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Speakers at BP journalism conference call students to mission in the media

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–More than 150 students and 30 faculty attended the second annual Baptist Press National Student Journalism Conference at the Southern Baptist Convention Building in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 10-12.

Students attended workshops held in the categories of print journalism, broadcast journalism, design, photography, literary magazines and public relations. They also joined in worship services and listened to keynote addresses from prominent Christian journalists.

This year’s conference theme was “Tell the Story,” encouraging students to not only tell stories through their journalistic work but also to tell the most important story of the gospel through their opportunities of influence.

“I think we were largely successful during the conference in blending spiritual encouragement with professional growth and development,” said Will Hall, vice president for news services with the Southern Baptist Executive Committee and executive editor of Baptist Press.

“Our distinguished faculty and guest speakers offered critical skill-building opportunities and shared unique knowledge during workshops and general sessions to better equip participants to tell the story. Importantly, each also communicated a sense — both in group settings and in one-on-one situations — that Christian journalists can be a strong influence in America’s newsrooms and directly or indirectly influence America for the Kingdom of Christ,” Hall said.

Don Boykin, deputy managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, challenged the students to give up their rights and go on mission with God into the newsrooms of the secular media.

He noted that as a Christian in the secular media he sometimes finds himself in the middle with no friends on either side because at work “not everybody is all that fired up about God” while at church a lot of folks don’t like the media.

Boykin said he believes the solution to the problem with mainstream media today is for more solid Christian journalists to take the principles of faith and journalism they have gained into the newsrooms.

“I want to ask you to give up your careers. I want to ask you give up your rights,” he said. “I want you to go on the mission field, not necessarily to Bangladesh or to Zimbabwe, but I want you to go on the mission field that God has called you. That can be your newsroom or your university or wherever it is that God has called you.”

Christians sometimes fall into a trap of believing the only people called to fulltime Christian work are the Billy Grahams of the world or the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Boykin said.

“Most of us are not going to get called to that place, but we are going to get called to the world,” he said.

The headline for his talk to the students was “Out of the Salt Shaker,” he said.

“We all know the Scripture about being salt, but if we stay in the salt shaker, we don’t have much influence,” he said. “We get a chance to go to places that need influence. Everyone has a worldview, but we get a chance to take a biblical worldview into the newsroom.”

After giving up one’s rights, Boykin explained, it’s not going to be about an ego or status or moving up the ladder. It’s going to be about being on mission for God. “You’re going to be every bit as much of a minister or missionary as your favorite pastor or missionary.”

Lawrence Smith, vice president of communications at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., worked in broadcast journalism for more than 25 years before taking the seminary position. He told the students there is no such thing as an unbiased journalist “because there is no such thing as an unbiased human.”

“We all reflect previous notions and worldviews whether we realize it or not,” he said.

A free press is vital to a society, Smith said, but with the freedom comes tremendous responsibility.

“Being fallen humans, we in the news business fail to live up to the high standards our public or God would have of us,” Smith said.

Sharing statistics from a recent poll, Smith said that only 49 percent of Americans think news organizations are highly perceptive, and the same number believe the media does not stand up for the United States. A third of those polled say journalists are too critical of the country, and 50 percent believe the news media is politically biased and reports the news inaccurately.

Smith admitted that to most journalists, poll numbers don’t mean much.

“Most of us are in the communications business because it’s what we’re called to do,” Smith said, pointing out that the ultimate decision for student journalists will be whether to work in secular or Christian communications.

While both have unique sets of challenges and levels of satisfaction, Smith encouraged students to listen for God’s calling and understand that they can be effective in either place, noting the differences between the two. In the secular media, the responsibility is to include many religious viewpoints, but working for a Christian news outlet, there is no such responsibility.

“Scripture is my foundation as a Christian journalist in a Christian outlet, not a devotion to objectivity,” Smith said.

After a moving presentation of his photographs set to “Amazing Grace,” Gary Fong, director of editorial graphics technology for the San Francisco Chronicle and Pulitzer Prize board member, shared with the students how God called him into his profession.

For two weeks, he recounted, he prayed about what God would have him do in life. In the most quiet times, he said he could hear God telling him to be a photographer.

“I thought God was joking,” Fong said. “I told God he was going to have to open doors because photography was a hobby and I couldn’t make a living at it.”

But Fong changed his major from engineering to journalism, and God began opening doors. He interned as a photographer at the Sacramento Union and through the years held positions at the Union, Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle. At times the papers competed for him because of his work. All along, he acknowledged God in his photography.

“When photographers shoot, they take God with them,” Fong, a founder of Christians in Photojournalism, said. “He will speak in quiet ways to help us get the right shot. He will show you stories and pictures to take. Sometimes he might say, ‘Move a little to the right’ or ‘Move a little to the left.'”

Fong also shared his deep desire to make a difference in even the smallest way.

“In the context of world history, my life seems insignificant. But all I hope to do is touch one or two lives in this time on earth,” he said. “Sometimes I think a Christian in the newsroom is like a calm in the storm. We can be a witness for the Lord. It’s just that simple. If that vocation becomes your ministry, you can reach a lot of people.”

Fong then recounted how his father, a grocery store owner in Sacramento, became ill and spent several days in the hospital. Fong was working in San Francisco at the time and drove an hour and a half to Sacramento each night for two weeks to be with his father.

His father had not been a Christian, but one night Fong noticed he was reading the Bible in his hospital bed. Fong quietly shared with the students step by step how he led his father to Christ that night. Two years later, his father was “promoted to glory,” he said.

Fong summarized the lessons he has learned by faith by saying, “When the Lord opens doors you walk through them.”

Julia Duin, assistant editor for The Washington Times, shared with students her perspectives of writing on cultural issues in another keynote address.

Citing an article by George Barna, a popular statistician frequently quoted by evangelicals, Duin listed several leading influences in the country today including movies, the Internet, the media and music. But, she pointed out, as did Barna, the missing influence is the Christian church.

“It’s not even among the top dozen leading influences of American life,” Duin said. “As Barna said, what would happen if Christian teenagers and college students were called, not into church leadership, but into one of these leading societies?”

Duin examined several of the current cultural issues of today, quoting leaders such as Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who believes the most important issue is family, and Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Freedom Forum at Vanderbilt University, who says the real culture war is in the schools.

“Writing on pop culture is more than just covering the fine arts, but also the social representations, the moral norms, attitudes and values that are reflected in the works of our minds and hands — stories that embody basic ideas, beliefs and habits of people,” Duin said.

Peggy Wehmeyer, who became the first correspondent to report for a major network on religious and spiritual issues, was the keynote speaker at the Excellence in Journalism banquet held at Belmont University Oct. 12. Wehmeyer spoke of her journey of more than 20 years in broadcast journalism, including covering religion for “World News Tonight” with Peter Jennings and “20/20.”

More than 100 awards were presented to students who competed in the Baptist Press Excellence in Journalism Contest, which tallied 667 entries from 21 colleges and universities.

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