I wrote this letter to an old teacher of mine after he asked me to come in and talk to his high school journalism class. I came in, gave the talk, left, and then realized I hadn’t said anything I’d really felt would be important to say to Christian private school kids embarking on a career in journalism. The following is what I sent him:
I am only a lowly undergraduate working at a lowly university paper, yet I’ve spent the last two years on a steep learning curve towards integration into the secular world. During that time, I’ve developed three main lessons a young person should be ready to learn when they leave the embrace of Christian education and move into the world of university journalism:
1. Your journey, both in faith and in your profession, is going to be DIFFICULT.
Journalism is about working with extremely intelligent, extremely driven, and extremely opinionated people through a long and complicated dance of assignments and deadlines towards the single ephemeral goal of producing 20 (or so) pages of perfection. The field is largely dominated by progressive liberals, many of whom have been hurt, shamed, or otherwise mistreated by conservatives, Christians and the faceless majority, and feel empowered by their writing. They are by and large wonderful, interesting people, but they will also dislike almost everything you stand for. They will have facts you’ve never heard of, arguments you’ve never considered, and absolute confidence in their own position. You will have to decide if the foundations of your own faith can stand up to those facts, arguments, and confidence; you will have to decide if your faith is worth the trouble.
I’ve been told that journalism is a field in which it’s impossible not to make enemies. While I don’t think this is exactly true, writing articles is definitely a balance between relational integrity and professional responsibility. When a story passes across your desk that accuses a number of your friends over at the Student Union of misallocating hundreds of thousands of dollars, you have to decide how far you pursue the story (especially if it begins to look like an accurate lead). Ultimately, I’ve been told that reputation and integrity is everything in opinion writing and news reporting, and you will have to decide how your faith, your work, and your own honour can be reconciled.
2. Thou Shalt Not JUDGE
You are not going to survive in journalism if you mentally condemn a coworker every time they swear, tell a graphically sexual joke, or defend their friend’s abortion. Condemnation is a defensive action that we, as Christians, tend to employ when we feel threatened. It can make us feel superior, and a superiority complex is something that you cannot afford if you want to have a meaningful, positive impact at a newspaper.
I wrote a thought-piece last year on the supremacy of an “ethics” culture in Christian circles, as opposed to the “success” culture present in the press circles I ran in. Success covers a multitude of sins in journalism, and writers are actually encouraged to live a double-life in which their “professionality” only lasts to the end of the workday. At a conference last January I attended a keynote speech from an Esquire writer named Chris Jones, who proudly told a story about how he’d revenged himself on a man who’d slighted him in university, by graphically refusing to write an article about the individual for a magazine. His audience reacted to the (admittedly hilarious) account with applause and cheering, while my religious training wondered why he’d be proud about holding a grudge for fourteen years against a man who had probably greatly changed during that time. Ethics in journalism is simply used in terms of “professional ethics,” success is the great indicator of worth, accomplishment, and honour. Those who are successful are allowed to dictate their own ethical standards.
It would be easy to judge Jones, but the simple truth is that I learned a lot from Jones, and I admire the man for his skill and accomplishment. People who buy into a “success” culture tend to work terribly hard and be far more driven than many of their Christian counterparts. We can learn a lot from these people, even as we gently try to model another path.
It’s difficult to sympathize with someone and condemn them at the same time. Choose your battles, but don’t start a war simply because you can. It’s a struggle to be a Christian in the world of journalism, but it’s a struggle that is only possible if one respects and gains the respect of one’s coworkers. Remember that an “ethics” culture is just as naive and ignorant to them as a “success” culture is shallow and hypocritical to you.
3. From now on, your world is going to be deeply and profoundly UNFAIR.
There are going to be days when you are the target of incredibly bigoted statements from people who consider themselves to be incredibly open-minded. There are going to be people who will label you, who will judge you, who will exclude you, simply for being Christian. There are going to be days when you will go home and scream into your pillow; Jesus never said it was going to be easy.
There will be nights when you will be the sober babysitter escorting your singing, drunken co-workers home at 2 in the morning, and trying to fend off the lecherous Quebec writers before they can escape with your culture editor. There will be times when you almost get arrested by the police after your editor tries to drunkenly fight the hotel bell-hop. There will be days when you sleep on the floor because your coworker has puked in your bed, and there will be days when you’re forced to hitch-hike home with writers from other papers because your ride is still too drunk to drive at noon the day after.
Of course, these will all be people who would have been deeply offended if you told them they weren’t allowed to drink during a work conference. “We’re adults,” they would have said, “our lives and our choices won’t affect you.”
There will be days when you simply have to laugh and forgive, and hope that the slights that you have given will also be forgiven.
So, if you want to be a Christian and a journalist, throw any expectation of fairness, of justice, of rationality out the window. It’s gonna be a wild ride, folks, and you are going to have to rise above the expectation of what a reasonable, average person should expect to endure or accept.
Jesus was not ‘a reasonable person’, Jesus was not ‘average’, Jesus did not advocate keeping a ‘record of wrongs’.
Welcome to journalism.