Christian Journalism

Lessons I Learned Writing “Wheaton’s Gay, Celibate Christian” Part 2: The State of Christian Journalism


PART TWO OF A TWO-PART SERIES:

A couple of days ago, I shared some of my thoughts on how Christians are thinking through the gay issue in the aftermath of my WORLD article. I’m continuing to mull over those thoughts and others as more Christian leaders weigh in on this discussion. I especially appreciated Owen Strachan’s article on the topic.  There’s much more to say about the gay, celibate Christian movement and I’m sure I and many others will continue to write more about it in the coming weeks.  However, today I’d like to discuss Christian journalism.

We rarely reflect on the state of journalism in the Christian community. But, truthful reporting plays a crucial role in the body of Christ. It can expose error, both in practice and doctrine and contribute to the overall health of the body. As Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend…” Good journalism also can spur healthy dialogue. As I said, I appreciated Strachan’s recent article. But, I’ve also appreciate other articles — even those that challenge my perspective. I think as long as we engage respectfully, thoughtfully and graciously, we’ll sharpen one another. Unfortunately, that’s not what always happens. Below are some observations based on my experience the past two weeks:

1. Writing Truthful and Fair, Yet Hard-Hitting Pieces Will Cost You.

I’ve known this for some time, but was again reminded of it this week. No matter how hard you try to be fair and to tell both sides, reporting the truth will always make someone mad and some will retaliate. This week, I’ve been called “cold-blooded,” and accused of “defending homophobia,” “maligning” Julie Rodgers, and “disowning my alma mater.”

In a way, that’s an occupational hazard. Over the years, I’ve learned that every time I publish a critical piece, it sparks strong reaction from supporters of the people or organizations addressed in the piece. I’ve also learned that whenever I write about gay issues, it sparks strong reaction from those who identify as LGBTQ. Normally, this backlash comes from non-Christians. But, what I learned this time is that Christians who identify as LGBTQ can be equally acerbic. I wish it was different in the Christian community and that we could engage in these discussions without resorting to name-calling and baseless accusations. But unfortunately, that’s the state of our culture both inside and outside the church.

One notable exception, though, are the folks who blog at Spiritual Friendship.  This is the blog edited by prominent gay, celibate Christians Wesley Hill and Ron Belgau. Though the writers at Spiritual Friendship objected to aspects of my article, they were measured and reasoned in their responses, which I appreciated.

2. WORLD Magazine adheres to the highest journalistic standards.

For years, I have admired the journalistic work of WORLD Magazine, but this is the first time I’ve published a piece with them. In fact, when I first approached WORLD and cryptically described the story I was investigating, they said they likely would not trust someone who’s not on staff to write it. So, I worked independently and didn’t share the story with WORLD until it was ready to publish. I was honored when Editor-in-Chief Marvin Olasky decided to take my article.

However, my original piece had an anonymous source in it. I don’t like to use anonymous sources. But, I also wanted to include the voices of Wheaton graduates who had struggled with same-sex attraction when they were in college, but no longer did — at least not nearly to the same extent. Their perspective on how to minister to persons like themselves is insightful. Yet, none of these folks, who are now married and have children, wanted to expose their families to potential embarrassment or become targets in the culture war. They were willing to talk to me, but only on the condition that I keep their identities secret.

As much as I wanted to include these voices, I was impressed by WORLD’s high standards. As Olasky wrote in an e-mail, WORLD publishes anonymous sources only if revealing their identity would place their life or job in jeopardy.

My original piece also mentioned that Julie Rodgers did not respond to my requests for an interview. In response, Olasky wrote, “(H)ave you given Julie Rodgers a chance to react to the specific criticisms of her in the article? (If you just made a general inquiry, that’s not enough.)”

I’ve worked in the media, both secular and Christian, for over a decade and I have never been asked to meet that high of a standard. Even at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, arguably the best journalism school in the country, I never heard that standard communicated. A general inquiry was sufficient as far as I knew. But, I love this standard. If our goal is to truly represent people the very best we can, then it’s worth going the extra mile.

As it turned out, the college emailed me a personal statement by Rodgers before the story published, which I incorporated into my story. I also followed up with Rodgers, giving her specific questions, which addressed the criticisms in the article — and she responded by email.

3. The journalistic standards among bloggers can be inconsistent and often quite low.

As I previously noted, some bloggers adhere to decent journalistic standards, at least in their tone and means of argument. Unfortunately, many do not. For example, a blogger named Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu writes about me: “The author appears to have gone out and interviewed a few individuals under false pretenses,[1] then found enough random people to talk about a celibate person having a job nearby. As evidenced by her inclusion of the guy who works at a church a mile off campus, she wasn’t really concerned if these people went to Wheaton or were related to the issue at all as long as they were willing to parrot ‘pray the gay away’ talk couched in intentionally vague rhetoric around ‘healing,’ ‘faithfulness,’ and the ‘possibility’ of ‘change.’”[2]

For clarity, I’ve never talked to Ryan. He didn’t try to contact me to verify if any of these accusations were true. He didn’t name any of the people I allegedly interviewed “under false pretenses.” And, he didn’t cite any sources for this damning information; he just states it. This is journalism at its very worst.

