Journalism Notes: Elephants, donkeys and media scapegoats

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ESN is delighted to welcome Jeff Neely as our new regular journalism columnist. Jeff, a journalism professor at The University of Tampa, will explore issues in his field about twice a month at the ESN blog under the title Journalism Notes. Read his Scholar’s Call piece “Every Christian is a Journalist” here. Note: If you’d like to write regularly on a particular discipline for ESN, email us here

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come in to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. – John 19-21 (NIV)

In case you missed it, it’s election season. Candidates are stumping, campaign managers are spinning, and the talking heads can’t stop talking.

It’s also a convenient time for the general public to complain about how biased and sensationalized the news media is (as if “media” were a monolithic singular noun).

Prospective voters across the political spectrum are wont to accuse news outlets of either having a “love fest” with a media darling or waging a smear campaign against their favorite candidate.

Too often, I think, this is a result of our own intellectual laziness. It’s convenient to roll out our partisan rhetoric and blame the media when we’re confronted with news that challenges our beliefs. It’s more difficult to deal dispassionately with this information, assessing it objectively for thoroughness and accuracy.

Are journalists and news executives guilty of boiling down nuanced stories into overly simplified narratives? Yes, some of them. Maybe many of them, and maybe more frequently than not.

But in my experience, there are also a lot of good journalists out there clocking in everyday to do their jobs and hold the powerful accountable.

Every year, the Society of Professional Journalists holds “Sunshine Week,” a time when its chapters around the country put a special focus on the importance of the public’s right to know and the freedom of information.

“It’s our duty as journalists,” the SPJ website reads, “and a key mission for SPJ, to shine light into the dark recesses of government secrecy.”

When I speak to professional journalists and colleagues who teach in the field, this isn’t just lip service. Most of them are genuinely passionate about this responsibility.

And when this ethos is put into practice, when journalists pursue truth above ratings or their corporate bottom line, and they take their post as our social watchdogs, I think Jesus smiles.

How many times in scripture do we see God telling us to “defend the weak” and “uphold the cause of the poor” (Psalm 82:3)? He is the God who loves justice and hates robbery and wrongdoing (Isaiah 61:8).

“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all the unfortunate,” the Proverbs tell us. “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy” (31:8-9).

We want our leaders to be vetted. We want corruption exposed. We want confidence that they are looking out for all constituents, not just those who pull the levers of power.

And I for one want someone to look into politicians’ record of public service or their claims of personal accomplishments. I want to walk into that voting booth with my eyes wide open, not my ears well tickled.

This may all sound a little idealistic, I know. Every one of us could point to examples where news professionals abandoned their journalistic integrity, either in isolated cases or as routine practice, for myriad base reasons.

So what are we saying, that journalism claims to have a virtuous calling but is in reality marred by the abuses and shortcomings of its human practitioners? Hmm . . . that sounds familiar.

Absolutely, we must watch the watchdogs. Certainly, we should expose journalists’ dereliction of duty. But we must also be careful not to paint with the same broad brush all who work in or aspire to what I sincerely believe is a noble profession. (Clearly, my own personal biases are on full display here.)

Jesus came into the world as light, “so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46). This is a spiritual truth, but I believe it applies in every aspect of our life.

Scientists are called to seek an understanding of the universe’s natural order. Lawyers, according the American Bar Association, are called to defend liberty and pursue justice.

Journalists are called to provide people with the information they need to make their own decisions—on whom to vote for, where to spend their money, which school to attend, or where to go for the best pork barbecue.

We do a disservice to ourselves when we casually cast off “the media” as disreputable. As news consumers we should be discerning, not dismissive.

Let’s get past the talking points. Let’s shine the light of truth and see things plainly as they are.

Image courtesy of bykst at

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Jeff Neely

Jeff Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Tampa, where he teaches courses in newswriting, feature writing, multimedia journalism and literary journalism. His research has examined the role narrative and literary journalism can play in broadening our understanding of various issues and experiences life brings our way, from identity formation to environmental ethics. He has also studied how youth journalism programs, where young people tell their own stories and those of their peers, can help strengthen local communities. He is currently working with local non-profit outreach organizations to build a youth journalism program called Tampa Youth Voice. Prior to entering academe, Jeff worked as a writer and editor for various publications in and around the Tampa Bay area, as well as a case manager and resource development specialist for the Florida foster care system.

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