An issue of integrity

reporterFrom my previous post "Race and the Catholic Church" commenter Andy Chamberlain raised an issue that I want to put to rest on this blog. I know tmatt has dealt with this issue throughout his long career as a religion reporter, and it is important because it is critical for those in religion to GetJournalism, just as it is important for those in media to GetReligion. Here is what Chamberlain, who is a pastor in the United Kingdom, had to say in his first comment:

Maybe I'm being a cynic here, but media people are not there to be fair. The Post, like any other media outlet, doesn't want to present the truth, it wants to sell a story; the two are different. Like most other media outlets the Post will skew a story to emphasize some things and ignore others, and to give it as much shock factor as possible. The fact that people are hurt, or the issues are misrepresented is not something that many parts of the media care about.

My perception (and this is a data set of one, and there is nothing implied personally at anyone in the media) is that journalists will deliberately misrepresent the truth to sell their output, and for me that amounts to lying. I am guessing that many other people will feel the same way. In fact, my 'default setting' for media stories about religion is that the journalist is lying, and will have no qualms about damaging the people, misrepresenting the facts, and using the dreaded "quote marks" to rubbish someone or something, if it suits them.

NotebookPenI obviously cannot speak for all journalists, especially journalists outside of the modern journalistic tradition established in the United States, but I do know from growing up in a journalism-oriented family, four years of studying journalism in college and nearly two years as a professional that the primary goal of a journalist is to be fair and accurate.

Skewing, misrepresenting and lying are forbidden in the minds of most American journalists. Non-journalists must remember that we are human and we do make mistakes and misinterpret things, but very rarely is that ever intentional (think Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass).

There is another view of journalism that people on both sides of the religious divide take part in, and that is the practice of "directed reporting" or journalism for a cause. It was practiced a great deal in the United States until the 1920s and is still practiced in Europe on a large scale. This type of journalism can involve leaving out key facts, or embellishing others to make a point. We here at GetReligion do not believe there is a place for that type of journalism in the United States and would hope that most Americans would agree.

The argument that journalists are out there deliberately distorting the truth or omitting facts from the story to "heighten the shock value and sell copy" fails because integrity and the reader's trust are the only asset a news organization has. Without trust established by an honest effort for truth and fairness, a mainstream media organization will sink, fast.

A personal example involves an article about my home church here in Washington, Grace D.C., published by one of the local newspapers. The reporter, who knows the religion beat as well as anyone, described the congregation as "yuppie" and that was not appreciated by the pastor or many of the members. But the fact remains, and most attending the church would admit this, that the church does come off as "yuppie." So is this a case of a reporter deliberately misinterpreting the facts on the ground, or more of a case a new church in a large city sensitive to media coverage that it never asked for?

It is true that the public's trust in the media is down.That has more to do with ethical scandals at leading news organizations and the stupid mistakes reporters like myself unfortunately make from time to time, such as misspelling a name or getting a fact wrong, rather than intentional wrongdoing. And there's always disappointment when the media says the "king has no clothes on." People may not like it, but it's often the truth, as it was in my church's case.

The media can be a pastor's greatest asset. While there should be more Christians in the American media, how much is that the fault of the media organizations more than the fault of Christian colleges and churches?

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