Can a believer be a first-class journalist? Don’t reporters have to get their hands dirty chasing the news?
CCCU journalism professors will answer some variation of these questions March 10-12 when more than 1,500 students from across the nation converge on Times Square to study the craft of news gathering and reporting.
Since 1954, College Media Association has worked with student media to improve their media operations. It will host the spring conference in New York City. Associate executive conference director Lori Brooks wants to promote the work of CCCU professors and others from Christian universities in what is commonly called the faith track.
"CMA works to further the cause of collegiate journalists and their advisers from all types of institutions,” said Brooks. “Ensuring we have sessions to train and educate those from religious schools and backgrounds, as well as those more secular, is an important part of our programming."
According to Brooks, CMA’s conference supports the goals of advisers such as Dr. Michael A. Longinow of Biola University who says, “Students at faith-based schools are sharp, driven and, with some prompting, bring home awards hardware regularly. The advisers of these schools are like advisers at state schools, but they also want to talk about their very real faith in God — and how it integrates into what they do and how they do it; it's part of their professional DNA.”
This March CCCU journalism professors including Washington Journalism Center’s Terry Mattingly, Baylor University, Lee University, Bethel University and others will be showcased at the national event.
Mattingly noted that economics and professionalism influence whether CCCU faculty can take advantage of national conferences of this kind.
“Low budgets,” Mattingly noted as a key issue with many member schools who don’t attend the CMA conventions. Another problem, he said, is that many CCCU members don’t have journalism professors with mainstream experience, advisers who seek out these kinds of real journalism venues for learning.
Veteran journalist Michael Ray Smith, professor at Campbell University and adviser of The Campbell Times, worked with Longinow to contribute about 20 sessions to the more than 320 sessions that will be unveiled mid-March. Among the coup, Smith recruited newsman Russell Pulliam, editor at The Indianapolis Star and director of the Pulliam Fellowship, to present one of the plenary sessions at CMA. Pulliam is well-known for his work as a freelance journalism for Christian periodicals and his commitment to excellence in journalism.
Journalist and CEO of The Media Project Arne Fjeldstad likes to quote Martin Luther, who said, “The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”
For Dr. Donna Downs of Taylor University, Christians bring value-added to their craft.
“As Christian journalists vs. journalists in Christian media, students need to understand one of the key components that will set them apart is how they handle interviews and reporting in delicate situations,” she said. “While writing an unbiased story, student journalists can still do their reporting in a Christ-like fashion that ministers to those who are grieving or going through difficult times.”
Downs will present a session Monday, March 11, on Covering Death on a Christian Campus. “I hope to help students understand what this process might look like and how they can be the hands and feet of Jesus in difficult or dire circumstances,” she said.
Phyllis Alsdurf of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., noted that CCCU schools are not exempt from facing issues of great difficulty.
“Rarely does a semester go by without an unexpected death, a serious car accident, a major illness or an embarrassing situation involving someone within the college community,” said Alsdurf, adviser of the student newspaper, The Clarion. “As painful as these situations are, they also are an important learning lab for student journalists as they learn how to tell the community's narrative with clarity, sensitivity and accuracy. Unfortunately, being a campus "truth-teller" can sometimes put students at odds with administrators who see their task as controlling the message."
Blending faith and teaching students to do more than assuming a pose of neutrality is a daunting task. Some CCCU professors follow syndicated columnist Cal Thomas’s mantra: Work hard, write well, be accurate and don’t preach, adding the time to offer a testimony will come. Others assume the advocacy model and insist students include a biblical worldview in their prose.
Nonetheless, for 20-year veteran CMA adviser and journalism professor Wallis C. Metts, the life of a reporter offers a rich canvas on which to paint the journey of life. Metts is director of graduate studies in communication at Spring Arbor University.
“If Christians are going to be involved in the marketplace of ideas, journalism offers the perfect platform for exploring and explaining where redemption is necessary and where hope is revealed,” Metts said. “We are often unwilling to do this because the audience is skeptical and the issues are complex.”
Among the CMA workshops Metts will present include one on writing as vocation, where, he said, “Christian journalists need to see their work as a calling—one that places their giftedness at the service of the truth. The truth, as Jesus said, will set us free.”
Smith and Metts recently produced a free iPad-only book for Christian writers called “A One-Step Guide to a Byline” with the hope that Christian journalists will profit from the insights of successful writers featured in the eight video interviews and other enhanced content to inspire writers to do high-quality journalism. The book urges Christian journalists to seek excellence and not be shy about identifying the tension that is at the heart of hard news.
Metts went on to urge the Christian subculture along with CCCU members to harness the energy of the next generation of Christian students to storm the field of the popular press.
“Christian universities should elevate the craft of telling stories well in order to help transform a broken profession and speak to a broken world,” he said.
Longinow echoed that idea, saying, "Too many Christians avoid careers in mainstream journalism because they fear they'll be asked to compromise their faith," Longinow said. "They also believe that negative influences will shadow their ability to report news or tell stories that uphold a biblical world-view. The irony is that those same believers will pursue careers in business where the pressures are similar."
Executive director of Advisers of Christian Collegiate Media, Longinow works to advance Christians in journalism from CCCU members and others. ACCM helps with navigating it.
Alsdurf says CCCU members can profit from practical insight gained at the convention.
"It's not often that you get a chance to spend days in the company of several hundred other college students as interested in journalism as you are,” she said. “Attending the CMA convention gives you a chance to hear inspiring keynote speakers, get in-depth training through early bird sessions, make valuable contacts for internships and attend an amazing array of workshops--many of which are designed just for student journalists from church-related colleges.”
The on-site student newspaper critiques are a bonus, she added.
The Christian subculture tends to keep an eye on media for its pathological tendencies. The mid-March CMA conference is a chance for CCCU institutions to plant the cross in the newsroom as the best approach for the next generation of journalists and the church.
To overcome the tide of mediocrity, Mattingly says, the church must see the struggle as one that is worth the investment. For now, he says, some Christians are more comfortable with a Christian niche culture with its own media. “Choosing to stay in the niche feels safer, professionally and spiritually,” he said.
Alsdurf likes to remind CCCU journalism professors that excellence among believers is possible and points to Audrey Martin at Trinity Western University, whose students have won awards from Associated Collegiate Press/College Media Association.
Smith said CCCU advisers should seek him out in Manhattan for the conference and he will arrange meetings with kindred spirits. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.