Unfortunately, this is common on the internet — a forum that draws responses from people one might never meet face-to-face, and who likely have little journalistic training. But, what’s especially troubling is that author and blogger Rachel Held Evans, who should know better, tweeted a link of this article to her 57.3K Twitter followers.  Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 4.34.54 PM

Now, I understand Evans didn’t like my article. Given our very different theological and political convictions, she probably dislikes much of what I say and write. I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I’ve had Evans on my show and I actually enjoy engaging with people like her who have different views. But, I think as Christians we need to be a bit more responsible about what we publish. Rachel also tweeted the following the same day she published the earlier tweet.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 4.32.18 PM

Like Ryan, Rachel offers no substantiation, no link to an article that provides any evidence for her assertion. She just makes a blanket statement. That may energize one’s base of support (the tweet received 101 retweets and 153 favorites as of the time this post was published), but it does nothing to advance the conversation.

Today, because of the internet and social media, anyone can become a journalist. This can be a good thing for the Christian community, but only if we, as a community, adhere to high journalistic standards. Issues like homosexuality are far too important to treat irresponsibly. They require serious engagement and biblical hermeneutics, not 140-character digs and inflammatory rhetoric. So, I hope as we continue to engage on this and a whole host of other issues related to the Christian life, we can do so with integrity and rigorous adherence to standards of fairness and truth.

FOOTNOTES:

1. For the record, I didn’t interview anyone under false pretenses.  However, the one student quoted in my piece was upset with me after my article printed because it wasn’t what she had expected.  She said she would not have allowed me to use her quote had she known another student, who was part of the Refuge student group, had declined to interview with me.  But, she and I corresponded with her full knowledge of who I was and what I was doing.  I also told her “No one from Refuge ended up talking to me.”  As far as I know, no other sources cited in my piece have expressed any issues with my reporting process.

2. I assume the blogger is referring to my inclusion of Kevin Miller, associate rector of Church of the Resurrection, in my piece. Miller is hardly some “random” person with no connections to Wheaton College. Dozens of Wheaton students attend his church, as well as some Wheaton College faculty and administrators. Also, the rector of Church of the Resurrection is a Wheaton College graduate who recently spoke at Wheaton’s Homecoming Chapel.

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons I Learned Writing “Wheaton’s Gay, Celibate Christian” Part 2: The State of Christian Journalism

  1. I admire integrity in journalism or at least the conscious effort to be fair and truthful. This is obviously a volatile subject which makes reporting on stories like this a “no win” situation for any journalist who is aspiring to build a fan base.

  2. Julie: I appreciated reading your article in WORLD, as well as your two follow-up posts, like this one. I also enjoy your Up For Debate radio program that I listen to from time to time as a podcast.

    I recently listened to your podcast on “Is it Okay For Christians to Identify as Gay and Celibate.” While I agree that the language Christians use regarding sexual orientation can mean different things in different contexts, I do have two central concerns that I find alarming. In general, I find that the language of “gay celibate Christians” is an attempt, albeit subject to misunderstanding and inappropriate thinking at times, to wrestle with the problem of why sexual orientation does not appear to change among so many who wrestle with this area of life:

    1. There seems to be a subtle sense in your approach that sexual orientation can be or should be healed/changed in some way in this earthly life. But just like so many conditions of the fallen nature, such as disease, physical disabilities, etc. are not healed/changed in this life, we should not expect God to heal everyone in this life. No matter how much people want to experience change, we do a disservice to our fellow believers, if we fail to accept the “thorn in the flesh” idea of Wesley Hill’s with respect to many experiences of human sexuality. To suggest otherwise seems to me to smack of a “prosperity doctrine” type of thinking. Why you never fully addressed this is deeply troubling.

    2. We often forget that God is the one in the healing business. We can not achieve healing in and of ourselves. It is as though the whole struggle of same sex attraction within the church today is perhaps God’s way to remind us to avoid the Pelagian error of thinking that we can somehow will ourselves out of sin. No, as Saint Augustine argued, we stand in need of God’s intervention. If He does not intervene, we are nevertheless still called to cling to Him. I do not see that you are being very clear on this point.

    Rosaria Butterfield’s story is an incredible display of God’s transformation, but the problem with her narrative is that it leaves very little room for the person who feels like they “never chose this.”

    http://sharedveracity.net/2013/06/27/rosaria-butterfield-hospitality-and-the-unlikely-convert/

    Nevertheless, I am thankful that you are seeking to generate positive discussion about this among evangelical Christians. This is sorely needed today.

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