News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: Religious media not exempt from advocacy journalism

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–In national media, apparently it is okay to mock evangelical Christians. That appears to be the theme of media whistle-blower Bernard Goldberg. His book, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News, published by Regnery, doesn’t tell anything really new to those who don’t buy into every morsel of information propagated by the major network news moguls. However, Goldberg uses his insider information and experience to demonstrate that media elites color the news as they do because their own cultural perspective prevents them from seeing the world any other way.

Goldberg’s book has launched some honest public conversation exploring how the media has used its resources to condition the public’s opinion. For years, the national media has painted its left-wing political perspective (bias) as “normal,” while conservative thinking was portrayed as “fundamentalist” or “extremism.” As a general rule in the secular press, journalists have a left leaning and often hold conservative views up for ridicule.

It is a good thing that Goldberg’s book made the New York Times best sellers list in early January 2002, because his former colleagues have ostracized him. Journalists in print and electronic media have long held to a principle of objectivity. It works like this. Somehow, a news reporter is supposed to mystically disengage his/her personal bias and objectively report an event. While this may be a worthy goal, in the real world it is obviously not a preeminent core value. Far too many journalists report their own opinions as fact. This is what is called “advocacy journalism.”

How do they do this?

One way is with the use of adjectives. What would a writer do without adjectives? They are a vital part of speech in the English language. It is the linguistic tool that paints color into a text. However, adjectives also reveal the bias [or in some circumstances the agenda] of a reporter. Goldberg sites an example of how the adjective is used to change perceptions. Robert Bork, the highly credentialed Supreme Court nominee was called a “conservative” judge by TV news commentators. The word conservative was used as a synonym for “fundamentalist” or “extremist.” In contrast, Lawrence Tribe, a well-known liberal academe, was regularly referred to by the media talking heads as simply a “Harvard Law Professor.”

Religious media is not exempt from advocacy journalism. Although some of my religious journalism colleagues may say they do not practice advocacy journalism, they are being dishonest with their readers when they do.

Last month one particular Baptist editor wrote a public relations editorial for his state newspaper explaining how this particular paper was insulated from bias and “does not engage in so-called ‘advocacy journalism’ in its news reporting.” Yet in the very same issue was a news article, not an editorial, in which they reported the SBC first vice-presidential nomination of Judge Paul Pressler. When describing Pressler, the reporter described him as “one of the two key architects of the fundamentalist movement that gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

By the use of a few clever slogan words like “fundamentalist” and “gained control,” the writer expressed his distaste for the current events in the SBC. Furthermore, the writer demeaned every person in his state who believes that the events of the last 25 years of SBC life were the result of a network of mainstream, grassroots Southern Baptists who were reclaiming their institutions and theological heritage.

Can religious journalists be truthful while advocating a position or a particular agenda? Absolutely. However, religious journalists need to be honest about their advocacy. In Baptist life, the entire context of news reporting is a form of advocacy. We tell the story of God at work in the churches. When we do, we are advocating the work of the Lord. We must tell the truth about brothers who disagree with others, and in so doing we advocate the value of discernment, judgment and, hopefully, reconciliation. We must report about the failure of institutions to fulfill their obligations to their constituencies. When we report this kind of word, it brings to the forefront the importance of honesty and accountability. Baptist journalists are advocates for the Lord Jesus, the Word of God, the Gospel, missions and evangelism and a plethora of other Kingdom issues.

Baptists need advocacy journalism to tell about the great things God is doing in this world. Oklahoma Baptists need their churches to partner with the Baptist Messenger as we advocate moral righteousness in a culture that has lost its hold on decent values and right relationships. The Baptist Messenger has a 90-year history of telling and advocating the truth and trusting the people to make the appropriate decisions.
Yeats is editor of The Baptist Messenger, the state paper of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

    About the Author

  • John Yeats