Journalists sometimes joke that public approval surveys rank them just below car salesmen and just above pond scum. Given the slanted, inaccurate, and sensationalized coverage that characterizes too many media outlets, it’s easy to see why many people are jaded and cynical about their news. Others worry that journalistic failures are damaging our democracy.
So when I talk to students who might be interested in studying journalism at Patrick Henry College, I explain what it means to be a journalist and a Christian, and why God might be calling them to the profession. Here is what I tell them:
Being a journalist is not about seeing your byline in print, or being famous because you’re on TV. It’s not about how many Twitter followers you collect or people waiting breathlessly for your take on the day’s events. Holding powerful people accountable is important, but you are unlikely to bring down a sitting president.
Being a journalist, in short, is not about you; it’s about the story. What’s more, it’s about honoring the Lord and serving society in a very particular way. You get to look around the world, try to see it as it really is, and then help other people see it clearly too.
That’s why it is an incredibly fulfilling vocation. It’s like a combination of novelist and historian. A novelist makes up characters and events, but his real goal is to show readers something true about themselves and their culture. Historians help people see the present in light of the past.
We have the incredible privilege of telling true stories about our society today. As WORLD Magazine editor-in-chief (and PHC faculty member) Marvin Olasky recently observed, we journalists have front-row seats at the circus. The least we can do is to let people know what’s going on, and we can have a lot of fun along the way. What’s more, at PHC we show you how to do this no matter where you work, whether at mainstream or Christian media outlets.
I tell prospective students that our proximity to Washington, DC, offers great internship opportunities, and I mention our Samuel Adams Scholarship for Journalism (see our Web site for details). I emphasize how PHC’s extensive core curriculum, with all that history and philosophy and literature and science, prepares students to think well and to understand our culture. And I make it clear that, while the industry is obviously going through a serious transition, young people with character, determination, and intelligence can still find significant positions in journalism.
Studying journalism at Patrick Henry College might be a good fit even for students who can’t see themselves in a newsroom. The journalist’s most important skills are an ability to see the world clearly and to think and write clearly. Such skills are in high demand in many fields; PHC journalism graduates work in communications, public relations, technical writing, education analysis, and national security, among others.
I understood these things in a general way when I first arrived at PHC in 2002. In the years since our students have helped me understand how our program really works.
When the students arrive on campus as freshmen, not many know they want to be journalists. They take Journalism I because they think being a reporter might be fun, or they like to write. For the first year, they’re trying to figure out how to write a concise sentence and what I mean by “biblical objectivity.”
By the end of their sophomore year, a light goes on in their heads. Students have thought about the concepts and practiced their skills. They’ve tasted reporting through two semesters as staff on the student newspaper, the Patrick Henry Herald. Also, as they take history and literature and constitutional law, they begin to put it all together and realize how ideas and information help shape and move society.
Then they go off to an internship at WORLD, The American Conservative, the Heritage Foundation, or a local TV station. They come back with a sharper view of what they want to do, a realistic picture of what it takes to get there, and what God might be calling them to pursue. As one student told me last year, “For the first time I began to see journalism as something noble.”
Journalism may never improve its public image, but students like this remind me that God has planned good works for us to do in newsrooms (and elsewhere) across the country.