in ISIS territory, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, are a case-in-point. The survival and rescue stories of Scott O’Grady, an American soldier who was with NATO forces in Kosovo; the Jessica Lynch story, of another American captured by the enemy in Iraq and later rescued by US forces; and the Abu Ghareb prison abuses in Iraq all received plays in the media which underscored the difference between hard news (which is termed to be objective) and soft-news (which, in emphasizing the human angle, often blurs the boundary between fact and fiction).
According to Ryan (2001), the ethic of objective reporting is highly esteemed because it reflects the scientific paradigms of precision, standardization, skepticism, fairness, impartiality, rigor, and universalism, among others. He disagrees with those who criticize the notion of objectivity by saying objectivity is neither idealistic nor mythical. He argues journalists who subscribe to the tradition of objectivity:
Do not guarantee their descriptions are accurate in every respect, only that they have followed a process that allows them to produce a description that is more accurate than any other process allows, and that allows society to move closer to an understanding of the real world. (p. 5)
However, critics of the objective approach believe it falls short of its claims on many grounds. They argue the objective approach is neither realistic nor ideal (Friedman, 1998; Durham, 1998).
Several authors attribute the lack of objectivity and accuracy in the news to organizational and professional routines as well as the sociocultural environment of news gathering, editing, and presentation (Meckiffe & Murray, 1998; Ehrlich, 1995; Berkowitz & Limor, 2003). Media managers have been known to force journalists to kill news stories in order not to hurt particular interests extraneous to the journalistic context. In this era of big business ownership and control of news organizations and the concern with profit, journalists come under greater pressure to bend from aggressive or adversarial reporting.
Christian journalists and people of other religious convictions cannot separate their personal values, beliefs, and experiences from their social, cultural, and professional life. They must, however, appreciate their religious and ideological world views can either further equip or undermine their professionalism. Biblical values of truth, honesty, fairness, love for neighbor, and justice can serve as ethical guideposts and moral yardsticks which will enable the journalist to discern accurately and act morally.
Biblical (Dis)Incentives for Objectivity in Conflict Reporting
The Christian journalist may be inclined to adopt an objective approach for a number of reasons. One reason is a biblical worldview acknowledges the existence of objective reality and truth. While one cannot claim absolute knowledge of or any monopoly on truth, the Christian worldview begins with the assumption human beings have been endowed with the ability discover truth. The senses, intuition, and reason are all faculties which enable the individual to seek and know truth. Truth needs to be the epistemological pursuit and goal of the Christian journalist. With truth as a foundation, the journalist would want to pursue the facts, understand them, and present them as accurately as possible. If reality exists and is knowable, then it is desirable and possible to observe, investigate, and present it faithfully.
The other reason is a biblical approach to journalism will seek to avoid falsehood, deception, and misrepresentation. Though a journalist may be limited by circumstances, resources, and individual experiences, the journalist who sets out to be objective will be more faithful to the facts throughout the process than one who starts with the assumption objectivity is not attainable and, therefore, should not be attempted. A journalist who sets out to be objective will be conscious of her/his limitation but will be guided by a higher standard than one who settles for a lesser standard of objectivity.
At the same time, the Christian journalist, out of integrity, must guard against the pitfalls of dogma and claims to superior knowledge. One reason some people reject the notion of objectivity is the misperception an objective report is accurate, infallible, and conclusive. Laying claim to the moral high ground of infallibility will tempt the journalist to discard his or her vigilance, which will in turn lead to decline in one’s professional standards. Subtle and unconscious propaganda develops out of “undue reliance on authorities; the practice of applying abstract and unverifiable language; simplistic portrayals of people, institutions, and situations” and other such tendencies (Cunningham, 2001).
An examination of the rhetoric of the George W. Bush administration during the Iraqi War, most of which has been adopted uncritically by the media, reflects these tendencies. The generic labeling of others, the abstract representation of us as good and them as evil, and the claim to a divine mandate and sanction for our actions seems like a path down a slippery slope.
