This New York Times headline caught my attention yesterday: A Muckraking Magazine Creates A Stir Among Evangelical Christians. I scrolled through my mental rolodex and couldn’t imagine what magazine they could possibly be writing about. I clicked through to discover that it was World Magazine they were referring to.
Yes, World Magazine! A muckraking magazine?
Stunned, I could only assume that World Magazine had suddenly fallen into Rupert Murdoch’s hands, or that the highly-respected editorial team had been ousted in a Hollywood Reporter coup, or that I had missed some World-shattering online revelations in the week since I’d last read the magazine.
When I started reading the report, the New York Times only cited three examples of alleged muckraking:
- World broke the story about Mark Driscoll buying his way on to the New York Times bestsellers list.
- World exposed Dinesh D’Souza’s hypocrisy of being engaged to a woman while he was still married.
- World reported on a child abuse scandal at a New Tribes Mission school.
That’s muck-raking? Let’s pause for a moment and trace the history of this word.
The term originated with John Bunyan, who described one of the characters in Pilgrim’s Progress as “the Man with the Muck-rake,” a man that rejected salvation to focus on filth. Although at times it has also been used to describe good investigative journalism, its negative connotations have continued through the years with one dictionary defining it as “the action of searching out and publicizing scandalous information about famous people in an underhanded way.”
Is that what World magazine is doing? Rejecting salvation to focus on filth? Is it using underhand ways to report scandalous information about famous people? The New York Times might argue that it was using the word in the more technical sense of “investigative journalism.” However, they know that most readers will hear “muck-raking magazine” and think “bad tabloid-style magazine.”
But the article does provoke some good questions about the ethics of certain kinds of journalism. For example, is there a place for a Christian news magazine that does investigative reporting? Is that a legitimate Christian activity? When is it right or wrong for Christian journalists to report on abuses and corruption? Is it only when its outside the church, never inside the church? When does good investigative journalism become bad muck-raking? And has World Magazine fallen into the latter? Here’s how I’d approach such questions.
First, the media have vital role to play in calling powerful people and institutions to account in democratic societies. It’s sad that this is so rare in public life today; so rare that the New York Times tars it as muck-raking, so rare that courageous investigative journalists like Sharyl Attkisson are forced out and shunned even by colleagues.
Second, the Christian church and Christian institutions have a duty to set their house in order, to deal with sin and evil in just and biblical ways, and to call its own powerful personalities to account without fear or favor. When that happens there’s no need for any exposé. But what happens when this doesn’t happen?
Third, Christian journalists sometimes have a right and duty to expose and highlight when Christian churches and institutions fail to follow biblical principles and even natural justice in dealing with wrong and oppression. This should warn and motivate Christians to deal with issues more biblically and honorably in the future.
Fourth, I said “sometimes” above because it cannot be right nor a duty for Christian journalists to expose every failure, big and small, of every Christian church or institution. That would become the full-time job of thousands and thousands and would destroy the Church.
Fifth, we should be grateful to World magazine for its significant investment in expensive investigative journalism and also to courageous reporters like Warren Cole Smith who are prepared to pay the price of making powerful enemies. They are standing up for the weak, the oppressed, and the voice-less.
Last, here are some suggested criteria to help separate commendable investigative journalism from condemnable muck-raking, against which I would measure World Magazine, blogs, and any other Christian media:
- It’s muckraking if the vast majority of reports or articles are about Christian failures and evils.
- It’s muckraking if reporters use sinful methods to obtain information.
- It’s muckraking if there are rarely any good, positive, and edifying stories.
- It’s muckraking if it’s focused on one person relentlessly and mercilessly.
- It’s muckraking if there’s no public interest being served or Christian good being accomplished.
- It’s muckraking if the evils are relatively minor and insignificant.
- It’s muckraking if there’s delight and pride in exposing the evil.
- It’s muckraking if the sin has been addressed properly by the proper Christian authority and it’s reported as if no appropriate action has been taken at all (point clarified in response to comment below).
- It’s muckraking if reporters are actively seeking out these stories.
- It’s muckraking if they report in a sensational and exaggerated manner.
Measured against these standards, World comes nowhere close to being a muck-raking magazine in the negative sense. Rather it is performing a valuable Christian service to the church and to society both in promoting what is good and in fighting against evil. I call that house-cleaning not muck-raking.