All in a day's vocation

LutherVocation 01The other day I wrote about mainstream media coverage of a religion story involving my church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. I wrote about the cancellation of the LCMS' only nationally-syndicated radio program ("Issues, Etc.") and sudden firing of its host and producer in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal last month. I also attended a worship service in St. Louis to pray for the men who were fired, ate some bratwurst at the fundraising dinner following the service and took part in a demonstration the next day at church headquarters. In the comments to the previous post, Michael asked some excellent questions:

I'm curious about how you now see your role in this whole issue. Do you think the story has gotten more attention because of your ability to access the media? Is there a concern about opinion journalists becoming activists--to the point of organizing protests--and have you wondered about possible ethical concerns? When a media critic starts calling reporters to help push a story where the critic is also an activist, is there a conflict?

I know that we don't always see eye-to-eye, but I ask these questions out of curiosity and interest, not to play gotcha. I don't really know if there is a larger question of ethics involved, but I'm betting you've thought about it.

Writing about a topic so near and dear to my heart has been challenging. The other pieces of information that come into play are that I was a huge fan of the show "Issues, Etc." and that I used to serve on the LCMS board that oversees the synod's radio station and programs.

Because of all this personal involvement, I've generally just taken the approach of full disclosure. When I wrote the op-ed, I disclosed that I used to serve on the board. When I talked to reporters about the story, I tell them I'm personally involved. And when I reviewed the article Tim Townsend wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I explained to readers here that I was not an impartial observer.

As to Michael's other questions, I'm convinced that the main reason the LCMS leadership has even responded to the story is because of my efforts to bring publicity. But, in my view, that is a huge mark against the leadership of the LCMS, more than anything. By the time I wrote the first published article on the matter, over 5,000 normally reticent Lutherans and other fans of the show had denounced the cancellation, blogs had sprung up all over the place, thousands of letters had been sent with no response received, etc. The regular listeners and LCMS laymen were able to be ignored in a way that the Journal could not be.

Anyway, I did not organize the demonstration or the prayer service (laypeople in St. Louis did) but I think that opinion journalism is activism. So I don't think there should be any concern about opinion journalists using their vocation to advance the cause. That's kind of the whole point. I will say, though, that there is a reason why 99 percent of my published work is just straightforward reporting. There's something nice about just being able to be a detached observer who simply reports the facts without advocating for a certain outcome. I definitely prefer that as a journalist, although it's also fun to challenge yourself by writing opinion pieces. And being a media critic is all about opinion, to be sure.

One of my favorite teachings in Lutheranism is our doctrine of vocation. We don't believe that, say, pastors or professional church workers are holier than laypeople. We believe that all people serve God by serving their fellow man. So my vocations include wife, mother, congregant, journalist, friend, etc. And in each vocation, I serve different people. Even within a given vocation, there might be different roles. So, for instance, when I'm writing a mainstream journalism story, my job is not to advocate for a particular position. But when I'm writing an op-ed, that is my job. This doctrine has really helped me as a journalist. Sometimes I may have to write a story where I fundamentally disagree with one of the parties I'm covering. But I remember that my job is not to advocate for a particular position but, rather, to report the facts fairly for the reader.

The most difficult position I've ever found myself in, in fact, was when I served on the Board for Communication Services for my church body. There were many stories that I as a journalist/opinion journalist would have loved to write. But during the time that I had that job, it would have been inappropriate, I believe, to give press -- good, bad or otherwise -- to the church while I served on its communications board. So I took a hiatus from writing articles, opinion or otherwise, about the LCMS during that time.

I keep thinking that this understanding of vocation would help more reporters understand their proper role when writing mainstream news stories. Maybe I will pitch this story idea to one of the journalism trade publications.

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