Christians and the media: An interview with Mark Mellinger and Kate Shellnutt
When you say the word, "media" a lot of Christians might groan. There is a sense that the media is not always favorable to people of faith. But there are many media members who also happen to be followers of Christ. So how should a Christian think about the media? I asked two professionals their opinions: Mark Mellinger, a evening news anchor in Fort Wayne, Ind., a radio talk show host and a contributor to The Gospel Coalition and Kate Shellnutt, a veteran journalist who is now an editor for Christianity Today's Her.meneutics.
Seems the media is trusted by fewer people these days, including many Christians. What should our relationship to the media be?
MARK MELLINGER: The media is still really important and serves all of us in valuable ways. The news media's reporting is still the primary way we find out about those who want to serve us in government -what their policies will be and what they stand for – and hold accountable those who actually do serve us in government. So good reporting helps us all make better decisions at the voting booth.
The news media also helps us with more mundane matters in day-to-day life: letting us know if there is a major traffic accident to avoid, if school is delayed or canceled on a given day, and whether our electric and sewer bills are going up. This is all information that is important to have and helps us live in a more informed way as we plan our lives.
I understand why many people do not trust or are skeptical of the news media in general. It sometimes seems like the news media is only interested in covering conflict and generating controversy. And at some level, this is true. All good stories have some element of conflict, and at its heart reporting is often about telling good stories. The questions a discerning reader or viewer must ask when consuming media are: Is this reporter playing up the controversial aspect of a given story too much? What nuances of the story is he minimizing or perhaps leaving out? What good information and useful information am I getting out of this story? If the reporting seems imbalanced, where should I go next to find more information that will help flesh out the topic being covered?
So I'd say it is a good thing to approach media consumption with a somewhat skeptical eye and to demand better reporting in many cases, but also to remember that the news media – despite its faults – still does a good to decent job of giving us important information that helps us live our lives in a more informed way. We as Christians should have some appreciation for the news media rather than disdain for it, and we should give God thanks that we live in a country that allows journalistic freedom. I think it is also appropriate for us to thank him for giving us people in the journalism profession – and there are many of them – who sincerely want to be helpful, fair-minded public servants and work hard to be just that.
KATE SHELLNUTT: I bet this question was easier to answer when “the media” was a much narrower entity, but these days, it’s not just our daily paper and the 5 o’clock news—it’s tickers, Twitter, Facebook, texts, and more.
Given the barrage of content, we’re conditioned to consume it quickly—we look, we react, we move on. We’re commodifying culture, and we’re less inclined to look for the source, tradition, or context of a piece of information. This is risky, I think, for contemporary Christians. We miss out on the spiritual ramifications of cultural phenomena when we consume culture rather than engage it.
More and more, in a postmodern society, we see our media celebrate a plurality of voices and perspectives, reject absolute truths, and level hierarchy. Still, as Christians, we should take advantage of the variety of news sources available to us, both secular and Christian. The knowledge, understanding, and even emotional pull we get from the news can and does reflect back on the fallenness of our world, the goodness of God, and the truths we know form Scripture. We shouldn’t view our media consumption separate from our Christian lives or “the media” in opposition to them.
Should Christians care and even invest in good journalism? Why?
MELLINGER: I do think Christians should care about good journalism for all of the reasons I just mentioned above. We also need to be aware that we are living in a time when the notion of real religious liberty itself seems to be endangered in a way it has not been before in this country. Christians, of all people, should be following these stories: The Hobby Lobby case and freedom of conscience when it comes to the new healthcare law, whether new policies and regulations will allow clergy to flourish and do their jobs in a way that comports with their conscience as they serve the military, whether pastors will be allowed to maintain their housing exemptions for tax purposes, as well as same sex marriage and the ramifications it could have for churches in this country.
These are not just abstract issues. They have a concrete impact on real people and what happens on each of them down the road will determine whether certain people -and maybe all of us- will be able to honor God with our actions, or at least whether honoring God in accord with our consciences will be lawful or not. If the degree of difficulty for living out the life of a convictional Christian in this country is about to get higher, we need to be prayerfully prepared for that.
Some media sources are more focused on these issues than the mainstream media, and I would include in that category outlets like the Gospel Coalition, the ERLC, and World Magazine. I appreciate the depth of thought and gracious tone given to the coverage of these important issues by all of those media outlets and others, and I certainly think it is wise and helpful for individual Christians and families to support them financially if they sense God may be calling them to do so. These various entities are doing vital work in keeping us informed about these issues that affect how we live out the Christian life and by keeping them on the front burner. It's also helpful that these sources come at the topics from a Christian worldview. They are speaking our language and share our beliefs and concerns. That of course is not the case with the mainstream media, which generally approaches the issues of the day from a postmodern worldview guised under the cloak of objectivity. That isn't to say that the mainstream media does not report important things in true and helpful ways. It does. But Christians have even more of a motive to report the truth since we are supposed to be people of truth and since truth with a capital T undergirds our entire worldview. After all, if Jesus did not truly die for our sins and then rise again, and if God does not truly credit Christ's righteousness as mine as a consequence of that, very little about the way we Christians live our lives makes sense.
SHELLNUTT: Absolutely. (You are talking to a journalist here, after all.)
I believe Christianity shares essential core values with journalism. As purveyors of the truth, we should support and seek out those who proclaim truth. Of course, our truth is first and foremost capital-T Truth—the gospel message—but we also learn from the world around us, where “all truth is God’s truth.” In their watchdog function, journalists are the ones to find and expose the truth about institutions, businesses, and government.
They have the right to do so thanks to the U.S. Constitution. In our country, the first amendment brings together freedom of speech and freedom of the press with freedom of religion. Christians can find common ground with journalists in their willingness to defend and uphold these liberties. As a Christian journalist, I’ve always felt doubly fond of the first amendment—which protects both what I believe and what I do.
If you could counsel a young Christian aspiring to journalism, what advice would you give him or her?
MELLINGER: My advice to an aspiring young journalist would be to think about what types of reporting you want to do and what types of media outlets you would like to work for. I believe any honest, lawful work that is done well is honoring to God and is an important part of our witness.
So a young journalist has to think through what he or she wants to cover: Sports? Politics? Religion? All of the above in differing doses? Something else? I think it's generally good to specialize in a topic or two that you are passionate about. Work will just be more enjoyable that way. And joy in work is a tremendous gift from God and a legitimate way of enjoying him.
After a young journalist has thought through that, he or she needs to think about what type of organization to work for: A newspaper? TV station? Website? Intentionally "Christian" media? Secular? Nonprofit? One is not inherently better than the others. We need Christians working in all of these types of media environments, laboring to evangelize, disciple, and glorify God through our spoken or printed words and our conduct in general. It's all about thinking through what you are most gifted at and passionate about. If politics confuse or bore you and you get nervous in front of a camera, you obviously shouldn't harbor the ambition to become a TV political reporter. You have to think through common sense diagnostic questions like that.
Finally, once you think you have decided which direction you would like to take, get educated about it. See if people whom you admire in the field would spend time mentoring you. Look for opportunities like internships that will get you a foot in the door. Do your research and find out whether you could make a salary that would support a family for decades if you plan on being the breadwinner. And needless to say, this entire process should be bathed in prayer and hopefully thoughtful counsel from wise believers who have proven themselves trustworthy in your life.
SHELLNUTT: As Christians, we honor God and reflect his nature when we do our jobs well, with a sense of purpose and willingness to get creative. Young journalists should keep that in mind. Be good at what you do—take initiative, know the latest technologies and formats, research thoroughly, ask follow-up questions, check your work, and read constantly.
While the stats on Christians in mainstream newsrooms (or even religious folks in general) can seem grim, don’t be afraid of being among the “lone” Christians in journalism. Even when I covered religion for a secular publication, church-going copy editors or photographers would stop by my desk to talk about their faith. Don’t let people tell you it’s a godless profession.
The scare headlines you read about the instability of the journalism industry? You can believe those. I’m a young journalist, and I’ve already seen things change a lot as companies struggle to make money and keep staff as audiences shift to digital. Be patient and keep an open mind while job-hunting. As with all things, let God guide you, through what may become a nontraditional career in an evolving industry.
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