Journalism and the Scriptures: Ground Rules

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An interesting read, but not for everyone.

An interesting read, but not for everyone.

Jake Adelstein is an aspiring Jewish-American journalist who surprisingly won a position as a reporter at a Japanese news agency. In his story, Tokyo Vice (Pantheon: New York, 2009), he retells his experiences as a young reporter learning the ropes of journalism in a foreign country, of mastering a difficult language, to his eventual work on the Vice squad, and ending with his efforts to expose Yakuza (Japanese mafia) crimes in human trafficking. His story is fascinating, gritty, and at times gruesome in its descriptions of human behaviour. (NB: Adelstein’s book is not for the faint of heart, and I would cautiously recommend it—with reservations—to others, like me, who enjoy crime stories, journalism, and are sometime Japanophiles.)

Early on in Adelstein’s career, an older, wiser, Japanese journalist pulled Adelstein aside and gave him an earful of advice—eight rules, in fact—on how to be a reporter. These rules come to form the basics of Adelstein’s journalistic ethics, but I was impacted, reading them, on how strikingly they correlated to the minister and his use of the Scriptures. The ethics of sources and writing, in other words, are very nearly the same as those of a preacher and the Word of God. Permit me, then, to quote Adelstein’s eight rules for you now. As you read, I expect that you will begin to immediately recognize the connections between a reporter’s sources and the Christian Scriptures. Still, at the end of the passage I’ll return to each of the eight rules and make the connections explicit.

The older Japanese journalist said the following:

“There are eight rules of being a good reporter, Jake.

“One. Don’t ever burn your sources. If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you. All scoops are based on the understanding that you will protect the person who gave you the information. That’s the alpha and omega of reporting. Your source is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source, and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.”

“Two. Finish a story as soon as possible. The life of news is short. Miss the chance, and the story is dead or the scoop is gone.

“Three. Never believe anyone. People lie, police lie, even your fellow reporters lie. Assume that you are being lied to and proceed with caution.

“Four. Take any information you can get. People are good and bad. Information is not. Information is what it is, and it doesn’t matter who gives it to you or where you steal it. The quality, the truth of the information, is what’s important.

“Five. Remember and persist. Stories that people forget come back to haunt them. What may seem like an insignificant case can later turn into a major story. Keep paying attention to the unfolding investigation, and see where it goes. Don’t let the constant flow of news let you forget about the unfinished news.

“Six. Triangulate your stories, especially if they aren’t an official announcement from the authorities. If you can verify information from three different sources, odds are good that the information is good.

“Seven. Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Editors cut from the bottom up. The important stuff goes on top, the trivial details go to the bottom. If you want your story to make it to the final edition, make it easy to cut.

“Eight. Never put your personal opinions into a story; let someone else do it for you. That’s why experts and commentators exist. Objectivity is a subjective thing.” (Tokyo Vice, 26)

#1 Don’t ever burn your sources. The minister’s first responsibility is to the Scriptures and the faithful treatment of them. “Your source,” says Adelstein’s advisor, “is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source, and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.” Betray the Scriptures, and I have betrayed myself. Betray the Scriptures, and I am no longer a minister. I’m not even a man. Furthermore, “If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you.” If my ministry is based on the casual reading of Scripture, of mercenary exegesis, and convenient interpretation, then in time my people will learn to take my words as casually as I have taken my authority. I breed distrust, and breeding distrust I create un-faith. Betray the bible, and I betray the people I am called to serve. I must never, ever, ever, ever, treat the Scriptures contemptuously. They are my source, my life in ministry.

Respond to the tragedy while it is fresh--seize the opportunity to talk about people's souls!

Respond to the tragedy while it is fresh–seize the opportunity to talk about people’s souls!

#2 Finish a story as soon as possible. Sometimes ministry is about responding to situations, sometimes it is about planning for the long term. When those issues arise which burden the hearts of my congregation particularly—a natural disaster, a shooting, the death of a member, or some other tragedy—then I must teach from it quickly while the burden is present. I cannot sit and wait on issues while the issues go away. People’s souls need answers while their needs are strong—it is my job to answer those needs in a timely fashion. Therefore I must not wait on a scriptural story, or perhaps I will miss the opportunity for someone’s salvation.

#3 Never believe anyone. Above all, never trust yourself. A healthy doubt must accompany all personal theologizing. The scriptures are true, but I am deceptive and false, and I (and all others with me) will always squirm and worm our way out of the hard obedience. Measure all things against the Scriptures as our sole canon of Truth. Doubt everything else, especially yourself, appropriately.