Another danger of the objective approach to the professional journalist is the danger of apathy. There is a thin line between objectivity and aloofness. The journalist who is skilled in his/her craft gradually develops a surgical approach to the subjects he/she covers. This approach is necessary for the journalist to not get mired in or overly drawn into the subject; it helps the journalist maintain a balanced perspective. In conflict reporting, however, the professional approach may sometimes border on social irresponsibility. Studies of the coverage of the genocides in Bosnia (1991-1995) and Rwanda (1994) in the U.S. media showed a predominance of routine frames of analysis and event-oriented reporting which fell short of properly setting the agenda both for public understanding of the conflicts and policy responses (Musa, 1999; Wall, 1997).
When there is genocide, abuse of human rights, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity, the teacher has a duty to stimulate critical reflection on what would be an appropriate Christian approach to reporting such conflicts. An ethics philosophy of objectivity suggests the journalist should stand as a passive observer or rely on the official version of events, even when the government is not a neutral party, would not be biblical or ethical. Some journalists have relied on official narrative in reporting the ongoing conflicts and violence in Syria, Myanmar, Nigeria, Belarus, Venezuela, Ethiopia, for example.
Yet, the ideal of “balancing” official government version of events with those of the victims of massacre, rape, and abuse continue to demonstrate how international media report on many of these conflicts. Reports show the burnt villages and interviews with victims among the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar; the people of Tigray in Ethiopia; the Christian communities in Southern Kaduna, Nigeria; and then qualify the reports with the official reactions from the government spokespersons who deny any claims of atrocities or blame the victims. Sadkovich (1998) as well as Kato and Keever (1996) note merely relaying official versions of conflict incidents does not indicate objectivity, but incompetence and mediocrity, if not irresponsibility. Well trained journalists would recognize governments and their spokespersons have their interests, biases, blind spots, and/or hidden agenda which influence their version of events.
The New York Times learned this lesson the hard way when it had to dissociate itself from the reports of one of its leading correspondents on the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—reports which seemed very credible at the time were published because the information came from so-called credible official sources (Okrent, 2004). It is in this light Black (2001) warns “the likelihood of unconscious or accidental propaganda, produced by unwitting agents of the persuasion industry, makes the ethical analysis of contemporary propaganda ever more intriguing” (p. 127). When the powerful group (and more often than not the perpetrators of the violence) has a monopoly of the media of communication and propaganda, a disinterested presentation of the facts by the journalist may not be enough. Detached reporting is even worse when the journalist allows his or her media outlet to be used to suppress or distort the facts. In this age of pervasive propaganda, it is easy for the unsuspecting, unsavvy, and ill-equipped journalist to become an unwitting ally or tool in the hands of sophisticated manipulators of information and purveyors of fake news.
Biblical Instruction and Professional Responsibility
According to Lando (2013), given at Christian universities “priority emphasis is on integrating public service with religious commitment rooted in biblical values such as service to the poor and marginalized,” one would expect their graduates to “be leaders in exposing corruption in politics, leaders in exposing violation of human rights and injustices toward the poor” (p. 17). Instead, her research found a disconnect between professed missions of these religious institutions, the curricular emphases, and professional ethical conducts of their graduates. Many graduates of Christian Higher Education journalism and media studies programs succumb to the pressure to fit-in, win-at-all costs, develop a survival mentality, among others. Educating ethical and biblically minded media professionals happens by design, not by default. The teacher-mentor must be intentional in helping students examine the challenges and constraints to cultivating and applying biblical ethics in a competitive, sometimes unethical, work environment. The teacher must be intentional in emphasizing and modelling the values that need to be inculcated.
In highlighting the ethics and ethos of conflict reporting, for instance, the teacher must sensitize students to understand sometimes the facts, in and of themselves, have the potential to perpetuate or escalate the circle of violence. The teacher must make the students aware ethical decision-making requires confronting a dilemma and being intentional in choosing the ethical path, when one comes to the fork on the road. The concept of objectivity is not an abstract reality. It involves making choices which impact the practitioner, the communities involved in conflict, and the audience consuming the report.
During the wars in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, as well as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, violence has often begotten violence. Reports of casualties on one side have fueled calls for revenge from the other. In such situations, the facts are not enough to move the warring factions toward peace. One may question whether it is the acts of violence or the reports which perpetuate the violence.
