Christians and the media: An interview with Mark Mellinger and Kate Shellnutt

March 3, 2014

When you say the word, “media” a lot of Christians might groan. There is a sense that the media is not always favorable to people of faith. But there are many media members who also happen to be followers of Christ. So how should a Christian think about the media? I asked two professionals their opinions: Mark Mellinger, a evening news anchor in Fort Wayne, Ind., a radio talk show host and a contributor to The Gospel Coalition and Kate Shellnutt, a veteran journalist who is now an editor for Christianity Today's Her.meneutics

Seems the media is trusted by fewer people these days, including many Christians. What should our relationship to the media be? 

MARK MELLINGER: The media is still really important and serves all of us in valuable ways. The news media's reporting is still the primary way we find out about those who want to serve us in government -what their policies will be and what they stand for – and hold accountable those who actually do serve us in government. So good reporting helps us all make better decisions at the voting booth.

The news media also helps us with more mundane matters in day-to-day life: letting us know if there is a major traffic accident to avoid, if school is delayed or canceled on a given day, and whether our electric and sewer bills are going up. This is all information that is important to have and helps us live in a more informed way as we plan our lives.

I understand why many people do not trust or are skeptical of the news media in general. It sometimes seems like the news media is only interested in covering conflict and generating controversy. And at some level, this is true. All good stories have some element of conflict, and at its heart reporting is often about telling good stories. The questions a discerning reader or viewer must ask when consuming media are: Is this reporter playing up the controversial aspect of a given story too much? What nuances of the story is he minimizing or perhaps leaving out? What good information and useful information am I getting out of this story? If the reporting seems imbalanced, where should I go next to find more information that will help flesh out the topic being covered?

So I'd say it is a good thing to approach media consumption with a somewhat skeptical eye and to demand better reporting in many cases, but also to remember that the news media – despite its faults – still does a good to decent job of giving us important information that helps us live our lives in a more informed way. We as Christians should have some appreciation for the news media rather than disdain for it, and we should give God thanks that we live in a country that allows journalistic freedom. I think it is also appropriate for us to thank him for giving us people in the journalism profession – and there are many of them – who sincerely want to be helpful, fair-minded public servants and work hard to be just that.

KATE SHELLNUTT: I bet this question was easier to answer when “the media” was a much narrower entity, but these days, it’s not just our daily paper and the 5 o’clock news—it’s tickers, Twitter, Facebook, texts, and more.

Given the barrage of content, we’re conditioned to consume it quickly—we look, we react, we move on. We’re commodifying culture, and we’re less inclined to look for the source, tradition, or context of a piece of information. This is risky, I think, for contemporary Christians. We miss out on the spiritual ramifications of cultural phenomena when we consume culture rather than engage it.

More and more, in a postmodern society, we see our media celebrate a plurality of voices and perspectives, reject absolute truths, and level hierarchy. Still, as Christians, we should take advantage of the variety of news sources available to us, both secular and Christian. The knowledge, understanding, and even emotional pull we get from the news can and does reflect back on the fallenness of our world, the goodness of God, and the truths we know form Scripture. We shouldn’t view our media consumption separate from our Christian lives or “the media” in opposition to them. 

Should Christians care and even invest in good journalism? Why? 

MELLINGER: I do think Christians should care about good journalism for all of the reasons I just mentioned above. We also need to be aware that we are living in a time when the notion of real religious liberty itself seems to be endangered in a way it has not been before in this country. Christians, of all people, should be following these stories: The Hobby Lobby case and freedom of conscience when it comes to the new healthcare law, whether new policies and regulations will allow clergy to flourish and do their jobs in a way that comports with their conscience as they serve the military, whether pastors will be allowed to maintain their housing exemptions for tax purposes, as well as same sex marriage and the ramifications it could have for churches in this country.  

These are not just abstract issues. They have a concrete impact on real people and what happens on each of them down the road will determine whether certain people -and maybe all of us- will be able to honor God with our actions, or at least whether honoring God in accord with our consciences will be lawful or not. If the degree of difficulty for living out the life of a convictional Christian in this country is about to get higher, we need to be prayerfully prepared for that. 