Sometimes you find truth in the most unexpected of places!

Sometimes you find preachable truth in the most unexpected of places!

#4 Take any information you can get. One of the professors at my university famously said, “All Truth is God’s Truth.” He was right. If it is true, it is God’s, regardless of the human source. Therefore draw from any source you can—the sciences, humanities, pop culture, history, literature, or even books about crime in Japan—in order to facilitate the Truth of your message. Take from any source you like, only ensure that it is the Truth when you take it. Read theologians you agree with, and those you disagree with, and always be on the lookout for avenues and resources to communicate the Truth.

#5 Remember and persist. What are the long-term patterns in your ministry? What topics come up again and again? While you’re being faithful to address the temporary (albeit important) needs of your community, do you have a finger on the pulse of their longer-term needs? An issue that seems unimportant may be a harbinger of deeper concerns. One case of infidelity may signal many more! One sermon preached on a particular parable may come to be the focus of your entire ministry! Are you paying attention to those trends?

#6 Triangulate your stories. Back up what you say. Find theologians and authors who agree with your interpretation. Find a group of other ministers, also committed to the gospel, who will check and balance your teaching. Make sure you have people around you who have both the courage and the permission to say, “You’re wrong.” And make sure you have the courage to say, “You’re right.” Furthermore, don’t repeat stories if you aren’t sure they’re true. Many ministers have polluted the Truth of their message by repeating fabricated or convenient sermon illustrations. Is what you speak the Truth? Make sure before you speak.

#7 Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Write your sermons with your hearers in mind. Pay attention to their ability to hear you. Focus on take-aways and memorable moments. Make sure that, along the landscape of your sermon, the main points truly rise like peaks above the surface.

#8 Never put your personal opinions into a story. Present the Truth, and allow your people to draw their own conclusions. Present the gospel, and allow the Holy Spirit to cause the change. Speak the Scriptures, and allow the Spirit to convict people of sin. Seek, as much as is in your power, to eschew your own opinion and present the Truth of Jesus Christ. But don’t forget a dose of rule #3, and present the Truth with healthy doubt about your self. There is no minister so good that he will not be corrected, no minister so truthful that he will not fall short of the Truth in some way. This is a grace from God, because it means that we always have space for Him to move and fill our fallen sermons. Nevertheless, seek Christ first, present him above all, and leave your opinion somewhere else.

There you have it. Advice from an older, hardened Japanese reporter that applies to how ministers of the Gospel ought to handle the Scriptures (proving, again, that all Truth is God’s Truth). They are simple rules, but they provide a profound framework that shapes the ministry of the Word. May God grant that all His ministers be faithful to the Scriptures they are entrusted to teach.


4 comments on “Journalism and the Scriptures: Ground Rules

  1. Mr. Rios, I’m very honored that you read the book and found some things of value in it. I’m not a Christian myself but I do find many things admirable in the religion. However, when it comes to sourcing, I have some issues. Early Christianity was very diverse and there was no uniform set of scriptures before the Council Of Nicea in 325 AD. The Gospel of Thomas and all the gnostic works were excluded. The first three gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke appear to postpone the coming predicted coming of Jesus further and further in the order they were written. (Mark being the first).

    I think that there is great wisdom in the New Testament and maybe Ecclesiastes in the old testament, but I’m not sure that the final version of the Bible decided upon in 325 AD is the best version or that it is infallibly correct. 325 years is a long time to be putting together a book, and it’s possible that some editing mistakes were made. (Editors don’t always pick the best articles either, especially a council of them.)

    I am a very big fan of the Epistle of James, which seems to be a call of social action. It may be the only passage in the New Testament that suggest our actions count more than our faith or our beliefs.

    What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

    But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

    Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

    You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

    In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

    I appreciate that you take your work as a pastor seriously and I wish you luck in your job. I just thought that it would be a good time to say that written materials can be very useful in finding the truth, sometimes it requires human intelligence and some doubt to get to the truth. And as a man of doubt, ultimately when I judge myself and others, and I do, of course, I usually go by a person’s deeds. On that point, James and I seem to agree.

    Best wishes


    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey, Jake Adelstein responded to my post! That’s cool. No, really, it’s cool! Thanks for taking the time to write out a thoughtful response!

      Allow me to respond, and let me say that I think you make two different points that each require a slightly different response. For one, I think we’ll find we’re in substantial agreement. For the other, I’d like to help you see it from my perspective, and to challenge you a little.