Christian institutions pride themselves in producing world changers. It is a noble ideal, but also one which comes with certain presuppositions which must be examined. Different journalistic philosophies and paradigms beckon on the Christian journalist who is committed to being a change agent or salt and light in the world (Matt. 13-14). These include the ethos of communitarian journalism, public journalism, development journalism, peace journalism, crusading journalism, muckraking journalism, civic journalism, advocacy journalism, among others (Marvin & Meyer, 2005; Musa & Domatob, 2007). Each offers opportunities and pitfalls in the bid to be a difference-maker. In a world characterized by intense polarization and culture wars, the believer is called to be peace-maker (Matt. 5:9). Some understand this call to mean being pacifist. Others understand it to mean being activists for peace and justice.
The reporter committed to being a change agent must be guided by a proper moral compass. Without such a guide one can become an unhinged crusader and activist for the causes one believes in or be used by others to achieve partisan goals. In times of intense struggle between good and evil or light and darkness, it is almost impossible to be neutral. It is evident in the partisanship of today’s media culture.
During the Revolutionary War in America, many partisan and advocacy newspapers, pamphlets, and publications emerged to advance the cause of the anti-colonial struggle. The New England Courant, the New York Weekly Journal, and the New York Gazette also crusaded against the Crown colony. The same was the case in the former European colonies of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Intellectual elites and business leaders who could own, publish, or edit a publication saw it as their duty to join the crusade for justice, liberty, peace, evangelism, or whatever cause. The partisan press was also known for its advocacy of particular social, political, and religious viewpoints.
Kwame Nkrumah, leading nationalist and first president of independent Ghana, himself a former journalist, opined a responsible journalist needs to be loyal to the national party and its agenda. He believed the civic duty of the journalist in a developing society was to support and promote the policies of the national party. He saw the ideal African press as:
A weapon first and foremost for the overthrow of colonialism and imperialism and to assist total African independence and unity. The true African journalist works for the organ of the political party to which he himself belongs and in whose purpose he believes. He works to serve a society moving in the direction of his aspirations. (Odhiambo, 1991, p. 24)
Advocacy, or point-of-view, journalism has its strengths and weaknesses. As mentioned earlier, in the struggle between right and wrong those who stand for justice, fairness, truth, and peace cannot afford to be neutral. The cause of the anti-colonial struggle, civil rights movement, the abolition, women’s suffrage, and other conflicts were certainly advanced by the journalists who believed in those causes. In recent history, the role of international media such as Radio Liberty and Voice of America and the Internet in the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Romanian revolution, the Tianamen Square uprising in China are cases in point. Tehranian (1993) observed:
While it took two world wars … to dissolve the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, British, French, Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, and Portuguese empires, the Soviet empire dissolved within a few years through glasnost and the rapid exposure of the Soviet society to the world media, videocassette recorders, fax machines, and computer networks. (p. 197)
Frederick (1993) credits television with the realization of the Israeli-Egypt Camp David Peace Accord of 1977, noting “this feat of international peace-making had been accomplished with considerable help from the editing studios” (p. 219). He mentioned how Walter Cronkite stage-managed two separate interviews he conducted with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to appear as though both leaders had a face-to-face discussion leading to a resolution of their differences. Frederick (1993) views the Camp David Accord as a classic example of “how the mass media can affect the course of war and peace” (p. 220). In his view, “the news media are not passive observers to international conflict. They have become a political force in their own right, autonomous entities that not only transmit, but frame and interpret events” (p. 228).
Many would view advocacy journalism as asking media practitioners to trade their traditional watchdog functions for participatory, partisan, and combative roles. Others would cite the new phenomenon of embedded journalism as cases of journalists already making such a trade. The teacher should enable students to ponder the question of whether advocacy and committed journalism can be both professional and biblical without becoming biased and totally subjective?
Waters (2001) identifies two schools of thought on a Christian approach to journalistic advocacy: one termed “biblical journalism” and the other “responsible advocacy” (Waters, 2000; Olasky, 1999). Waters (2001) cites Olasky as defining biblical journalism, also referred to as directed reporting, as reporting “designed to show readers the salient facts in bible-based contextualization, and allow them to agree or disagree with the conclusions reached” (Olasky, 1996, p. 33 cited in Waters, 2001, p. 55).
