It is the habit of a particular subset of Christians to say that “real” Christians could never be journalists. Most people who think this way understand very little about either Christianity or journalism.
The most recent case involves the president of a small, Christian college in Georgia who had falsified his academic credentials. He was exposed by the editor of the student newspaper, Joel Elliott, who also was working full-time for a nearby secular community newspaper to pay for his schooling.
When the journalist confronted the president, the president called the nonexistent master’s degree on his resume a mistake made by the secretary who had typed it and claimed that his lack of a master’s degree was “common knowledge.” Except that it wasn’t known by the chairman of the school’s trustees, who said the lack of a master’s would have immediately disqualified the president from consideration for the job.
The article ran. Soon afterward, the faculty, meeting in secret, recorded a vote of “no confidence” in the president, and he resigned.
The school’s academic dean and official spokesman, David G. Reese, was not pleased.
Dr. Reese, for example, says that Mr. Elliott found himself at a fork in the road between the Christian way and the way of a newspaperman, and chose newspaperman. “The prescription that Jesus gives us in the Gospel of Matthew if we find someone overtaken in a sin, or who has wronged us, is to go to them, privately, and if they recognize it and show a readiness to make it right, you’ve accomplished your mission,” Dr. Reese said. “Joel’s view was that it would all be swept under the rug. That is a choice he had to make.”
He added: “As a Christian, I feel it could have been better handled.”
As a Christian, I think Reese is full of it.
The president misrepresented his academic credentials. When confronted, he did not “recognize [his sin] and show a readiness to make it right,” as Reese put it. Instead, he lied about it. As a journalist, Elliott had a duty to behave in a Christian way toward the president, but he also had a duty to behave in a Christian way toward the larger college community he served as a journalist. That duty clearly trumped the harm done to the president — no, wait; the harm the president brought upon himself by his repeated lies. And the president has suffered the consequences.
I wish Elliott a long and productive career in journalism, if that is his wish. I wish him good luck and Godspeed as he examines and re-examines his own faith, seeking a faith community in which he feels comfortable. I wish the college, which has been struggling with declining enrollment, good luck as it seeks to rebuild its good name, and I think one excellent place to start would be with a faculty vote of “no confidence” in Reese: I would not want to work for an academic dean who is willing to sweep such things under the rug.
And I would encourage any Christian who is even slightly interested in journalism to c’mon in. I think you’ll find that what is so often described as not doing one’s Christian duty toward the subject of a story is, instead, doing one’s Christian duty on behalf of a larger community affected by the subject.
Indeed, as I said in a column I wrote as the N&R’s religion writer several years ago, “journalism, far from being antithetical to Christian belief, already is a professional home to many Christians whose work strengthens and enriches the craft. … And, as does society generally, journalism needs even more people whose faith, Christian or otherwise, calls them to be ethical, compassionate, courageous seekers of truth.”