      So let’s discuss rhetoric, first. I’m glad that you like the book of James–we’re in agreement that it’s a good book! (Incidentally, did you know that it’s probably an early commentary on the Sermon on the Mount?) And it seems to me that the point you’re making about James, and it’s a great point, is that what we say and what we do must be in accord. And that is the essence of rhetoric. If I say lots of good words, but do nothing good to go with it, or ignore my own advice, then I become noisome and unethical. That’s the essence of real rhetoric–that words and deeds would be in harmony, that I should ‘preach’ through both my words and my deeds. It’s a pretty hateful thing when ministers are full of talk and never back it up with their lives, because they disgrace both themselves and their message. May God protect me from that folly.

      Curiously, as a journalist, you are both bound and not bound by this stricture–you must ensure that your sources are good, and, if you’re going to be ethical, you are obligated to faithfully represent them (but let’s face it, how many journalists are truly ethical to their sources in that way?). But when it comes to your personal life, you can live in contrast, or even at odds, to the truth you seek to present in your work (which is something even your personal story in Tokyo Vice points out, isn’t it?). At the same time, I’m truly grateful that you were moved by your experiences to help and change the issues with human trafficking. In some ways, it’s a great application of James’s message, isn’t it?

      But let’s come back to those sources (and this is the second point). The thing I’d like you to see from my perspective is that, as a minister who seeks to be faithful, the Bible IS my source. My first duty is to be faithful to it. If I stop that, then I lose my credibility as a minister (violating that whole pesky rhetoric thing). I don’t get to pick and choose the parts of religion that I like, I’m called to be faithful to the religion that’s been revealed. Does this mean I’ve sacrificed my critical mind? By no means. I think I have good reasons for believing what I believe, and good reasons to trust the Christian bible.

      This brings us to the challenge I’d like to offer you. In your comment you raise questions about the reliability of those sources and their selection. These are good, and important questions! But I believe there are also good answers to those questions. I’ll try to point out a few brief answers, then I’ll point you toward another book.

      First, Nicea 325 confirmed the canon, but didn’t really select it. They made their decisions based on which books were in use in all the churches, had been linked to an apostle, and were quoted in the early church Fathers. In other words, there was a strict set of criteria for which books were considered Canon and which weren’t.

      Second, the Gospel of Thomas (which I’ve read) is clearly deficient on all these counts and others. If you look at the four gospels, you’ll notice something immediate about them–they’re all life stories of Jesus. They begin at various points, but each is a specific genre of ancient biography that focuses on the death of the main character. According to the criteria of what makes a gospel a gospel, Thomas isn’t even a Gospel–it’s a collection of sayings, strung together in no particular order. Now, this ought to make your investigative hackles rise a little. Why is it called a ‘gospel’ if is doesn’t conform to the style of a gospel at all? (The answer, btw, is forgery.) Furthermore, the Jesus of Thomas doesn’t sound like the Jesus of the other four gospels. Take your own triangulation rule–you have four separate accounts of who Jesus is (as well as Acts and the effects of Jesus in the Epistles). If all of these testify to a consistent sounding Jesus, but Thomas doesn’t fit the bill, what honest journalist would conclude that Thomas is the authentic one and the others are false? All this to say, Thomas is clearly a fake, and anyone who’s looked at the ancient literature honestly will tell you the same.

      Maybe I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered, that’s okay. Maybe I’ve answered objections only ineptly. I’m sorry if that’s the case. But let me say just this: there’s a popular story told about the formation of the Bible that bends the truth quite a bit. I’d challenge you to re-investigate that story and maybe reevaluate your judgment. A decent beginning book for that might be Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ.” Strobel was a journalist who decided to investigate the truth of Christianity. I think you might appreciate his perspective (NB: I’m not suggesting that he’ll answer all your questions, but maybe he’ll answer a few, and maybe he’ll raise more. That said, FEEL FREE free to write me again and we’ll continue the discussion!)


      Jeremy Rios

  2. disfrontman says:

    I’d tell you that this was another brilliant installment, but as your friend I don’t want you to fall prey to the temptations of pride. In that spirit, here is my opinion of your fine comparison of journalistic ethics and hermeneutics:

    It didn’t suck.

  3. […] such an interesting and gripping writing style that I honestly wanted to know what happened next. The list of journalism rules he was told early in his career is also solid advice for anyone across the journalism spectrum […]


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