Some media sources are more focused on these issues than the mainstream media, and I would include in that category outlets like the Gospel Coalition, the ERLC, and World Magazine. I appreciate the depth of thought and gracious tone given to the coverage of these important issues by all of those media outlets and others, and I certainly think it is wise and helpful for individual Christians and families to support them financially if they sense God may be calling them to do so. These various entities are doing vital work in keeping us informed about these issues that affect how we live out the Christian life and by keeping them on the front burner. It's also helpful that these sources come at the topics from a Christian worldview. They are speaking our language and share our beliefs and concerns. That of course is not the case with the mainstream media, which generally approaches the issues of the day from a postmodern worldview guised under the cloak of objectivity. That isn't to say that the mainstream media does not report important things in true and helpful ways. It does. But Christians have even more of a motive to report the truth since we are supposed to be people of truth and since truth with a capital T undergirds our entire worldview. After all, if Jesus did not truly die for our sins and then rise again, and if God does not truly credit Christ's righteousness as mine as a consequence of that, very little about the way we Christians live our lives makes sense.

SHELLNUTT: Absolutely. (You are talking to a journalist here, after all.)

I believe Christianity shares essential core values with journalism. As purveyors of the truth, we should support and seek out those who proclaim truth. Of course, our truth is first and foremost capital-T Truth—the gospel message—but we also learn from the world around us, where “all truth is God’s truth.” In their watchdog function, journalists are the ones to find and expose the truth about institutions, businesses, and government.

They have the right to do so thanks to the U.S. Constitution. In our country, the first amendment brings together freedom of speech and freedom of the press with freedom of religion. Christians can find common ground with journalists in their willingness to defend and uphold these liberties. As a Christian journalist, I’ve always felt doubly fond of the first amendment—which protects both what I believe and what I do. 

If you could counsel a young Christian aspiring to journalism, what advice would you give him or her? 

MELLINGER: My advice to an aspiring young journalist would be to think about what types of reporting you want to do and what types of media outlets you would like to work for. I believe any honest, lawful work that is done well is honoring to God and is an important part of our witness.
So a young journalist has to think through what he or she wants to cover: Sports? Politics? Religion? All of the above in differing doses? Something else? I think it's generally good to specialize in a topic or two that you are passionate about. Work will just be more enjoyable that way. And joy in work is a tremendous gift from God and a legitimate way of enjoying him.

After a young journalist has thought through that, he or she needs to think about what type of organization to work for: A newspaper? TV station? Website? Intentionally “Christian” media? Secular? Nonprofit? One is not inherently better than the others. We need Christians working in all of these types of media environments, laboring to evangelize, disciple, and glorify God through our spoken or printed words and our conduct in general. It's all about thinking through what you are most gifted at and passionate about. If politics confuse or bore you and you get nervous in front of a camera, you obviously shouldn't harbor the ambition to become a TV political reporter. You have to think through common sense diagnostic questions like that.
Finally, once you think you have decided which direction you would like to take, get educated about it. See if people whom you admire in the field would spend time mentoring you. Look for opportunities like internships that will get you a foot in the door. Do your research and find out whether you could make a salary that would support a family for decades if you plan on being the breadwinner. And needless to say, this entire process should be bathed in prayer and hopefully thoughtful counsel from wise believers who have proven themselves trustworthy in your life.

SHELLNUTT: As Christians, we honor God and reflect his nature when we do our jobs well, with a sense of purpose and willingness to get creative. Young journalists should keep that in mind. Be good at what you do—take initiative, know the latest technologies and formats, research thoroughly, ask follow-up questions, check your work, and read constantly.

While the stats on Christians in mainstream newsrooms (or even religious folks in general) can seem grim, don’t be afraid of being among the “lone” Christians in journalism. Even when I covered religion for a secular publication, church-going copy editors or photographers would stop by my desk to talk about their faith. Don’t let people tell you it’s a godless profession.

The scare headlines you read about the instability of the journalism industry? You can believe those. I’m a young journalist, and I’ve already seen things change a lot as companies struggle to make money and keep staff as audiences shift to digital. Be patient and keep an open mind while job-hunting. As with all things, let God guide you, through what may become a nontraditional career in an evolving industry. 

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a columnist for World Magazine and a contributor to USA Today. Dan is a bestselling author of several books including, The Dignity Revolution, A Way With Words, and The Characters of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24