Death and dancing, faith and journalism
Posted by James McPherson on April 6, 2009
I am glad to see the policy on pictures of American’s returning war dead overturned. I believe that covering those dead is both a sign of respect for those who died, and one of many areas in which the media have fallen short. Still, I also have to admit that journalism isn’t all about grim news, even if far less of it should be about celebrity journalism (or, God help us, celebrity journalists). Sometimes, journalism ought to be about life.
Even the most hard-bitten, caffeine-addicted journalist who got into the business to chase down dirty politicians and corporate misdeeds while aiding the democratic process–the major point of the First Amendment, and something that if practiced might actually improve Americans’ opinions about the new media–would do well to remember that to reach people in a meaningful way, you have to appeal to their better nature.
That’s why I started out my reporting class today asking students, “What is–or should be–the relationship between faith and journalism?” I happen to teach at a Christian university, where “faith” is generally taken to mean religious faith, but I would argue that the question is relevant regardless of the institution or faith(s) of those involved.
In response I got the expected (and important) answers about faith providing an ethical framework for one’s work. After a follow-up question–“Why do many conservative Christians hate the news media?”–and then a bit of probing to get beyond the usual (and wrong, in my view) answer about liberal media bias, they came to a couple of key points:
First, the news is typically “bad.” Even if it’s not about problems, it often focuses on negative aspects of humanity. Second, because of the nature of “news,” religion and other aspects of day-to-day life tend to be ignored or poorly covered. As I’ve noted elsewhere, journalists typically are neither anti-Christian nor anti-religious (like other Americans, many happen to be people of faith), it’s just that they don’t pay much attention to it except in cases involving culture wars or Muslim or Christian religious extremists who force their way into the news.
After showing the class an excellent positive example regarding religion from one “liberal media” icon, the New York Times, I let them hear an example from another common target, National Public Radio. NPR has a long-running series, called “This I Believe,” based on a 1950s radio program by the same name. I have a book of the earlier essays, “written for, and with a forward by Edward R. Murrow,” on my shelf.
Not surprisingly, the book and the online collection are full of references to faith. Interestingly, for this week, the third-most-popular essay is by 7-year-old Tarak McLain, the second line of which reads, “I believe God is in everything,” while just above it is an essay by Penn Gillette that starts out, “I believe there is no God.” The well-deserved top spot, however, goes to world traveler and self-proclaimed “terrible dancer” Matt Harding.
Harding has his own Web site, titled “Where the Hell is Matt?” Among the “frequently asked questions” on the site is, “Are you religious?” It’s a dumb question, in my view, because Harding has managed to do something that journalists and Christians alike should be striving to do, and which they too often forget: reaching out to people, and sharing stories.
My friends who teach interpersonal and intercultural communication regularly point out that the most important communication skill is that of listening. I’d argue that the same may be true of journalism. If you don’t listen, you can’t understand. If you don’t understand, you can’t share.
As I told today’s class, I’d argue that Harding (who, incidentally, happens to call himself a humanist) has done far more to touch people and make the world a better place than most Christians or journalists (or Christian journalists) ever will. If you doubt it, watch the video below, and see what happens to your own emotions. If you don’t feel better about human condition–and if your faith, whatever that faith may be hasn’t been reaffirmed–you must be dead, yourself.