The Profile (a concise biographical piece) now fills a journalistic category that ranks somewhere between gossip and in-depth reporting on a celebrity (whether living or dead). If not a celebrity, at least a good story for someone the public should know but doesn’t. It is often a blending of anecdote, event, personal interview and description. In the modern era no one did it better than Harold Ross (1892-1951), the founding editor of The New Yorker.
David Remnick, the current editor of the magazine, writes that “Ross was a man of enormous social energy and mischief, and he was not reluctant to use pieces in The New Yorker as a means of settling feuds and even starting them.” In 1936 after a New Yorker profile publicly excoriated fellow publisher of Life Magazine Henry Luce, Ross responded to Luce’s accusation of maliciousness with “you’ve put your finger on it, Luce. I believe in malice.”
The Apostle Paul, however, does not (Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8; Titus 3:3). He constantly admonishes the church of Jesus Christ to fight malicious tendencies that seem to creep into the life of the Body so very easily. Redeemed though they may be, there is no shortage of controversy among believers who are, in the classic theological sense, simul justus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinner). Christian journalism does little to help stem the tide. For what news agency doesn’t desire to rid the world of one more charlatan or corrupt preacher intent only on fleecing the flock of God? The profile is often just the tool to do it.
Yet the ethic of Christian journalism must rise above merely the “gotcha” and cynical. The underlying theme in such pieces should lead the writer and reader to look to themselves with sobriety (I. Cor. 10:12). How this is accomplished by a free press that stands or falls on the integrity of reporting and the accurate recounting of issues and incidents is constantly debated. Modern journalism is dominated by slanted versions written by partisans intent only on advancing their cause despite the facts. News outlets that pride themselves on balanced reporting often have their own perspective, reminding all that complete objectivity in reporting is difficult to achieve.
In the Southern Baptist Convention, many believe that fair and balanced reporting has all but disappeared. The Convention’s news wire remains under the auspices of the SBC Executive Committee. Some state papers have been brought under the direct control of the state conventions they serve prompting the criticism that the papers are now nothing more than the public relations arm of their respective state conventions. Some openly state that the accountability that legitimate journalism brings is now impossible to achieve because no Convention agency or entity wants to publish information that could tarnish their public image.
How to maintain legitimate and respectable news organs throughout the SBC seems to be the question of the hour. Competing visions for the future of the Convention can all too easily occupy an editor’s chair, creating the impression that even the desire to report the news of someone or something without commentary can no longer be done. It now seems that a malicious tone has entered the realm of religious journalism to such a degree that a person can be profiled in a manner that highlights certain sins or character faults absent context and direct reporting required by secular journalistic outlets.
There is a fine line between reporting and editorializing and there are few who have truly mastered the art. Nevertheless, the science of journalism demands accuracy and an objectivity that rises above that of a secular political campaign strategist who knows just the moment to release information to create confusion and distraction from the real issue at hand. In hardball politics, such conduct is expected. For those associated with the church, it is forbidden. Above all, the church (including its journalists) must strive for truth. Mistakes will always be made as sinners still write the copy. When this occurs (as it most surely will) truth must remain the goal even when the news is less than laudatory.
Unlike Harold Ross, who believed in malice, Christian journalists should believe in the Gospel and strive to report with a worldview tested by Holy Scripture and steeled with the knowledge that almost everyone looks good from a distance. A close encounter will always yield a less than perfect picture. The difference for the Christian journalist and the secular journalist should not be in their research or writing skill. Rather, the Christian should desire to report the news, not create it. Absent this goal, Christian journalism will be a reflection of what Ross loved, but Jesus hates.