Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the role of Christian journalism and its place at TGC. Click here to read part two.
“Why is TGC writing about [current events topic]? What does that have to do with the gospel?”
During the past five years I’ve worked at TGC I’ve encountered that question almost every week. The query comes most frequently on Facebook or in the comments section, though on rare occasions I’m asked directly. And for too many years, I would become frustrated when people asked.
I understood (sort of) why it might seem unusual for a gospel-oriented site to publish articles about such topics as nuclear weapons or National Hispanic Heritage Month. But could they really not see the connection between the gospel and Alzheimer’s disease or animal fighting?
If they couldn’t, I eventually realized, it was partially my own fault. Rather than dismissing their concerns I needed to take the question more seriously and attempt to provide a reasonable answer. While not everyone will agree with my attempt at a justification, I thought it would be worthwhile to write a two-article series that explains why TGC writes about current events, why we take the approach we do, and how it fits into the organization’s broader mission.
What Christian Journalists Do
Before we can understand the role of Christian journalists at TGC we need to first examine the role of Christian journalists.
Andy Crouch, a former executive editor at Christianity Today, recently provided the most helpful explanation of the calling of the Christian journalist I’ve ever encountered. Crouch says the role of the journalist is to “make complicated things clear, quickly, for people who could be doing something else, in the service of truth.”
Let’s unpack the key components in that intriguing definition.
First, Crouch points out how the calling of journalists differs from the roles of both scholars who “make clear things complicated”, i.e., by uncovering the complexity at the heart of physical and social reality, and teachers, who make complicated issues clear but often have more time and space to do so. The journalist, in contrast, attempts to take complicated issues and communicate them clearly and quickly using relatively few words and/or images. (A paradoxical and common complaint journalists receive is that our articles are too long and that they don’t address every nuance of a topic.)
Second, as Crouch observes, a journalist differs from advertisers—who also attempt to take complicated issues and communicate them quickly using relatively few words and/or images—because we work primarily in the service of truth, rather than in the service of another purpose, such as commerce. Journalists may have other concerns, but if presenting the truth is not their main priority, then they are failing in their role as journalists.
Third, we journalists perform our tasks for people who could be doing something else. This is an essential element of journalism, yet often overlooked—especially by journalists. I often tell people that if they had the time and interest, they could do my job. They assume I’m being self-deprecating, but I am merely pointing out what should be rather obvious. In my role as a journalist I combine some basic research and writing skills that the average, educated American already has and applying them in a way that saves other people from having to do the work themselves.
In this way, journalists are more akin to housekeepers or fast-food cooks than doctors or lawyers. Most people have the basic skills to clean their own home or cook their own lunch. But because of the principle of comparative advantage, a glorious example of God’s enthusiasm for diversity, we can often benefit from having someone else make us a burger, vacuum our carpet, or explain current events to us so that we can apply our time and attention to other tasks.
(This is not to say that journalists are unskilled, only that our skillset is not unique and often less important than our interest and dedication to performing types of work [such as research and writing] that many people would find dull and unappealing.)
The Type of Journalism at TGC
While Crouch’s definition is broadly applicable to the calling of every Christian journalist, the work performed by journalists tends to vary based on genre.
Some types of journalism are distinguished by the medium used (e.g., photojournalism, broadcast journalism), others by style (e.g., narrative journalism), and still others by type of research (e.g., first-person reporting, investigative journalism). While TGC might take advantage of any of those types, there are three main forms of journalism we use: opinion and advocacy journalism, reporting and narrative journalism, and explanatory journalism.
Opinion and advocacy journalism is the dominant type, and found on our site on a daily basis. You probably don’t think of it as journalism, however, because the work is produced by people who identify primarily as pastors, teachers, or parents rather than as journalists. These writers are performing all of the functions of the journalist (as previously discussed) but are providing a subjective appraisal or judgment in order to get you to think about an issue in a certain way. An excellent example is the recent article “What Christianity in China Is Really Like.”
The second main type we use is reporting-based narrative journalism. As Rachel Deahl explains, “An immersive style of storytelling, narrative journalism is used to captivate readers by drawing them into a story with greater detail than is found in traditional news stories.” Because it requires a literary flair and greater degree of storytelling than most people have mastered, this type tends to be rare even at outlets like TGC that have access to talented writers. The work of TGC’s senior writer Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra exemplifies this genre (see, for instance, “The Story Behind John Piper’s Most Famous Attack on the Prosperity Gospel”).
The last type is the one that I tend to use most often (and which draws the most criticism), explanatory journalism. This genre attempts to combine facts, background, and history (and in many cases, in a minimalistic way) to provide the reader with a broader context on a particular issue.
For current events, understanding context is essential because, as I’ve written in the past, it helps to prevent the news from making us dumb. As C. John Sommerville explained in his book Why the News Makes Us Dumb:
The product of the news business is change, not wisdom. Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context, whereas news is structured in a way that destroys the larger context. You have to do certain things to information if you want to sell it on a daily basis. You have to make each day's report seem important. And you do that by reducing the importance of its context.
Almost all news stories we encounter are devoid of context. They assume we understand the broader background and that we have followed the details from previous iterations of the story. But most of us tend to “catch up” on a news item only when we have to, when we realize that a particular current event item is not going away that we should probably develop a basic awareness and understanding of why it’s important.
My role as an explanatory journalist is to “make complicated things clear, quickly” by reinserting some of the missing context. Again, this doesn’t take any unique skill. I’m able to do this not because of my own specialized knowledge but merely because I have the time, willingness, and patience to dig through a backlog of material to put together a few key details that might be useful to a casual consumer of news.
While this explains what Christian journalists do, it doesn’t answer the question of why this role has a place at TGC. In my next article in this series, I’ll discuss how the functions of the gospel-oriented journalist differs from, say, a gospel-oriented pastor and how that role fits into the broader mission of The Gospel Coalition.