Truth Be Told

by Randy Petersen

We have a truth crisis in our world today. I’m not the first person to notice that and I won’t be the last. Pontius Pilate’s question is ever before us, “What is truth?”

For Christian writers, it may come as a surprise that the most important discipline of our time is not theology or communication, or even political science, but epistemology—how people come to believe what they believe. This is the conflict playing out every day on social media and at family dinner tables. Perhaps we could manage honest disagreements, but this is trench warfare. Both sides are dug in.

More than ever, journalists, writers, and editors have important roles to play in hunting for and laying out the truth. We need diligence to research it, wisdom to grasp it, skill to explain it, and courage to publish it. Temptations abound. Let me suggest several notable ones that afflict not only front-line journalists, but also those who process and present their findings.

The Scoop

Old news is no news. You want to beat the competition to the story, so you might run with a partial set of facts before the full truth of a matter has surfaced. You grab quotes from someone with less expertise because the real experts need more time to study the issue. Your analysis consists of snap judgments that ignore key complexities. You dumb down the story, but you get it out there first.

The Splash

“If it bleeds, it leads,” news editors used to say. So you’re tempted to tweak the facts to make a story more sensational. You amp up a story with far-fetched questions and sly innuendo. No outright lies, but the presentation splashes suspicion all over your subject. You succeed in attracting attention to a non-story, but at what cost?

The Spin

Nowadays every story has a spin. A ball game, a good deed, a store opening, a church picnic. You might think such stories are immune, but there is probably someone spinning each of those events right or left. (Why no potato salad this year? A protest against Idaho politics?) You will be tempted (and perhaps required) to spin your story in a way your audience will accept, confirming “truth” they already believe. But is it really the truth?

Ask the Journalists

An excellent article in last winter’s Wheaton magazine quoted several journalists connected with Wheaton College. “I came to the conclusion that the job of the journalist was to pursue truth,” said UPI veteran Wes Pippert. That might seem obvious to anyone who has studied journalism, but as we’ve seen, nowadays it’s not a sure thing.

When every cell phone is essentially a printing press, people have immense publishing power, even if they aren’t “prepared for the difficulties of sorting fact from fiction and understanding a range of ideological perspectives,” according to the Wheaton article’s author, Bethany Peterson.

Jeremy Weber of Christianity Today describes some of the journalistic temptations I’ve noted. “If that’s what gets eyeballs and shares, then you want to lean toward, of the possible framings, the more aggressive one, or of the possible headlines, the more hyperbolic one.” By contrast, he affirms the importance of “your commitment to truth and love of neighbor.”

In a time when the profession of journalism is often maligned, it’s refreshing to see Christians affirming their calling. “I try to tell the truth,” says Ruth Graham, a religion correspondent for The New York Times, “but also in a way that lets readers make up their own minds.”

For Sarah Pulliam Bailey, religion reporter for The Washington Post, it comes down to the Golden Rule—but that doesn’t mean refusing to say anything negative about anyone. “I want the truth,” she says. “I want someone to write a piece about the good, the bad, and the ugly about how we’re living life.”

All Truth

A philosophy professor of mine became known for the phrase “All truth is God’s truth.” As he saw it, we needn’t fear any academic pursuit, if we are indeed pursuing the truth. The same goes for the pursuit of truth in journalism. May we doggedly develop not only our nose for news, but also our nose for nonsense. Let’s sniff out unfounded claims, overspun stories, and illogical conclusions in our relentless passion for the truth.

Fear of the Blank Page

The mind has plenty of ways of preventing you from writing, and paralysing self-consciousness is a good one. The only thing to do is ignore it, and remember what Vincent van Gogh said in one of his letters about the painter’s fear of the blank canvas—the canvas, he said, is far more afraid of the painter.

— Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling

The Assembling of Introverted Writers

by Jeff Friend

If I told you that I’m an introvert, you might assume I avoid groups whenever possible. You would be correct. But I’ve learned the cold fact that there are times—whether at social occasions, business functions, or other types of situations—I have to engage in actual face-to-face conversations with strangers. I’m breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it.

There is one exception to this phobia. I feel completely comfortable interacting with groups of writers.

Writing is a solitary function. Just me sitting at my desk pecking at a keyboard. Even my wife hesitates to enter my lair when I’m at work. To use a biblical phrase, we writers are a peculiar people.

But in a writer’s group, I am talking with people who actually understand the struggles, doubts, questions, and obstacles I face. Sure, my wife calmly listens when I rant about a writing challenge I’m having, but since she hasn’t personally experienced the travails of writing, she can only nod with empathy and give me a few encouraging words.  Alas, I trudge back to my desk and reenter my cocoon.

From a professional perspective, a writer’s group gives me the creativity, encouragement, and knowledge necessary for me to grow and succeed in my craft. I’ve discovered that a writer’s group is also vital for the camaraderie (and sanity) that can only be found among people who are traveling the same road you are.  We can share and celebrate our successes, comfort each other when our paths get bumpy, exchange tips and information, discuss markets and many other topics, and give a heartfelt “I know how you feel” to pick us up.

In-person meetings are probably the most beneficial (did I just say that?), but virtual meetings have opened up greater opportunities. Now, instead of meeting with only a few local writers, we can talk with people around the world and learn about other regions, cultures, and better ways to communicate with audiences in ways we could only imagine before.    

Aside from the professional aspects of a writer’s group, the personal benefits are equally valuable. As an introvert, the interaction helps me to reach outside of my comfort zone and become more sociable, and boost my spiritual life as well. The Bible tells us to “forsake not the assembling of yourselves.” I think that applies to assembling as writers as well as coming together with other believers at church or special events.

Do I still get the heebie-jeebies when I’m getting ready for a meeting? Absolutely, whether virtual or in-person. But it’s getting better. I know that God gifted me to be a writer, and I need to develop and use that gift to the best of my abilities. Being with other writers is part of the “iron sharpens iron” process, so even if it makes me uncomfortable, I’ll just take a deep breath and move forward to fulfill my calling.

As a freelance writer for over 30 years, Jeff Friend has published hundreds of articles in dozens of print and digital publications. He is an EPA Higher Goals recipient and the author of the book Staying Focused When Life Gets Blurry. Jeff has co-authored or edited several other books, and he was a staff writer and editor for a daily newspaper.