Most book authors do not work their way up through the ranks beginning with a college degree in journalism. Because of this, many have no exposure to the best practices of career writers and journalists.
Sure, book authors might be very creative, insightful and able to recite large sections of Strunk & White or the Chicago Manual of Style, but they are not as familiar with what makes for a good writing process behind the creativity, insight, and grammar.
Christian authors of non-fiction would be well served to spend some time learning about the code of conduct for journalists. It is actually an excellent way to challenge your thinking and be a better writer.
Most who study journalism start out with a set of professional standards, which should characterize their work. The Society of Professional Journalists publishes an ethics code for all members, which is a good summary of those standards. (Click here to view their Ethics Code)
Today, I’d like to focus on a few for Christian authors: truth, verification and objectivity.
When writing a work of non-fiction, every statement of fact should be treated with care, maybe more than you are accustomed. A little bell should ring in your head when you quote someone or name a source or state a fact, indicating you need to check one more time to see if the Scripture reference is correct or the date mentioned is accurate, or the statistic is verified to be true, checking multiple sources.
Your memory alone should never be your guide.
When I receive a proposal from an author who is a trained journalist or educator, it is filled with footnotes, attributed quotes, specific references, and detailed arguments. These writers are accustomed to defending what they write, almost in a manner similar to court testimony. No hearsay statements allowed, everything checked and double-checked.
When I receive a proposal to the agency from an author without training, there are often a lot of, “Our pastor once said…” and “I read somewhere…”
None of these would pass the verification test.
We need to be reminded often that what is contained in another book or on the Internet is not necessarily true.
Fake news is a growing scourge in the world right now, brought on by easy access to the Internet and social media. Without taking great care, authors may write bits of information from memory, rumor or from a prominent website without independently confirming whether the facts are actually true.
Is the divorce rate for Christians the same as non-Christians?
Are all churches shrinking?
Are all millennials leaving the church?
Might be worth your time to check the facts.
Next point, objectivity.
One of my favorite books about business and life is Freakonomics, by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner. (In their Freakonomics website they explore the “hidden side of everything.”)
One technique they employ which unlocks new information and perspective is to simply ask one more question.
For instance, when you see a poll indicating a trend in society, ask the question, “Who did the poll?” or “How was it conducted?”
Sometimes a research study can be self-serving to the organization behind it and not reliable as an indicator to anything.
A number of years ago, I was greatly disappointed when a Christian writer stated their approach began with a certain premise and then they proceeded to look for facts to support the premise.
Isn’t this a problem? Aren’t too many people in the world doing this?
The Christian writer should be different than everyone else and not for some altruistic integrity or honesty reason alone.
Anyone who has studied the Bible knows if you work your way through any of the 66 books, you will be confronted with issues, statements, people, events or clear proclamations from God which are unsettling at best. You might not even agree personally with what is found there.
Some passages may even wreck the premise you are trying to prove, which is exactly what God’s Word does on a regular basis.
If you hop around to statements you agree with and characters you like, you will not get an accurate picture of who God is and how he deals with humans.
Throughout the ages, many have used the pick-and-choose approach to the Bible to support all sort of evil and sinful behavior.
Using some simple techniques put forth by good journalists would be a good check and balance for anyone writing in the Christian market.
Don’t worry, the Bible defends itself well and will stand firm on it’s own merits.
If you are simply more concerned about portraying God’s heart and truth accurately than proving your own opinion, what you write will carry more power than you could possibly imagine.
Very well said, Dan. I was trained as a journalist, and the high and exacting standards I learned in J-school 20+ years ago seem to be falling away as media outlets all over the political spectrum seek not to report the news but to affect it. It’s frustrating to see, especially for those of us who have been trained better.
Though the world’s standards may have changed, we believers should hold ourselves to a higher standard. We should read, report, and repeat facts we can back up as truth, and we should reject sources that lie to us, even if those sources seem to agree with our beliefs. As a freelance editor, I’ve come across a few non-fiction manuscripts that pick and choose Scripture and report rumors as facts. It’s very concerning.
Great post, Dan. I worked as an academic for a bit, and know well the requirement for verified fact. (Interestingly, that doesn’t go all the way through the scientific community – Carl Sagan’s ‘nuclear winter’ was made up of whole cloth, to push his disarmament agenda.)