The responsible advocacy approach is considered the dominant approach in Christian journalism, which Waters terms as a “form of communitarian journalism” (p. 54; also refer to Waters, 2000 and Christians et al., 1993). According to Waters (2001), Olasky’s direct reporting approach falls short of high professional standards because it rejects any notion of objectivity. The form of biblical journalism advocated by Olasky fits best in the environment of special interest Christian publications. But since most Christian journalists work in secular environments, there needs to be a model which can serve the Christian in such an environment and which calls for a committed journalism both accurate and highly professional.
As for the place of social responsibility, the Christian journalist ought to be committed to truth, justice, and peace among other values. He does not necessarily have to be a crusading journalist, but having a commitment to biblical principles sets her or him apart from being a casual observer of world events. Her or his professional service is understood first in the light of the mandate to “do all things to the glory of God.” A communitarian approach aiming to serve the public good from a high moral principle can be achieved without undermining one’s status as a professional. Although some do not perceive Charles E. Russell as very objective, Miraldi (1995) cites his example as one who “[b]y straddling a line between reform and radicalism, … proved that a reporter with unconventional beliefs could still maintain credibility with the establishment forces and act as an effective agent of social change” (p. 2).
Such balance should be the ultimate goal of the Christian—the need to be in the system and not of the system. Russell was viewed as person who lived a dual system—the radical and the mainstream—at the same time. “This duality gave Russell a measure of ideological freedom but also kept him within the boundaries of progressive politics and conventional journalism where he could have more influence” (Miraldi, 1995, p. 2). Often, Christian journalists feel a pressure to choose between one or the other. If they work in a secular environment, they feel constrained to conform completely to the standards of the secular system. Some try to deal with such a dilemma by moving to a “Christian media organization” but doing so falls short of the biblical, cultural, and professional mandate to be salt and light in the earth.
From a pedagogical perspective, we can glean much from the approach adopted by Saint Luke in the writing of his gospel. The teacher can highlight how his/her purpose and process can guide the would-be Christian journalist to respect facts, recognize the environment, and gain credibility in the craft of conflict reporting. He says in Luke 1:1-4:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Although Luke did not operate under contemporary journalistic conditions with deadlines and organizational pressures, we can borrow a leaf or two from his technique. He was committed to producing a fact-based report, but with an understanding people have different interpretations of those facts. Newbigin (1989) identifies the approaches as both the converging and diverging point of the gospels. The facts about Christ, who is the Truth, must be sacred. Students should be able to learn choices about journalistic norms have implications for their craft and reflect certain values.
Luke the writer, for one, imposed constraints on himself to be orderly and coherent. He established the authenticity of his report to be based on eye-witness accounts and careful investigation. He acknowledged “many have undertaken to draw up an account …” (Ch. 1:1). One could say, even back then, the communication and media environment was saturated. He cared about and knew his audience. He investigated the facts, he acknowledged other viewpoints, and he presented his information in a coherent manner. Such writing was set against the backdrop of telling the narrative from the perspective of a persecuted minority community. He still felt the need to be truthful, objective, and ethical. Today’s Christian journalist faces similar challenges and choices.
A biblical approach to conflict reporting is not other-worldly. It recognizes and respects the tools of the profession. It is, however, skeptical enough to know each has approach limitations. The job of the Christian teacher is to help students submit all the philosophies and ideological approaches to a rigorous test of credibility, integrity, and the true Judeo-Christian ethic of love for one’s neighbor. The journalist should be objective, but not indifferent. He or she should ask, if you are a war refugee in Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, or living in an Internally Displaced People Camp (IDPC) in Nigeria, how would you like your story to be reported or not written about?
Biblical and ethical conflict reporting does not treat the news subject as an object, but as a person. It does not manipulate or use information for selfish purpose. It uses journalistic tools and skills to serve the purpose of God’s kingdom (promoting righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost) and advancing the good of humanity. Biblically-grounded pedagogy should fore-ground respect for the subject in the mind of the learner, with the view he/she will, in the future, live it out in the workplace.
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* The author acknowledges, with gratitude, inputs and feedback from Laura L. Groves, Ken Waters, Michael L. Longinow, Robert Woods, Lakelyn Taylor, other reviewers, and colleagues.