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Christianity Today editor David Neff discusses role of religious press

CHARLESTON, S.C. (BP)–Christianity Today editor David Neff spoke of the importance of a religious movement or denomination having an independent press in Feb. 5 remarks to with the Association of State Baptist Papers in Charleston, S.C.

By giving “those in the movement a sense of the big picture,” readers are moved beyond the local ministry to gain a sense of God’s global agenda, he said, citing coverage of the International Day of Persecution as an example.

The Christian media also helps set the agenda for a movement or denomination, dealing with issues that otherwise might be ignored, Neff said. Reporters can assess the religious scene from a reader’s point of view, “help keep people honest” through a fair and balanced presentation of events, as well as protecting people from those who would take advantage of them, Neff said.

The denominational press must build a track record of strong performance, develop relationships that allow for independence of the news operation and stick to the facts, Neff said, acknowledging the importance of accountability to those who fund the publication.

“No journalistic enterprise is totally independent,” he said, noting there will always be a need to manage the interplay between funding and sources of truth. Denominational periodicals must take care to deal with the facts without prejudice, he said.

All news organizations serve some community, Neff explained, while some create community. Evangelist Billy Graham’s original purpose in developing the medium that became known as Christianity Today was to develop the sense of community among Christians, he said. “An independent press can be a mirror to that community, helping people deal with the impressions folks have of them.”

Describing an informed citizenry as a responsible citizenry, Neff said, “The basic purpose of journalism is to equip people to be good citizens.” Through religious media, readers are informed of opportunities for service while also warned of dangers. “Truth is an important biblical principle,” he said, characterizing journalism as a moral enterprise.

The concept of the people’s right to know soon becomes a slippery concept, Neff said, expressing dismay at the way the media often misapplies coverage that should focus on public responsibility. “It diminishes when personal and business privacy issues arise,” he said, stressing the need to evaluate how high-profile leaders are treated when involved in controversy.

In order to be fair, Neff said publications should develop clear policies to discern how they will handle difficult situations that require ethical and news judgments. “What qualifies a story as worth the investment of staff time, worth squeezing space and the potential hassle of what you’ll have to defend?”

Those questions can be answered as a publication determines whether:

–the average Christian leader needs this information to be informed.

–the information is of national significance.

–it is timely.

–the publication can provide information not available in other media.

–someone has so misreported the story that more information is needed.

–accurate reporting can be done.

If such reporting involves personal scandal, Neff said a new set of questions should be asked, considering whether the person involved is a recognized Christian leader who influences a large number of people or has the potential of harming a large number of people and whether the person has been formally accused of breaking the law or is the subject of a lawsuit.

If none of these elements are present, coverage still may be justified if a basic tenet of Christian faith has been violated or if the individual failed to take corrective action or made a mistake in his or her area of expertise. Then, Neff said, the publication should ask whether the mistake has the potential of causing harm to a large institution; if reconciliation or restitution failed to be made; if the person is accountable to a local group of believers that has failed to take action; and whether the publication has the opportunity to tell the story first or set the record straight.

When investigative reporting is necessary, limits must be set, Neff said, in order to avoid setting traps that actually create a story. The religious press should scrutinize techniques that are common to a secular media, he said, citing the use of anonymous sources as an example. The likelihood that a source will lose his job if identified or experience other reprisals can prompt withholding of a name. The lives of missionaries are sometimes endangered when reporting on activity in another country, he added.

Online publishing has changed the timely consideration of the news, Neff observed. “I don’t get to read things at a considered fashion. I get to rate them,” he said of his role in editing material posted quickly to Christianity Today’s website. “I feel like I’m in broadcasting.”

News coverage often unfolds progressively online as additional information becomes available, he explained. With an endless amount of space available, lengthier accounts can be offered to online readers.

Neff said sources in the religious world often misunderstand the refusal of a reporter to provide an advance copy of a story. Instead, publications should agree to fact checking and quote read-back, he suggested. “Read back to the source what he said and have him acknowledge its accuracy.” Insisting on an advance copy of an article leads to interference, he warned. By providing a courtesy copy when the article is printed, organizations can anticipate questions that will be raised by the reporting and prepare a timely response.

Discussion on the handling of controversial subjects led to a question about the difference in Christianity Today’s approach to news coverage and another Christian publication, World magazine. “In principle, we’re not that far apart from World,” Neff said.

Journalists should strive to characterize a person in such a way that the source would recognize himself to be the one described, Neff said, noting that from the feedback he has received, “People recognize themselves more in our reporting than they do in World’s reporting.”

Neff said the placement and identification of news and editorial commentary is critical, adding, “World doesn’t have a dividing line between news and editorial.” He described Christianity Today as “far more anxious to let a person from the other side be heard.”

Distinguishing between a “feel like you’re there” kind of reporting modeled by World and the “news style” of Christianity Today, Neff stated, “I think people have perceived World as more advocacy-related. We’re far more likely to do a debate among our own community because we know there are strong opinions on both sides,” he said, adding that they respect scholars from differing points of view.

“Total objectivity is a myth,” Neff said. Then, borrowing a line from “The Princess Bride,” he added, “Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter