News Articles

Ethics issue over NIV reporting heads to association’s directors

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A momentous day in religious journalism looms ahead.
On July 22 in Chicago, the Evangelical Press Association’s six- member board of directors will review a committee report siding with allegations that one of the EPA’s 287 member publications violated the association’s code of ethics.
The publication at issue, meanwhile, has appealed to the EPA board of directors to decide, first, whether it has told the truth in its reporting.
The matter, ignited by an issue linking Bible translation and modern feminism, comes at the eve of the press association’s 50th anniversary year, 1998.
The parties to the dispute have become familiar names in both the religious and secular media in recent months:
— World magazine, which broke the news to the evangelical world in March that a “feminist,” gender-neutral revision of the New International Version Bible translation was under way. The NIV, which accounts for 45 percent of all Bibles sold in the United States, quickly became the center of a firestorm in the evangelical community.
— Zondervan Publishing House, the NIV’s U.S. publisher, and the International Bible Society (IBS), the NIV’s copyright holder, which called a halt to the NIV revision in late May, but also filed separate, multi-page complaints with the Evangelical Press Association alleging that World’s reporting violated the EPA’s code of ethics. Also cited in World’s reporting was the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), a 15-member group of scholars with authority over the NIV translation.
The EPA code states:
“Christian publications should be honest and courageous, their presentations characterized by sincerity, truthfulness, accuracy and an avoidance of distortion and sensationalism. Those responsible for the publication must exercise the utmost care that nothing contrary to the truth is published. Whenever substantive mistakes are made, whatever their origin, they should be conscious of their duty to protect the good name and reputation of others. In dealing with controversial matters, opposing views, when presented, should be treated honestly and fairly.”
To review the Zondervan/IBS charges, a three-member ethics committee was named by the EPA’s president-elect, Terry White, an editor with Prison Fellowship, and executive director, Ronald E. Wilson, with input from the association’s current president, David Neff, executive editor of Christianity Today magazine.
Adding to the drama: World’s publisher, Joel Belz, is the association’s outgoing president.
World noted in a recent press release it is now “CT’s major competitor, with a paid subscription list that has doubled in the past year and is now at 86,000, compared to CT’s officially reported 145,000.”
Neff, in a July 10 interview, said, “There is no dispute here between CT and World. The dispute, as I understand it, is between Zondervan on the one hand and World on other.”
The ethics committee, in a three-page report July 1 siding with Zondervan and IBS, said in reviewing two key articles by World on the controversy it had found “unwarranted inferences attributed to Zondervan and the CBT, and faulty conclusions which do not follow from the data presented. None of us on the ad hoc committee believe World has proven its case in point; on the contrary, their view is substantially weakened by their resorting to tactics that would be unacceptable to most other EPA editors and editorial boards.
“We believe World has every right and reason to open discussion on important issues related to Bible translation and urge World to publish a full account, with equal prominence, of the position taken by Zondervan and IBS in the interests of the public that World purports to serve,” the committee stated.
Belz, in a letter of response to the EPA’s board of directors, contended: “… no one should make this task harder than it really is. The place to start is with the simple question: ‘Who is telling the truth?'”
With the Zondervan/IBS ethics complaint, the EPA “leaped first to other issues,” Belz wrote.
Summarizing “the essentials of the story World magazine reported – – in its March 29, April 19 and June 14/21 issues,” Belz recounted:
“1. The parties responsible for the NIV Bible are discussing plans to release new editions of that Bible that will incorporate gender- inclusive language.
“2. That process is happening quietly.
“3. The translation process behind this effort reflects the reality that evangelicalism has, at the very least, been profoundly seduced by feminist language shapers, and much more seriously, is being targeted specifically by those with feminist inclinations.”
Belz wrote: “In this instance, powerful voices have sought to silence the truth. EPA dare not give those voices comfort or, even worse, join them.
“If EPA’s board fails in this case unambiguously and rapidly to defend the telling of the truth, but instead publicly penalizes the truth-tellers, the soul of the organization will have been irreparably ripped from its body,” Belz wrote.
One of the three ethics committee members, Wesley Pippert, a University of Missouri journalism professor, had noted in a two-page addendum to the report, “The First Amendment guarantees a tremendous amount of freedom of the press, with wide latitude given to boisterous, even unbalanced criticism. Even though slashing journalism has never been my professional style, I am wary of doing anything that would abridge any journalist’s (including members of the Evangelical Press Association) fundamental right to engage in this.
“If the EPA is going to require balanced stories by its members, what will happen when a non-Christian group, such as Hindu or Buddhist or perhaps Unitarian, demands that an EPA member publish a balanced story complete with its non-Christian views?”
The committee itself noted, “Part of the difficulty is a philosophy of journalism, evident in World’s reporting and fully developed in (editor) Marvin Olasky’s writings, which believes advocacy is the first and essential pillar of good journalism. Marvin Olasky’s views on this are well known and fully developed in two books and several articles and speeches.
“The question that must therefore precede our findings is one this committee cannot answer: whether World owns any accountability, as an EPA member, to the guidelines of that organization, or whether the standards of the EPA are dismissed as ‘sad’ and supportive of a ‘public relations’ approach to reporting, as Olasky describes in his June 14-21, 1997, editorial” in World.
Raising an additional concern, World has questioned the ethics committee’s composition, noting that Pippert penned a negative review earlier this year of Olasky’s philosophy of journalism.
Another committee member, Wheaton College professor P. Mark Fackler, is one of three coauthors of a book, “Good News: Social Ethics and the Press,” which holds forth a view of social ethics that, in their words, as quoted by World, should be called “communitarian” — “visionary in character without being merely a variant of classical socialism,” which “makes transformative social change the end.”
The third member, Beth Spring, is described by World as “a longtime writer for, and advisory editor of, Christianity Today.”
Neff said prospective committee members were not considered on the basis of what view they may hold on the NIV issue, “but simply, are these people committed evangelicals who have a reputation for integrity and are experienced journalists.”
The EPA ethics committee, in its report, credited World’s articles as “written in sincerity (they believe what they say), courage (in that a controversial issue of public importance is addressed head-on), and with honesty (nothing in either article violates the philosophy of journalism to which Olasky is committed and World is an expression).”
Otherwise, the committee concluded, “World falls seriously short of upholding the EPA Code. Aspects of the two articles approach accuracy, but both are gravely incomplete. World set out to report on the changing language of Bible translations, yet the arguments brought forward to substantiate World’s editorial viewpoint were one-sided and dismissive of responsible alternatives. Relevant material concerning the production of Bibles in general, the NIV in particular, and concerning ancient biblical languages was omitted. In addition, the author dismisses with a single sentence the pivotal issue of whether, and how, our language is changing and how that might affect readers’ understanding of Scripture.
“Accuracy demands that those who are cited in an article be contacted and given a chance to set the record straight, particularly when serious charges are being leveled. No philosophy of journalism sets writers free from this basic responsibility. This committee believes that World’s prominent linking of Zondervan Publishing House and a ‘feminist seduction,’ in view of World’s failure to contact Zondervan for comment or explanation, is inexcusable.
“With regard to distortion and sensationalism, this committee finds World remiss in both articles. The author employed inflammatory language, insinuation, and a blatant appeal to anti-feminist sentiment. Poor writing is a deeply troublesome aspect of these articles. The use of terms such as ‘feminist seduction,’ ‘unisex language’ and ‘stealth Bible’ detract from a reasoned discussion of an important issue. The committee agrees that the more serious a charge or accusation a journalist makes, the more care and restraint the journalist needs to take in exploring it.”
Belz, in his letter to the EPA board of directors, countered various conclusions made by the committee.
Of the term, “stealth Bible,” for example, Belz wrote it portrayed “the quiet deployment of a major weapon for a particular point of view on an unsuspecting audience. The obvious test: Was the NIV’s audience surprised? They were. Our imagery was truthful and appropriate.”