News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: ‘Fake news’ & advocacy journalism

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP) — When I was in journalism school, there was no such term as “fake news.”

Rather, journalism students were taught at Murray (Ky.) State University and elsewhere to act with integrity, objectivity and accuracy, in accordance with the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics.

The SPJ Code of Ethics includes the following four principles, which are intended to form the foundation of ethical journalism: Seek Truth and Report It; Minimize Harm; Act Independently; and Be Accountable and Transparent.

The SPJ Preamble reads, “Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”

For about eight years as a secular working journalist, I visibly saw these principles at work at the newspapers where I was employed.

However, from time to time I noticed “gray areas” arise.

For example, I recall one instance when a local grocer attempted to strong-arm the editor and publisher of the daily where I was the news editor not to run a story that was rather unflattering to his business.

It is well-known that grocery stores historically have been some of the more lucrative advertisers in newspapers, so my boss had a decision to make. Would he succumb to the pressure being exerted on him by the influential grocery store owner or would he report the truth in the public interest?

My boss chose to do the right thing and eventually saw advertising from the grocery store diminish, then end completely when another newspaper in town more interested in money than journalistic ethics gained its business.

In the religious journalism trade, we practice what I call “advocacy” journalism. The Arkansas Baptist News and other state Baptist papers are literally in the business of advocating for the cause of Jesus Christ.

Does that mean that we misrepresent the facts in order to advocate for our higher calling? What it means is that we unabashedly report the news based on our Christian worldview.

While we report on what some may call our bias for Christianity, I like to think that we work hard to uphold high standards of journalism and Christian ethics.

Though much of the writing we do includes feature stories and short news items from our churches, state convention and the Southern Baptist Convention, from time to time news reporting means that we need to “get both sides of the story” so the reader will be accurately informed.

One such story in recent years was our reporting on the vote to legalize “medical” marijuana in Arkansas. While there was no doubt in our reporting where Arkansas Baptists should stand on the issue, we also solicited comments from proponents of legalizing marijuana.

While it is my opinion that legalization of marijuana in any form is bad for Arkansas, it is sometimes helpful to hear what others are saying to help Arkansas Baptists better understand the issue.

Even when I was in journalism school, it was well known that journalists by and large were more liberal in their thinking than conservative. It seems in the 35 years since I graduated from journalism school, that trend has solidified further to the point that many — not all — journalists in the mainstream media practice what I call “activist” journalism.

While it may seem there is no difference between “advocacy” and “activist” journalism on the surface, I submit to you there is a huge difference.

While the Arkansas Baptist News exists to advocate for the cause of Jesus Christ overtly, activist journalism is more covert as a means to sway public opinion to a particular cause or political candidate.

It may be said that the devil works in subtle and covert ways, and there is no doubt that by and large he has control of what we see in the mainstream media and entertainment.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we seek to resist his attacks daily by reading God’s Word, with our prayer life, and through tempering our thoughts and actions.

Another way is by inhabiting our mind with information that is edifying to our Father, and of course that’s what we attempt to do with each print edition and through our online and digital presence.

While not all of the news we publish or post online is something we want to read, we believe fervently that it is something you need to know to grow and defend your faith until that day when we come into the presence of our Lord.

    About the Author

  • Tim Yarbrough