I think that one of the most egregious uses of fake news in Christianity is the out-of-context quoting of Jeremiah 29:11. We all want to believe that God has plans for our welfare and hope and prosperity, but the problem with this specific Scripture is, of course, that God is talking about a people, not individuals. Jer. 29:10 is pretty specific – “only after seventy years in babylon will I visit you and fulfill my promise of deliverance.” A lot of people wouldn’t live to see that.
It can be argued that there is a parallel personal interpretation for Jer. 29:11, with the seventy-year period in the previous verse as symbolic of ‘a period of waiting’, and I won’t dispute that, but to quote without commentary as a feel-good prop is, It seems to me, misleading and wrong.
Don’t get me wrong; I do believe that God does have a plan for each of us, and that He wants nothing but the best for each individual, but to think that He’s ordaining success and riches for all flies in the face of what happened in the lives of His most dedicated servants…and His Son.
Sometimes the ‘best’ is knowing we’re doing HIS best, faithful unto death.
Great thoughts Andrew,
I think sometimes the chapter and verse numbering inserted into the Scriptures long ago by humans can get in the way of context and truth. Verses become standalone theology,
Thanks, Dan. I think you’re right about the numbering, and the phrase “verses become standalone theology” is going on a Post-It on my monitor. Good one!
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Dan. As a college writing instructor, I know exactly what you mean and wish more people understood what you have so aptly put in your blog.
Thank you, Dan, for this clarion call! As a nonfiction writer, it’s a sobering reminder to vigilance and excellence when citing sources in my memoir.
There is more at stake than we can imagine.
Today’s journalists don’t follow the ethical guidelines I learned in my classes at IU. (Class of 1981) Especially that the reporter should not editorialize but report the 4 W’s. It seems everyone in the news now, whether Christian or secular, is a self-appointed editor and slants the news to their own point of view. It seems that just plain telling a lie is no longer considered bad/wrong unless one is under oath. I like your post on this subject, especially that just because it is on the internet doesn’t mean it is true/factual. Betty
Dan, everything you say here about a book applies equally well to our blogs.
More than once I’ve changed what I was planning to write about because looking at it more deeply revealed a flaw in my first approach. If I’m going to call my blog “The Beauty of Truth,” I’d better be as careful as I can be to make sure what’s there is true to the highest level I can make it.
The potential is there for more people to read our blog posts than any of our books, and I don’t want mine to reflect badly on my heavenly Father.
I’d also say it applies to what we post or repost/retweet on social media as well. I’ve been appalled at how often Christians will post information that, with a little fact-checking, proves to be false. I always verify information I’m reposting and I almost always read the entire article before sharing it. I find being careful that what I share/post/comment on is truth or truthful (or I can provide a truthful counterpoint) is just as important as my original content.
As a trained journalist and freelance writer, I’ve always been extra careful about quotes and sources and fact-checking. It hurts our credibility as believers–and writers–when we willy-nilly regurgitate false or misleading information just because it fits into our view of the world (or a particular person or policy).
Dan, I appreciate the spirit of what you are saying, and I agree that Christians should be the ones leading the charge when it comes to factual integrity. But I had to chuckle at you citing today’s mainstream Journalistic standards as the standard. For me, it has the same effect as citing used car salesmen for honest sales techniques or money-hungry TV evangelists as examples of evangelizing properly.
Unfortunately, as our society has abandon God’s moral constraints, journalism has strayed as far afield as most other intellectual pursuits. And to greater effect in corrupting the people.
But I agree with your call that it falls to Christians to continue to put forth the truth, as God’s word declares it, and to do so with the integrity that reflects well upon Jesus. Professionalism and attention to detail in dealing with statistics is certainly part of this. I trust our best Christian universities are pursuing this with their students. I know the one my daughter attends does.
So you caught that bit of irony, eh?
Lots of things start out right and end up swerving off the tracks.
Elizabeth Van Tassel
My eye for detail is definitely honed by the Journalism and PR degree I received – and it helps with having a thick skin for edits as well! As the daughter of a lawyer, I’m doubly blessed with a mindset that loves research, checks facts, and has fought hard to find truth amidst challenges that life brings. As a gemologist I also appreciate the minute details that can bring encouragement to others on their journey. The old adage, you are what you eat, is kind of the same for reading. Quality information can only enhance a point and there is a quiet sense of confidence from discovery.