Speak the truth in love: a conference on faith and communications

The great thing about being a college professor is that, in addition to playing the role of teacher, you still get to be a student. I get to read and write about things that interest me and find that there’s something new to be absorbed in out there every day.

I spent most of this past weekend at the Faith and Communications Conference sponsored by Campbell University in eastern North Carolina. Scholars from a variety of communications-related disciplines – from journalism and media to film and religious studies – shared their recent research.

Now I know some of the popular stereotypes about academics and research – the notion that we all get thousands of dollars in grants to count how many times a chipmunk gnashes his teeth as a sign of aggression, that sort of thing. And I particularly work in an academic discipline where the professional practitioners have historically said that they pay little or no attention to academic journals. (Although I think that’s changing somewhat, as newspapers especially have suddenly become interested in why readers are abandoning them and what academics can find out about that.)

Anyway, I heard a number of presentations that I thought made some interesting connections between communications media of the past and today’s media universe:

 a comparison by a Bible scholar of the Book of Job to today’s “confessional media” culture as exemplified by the likes of Oprah and Dr. Phil.

 A paper about John McLean Harrington, a journalist who published his own handwritten newspapers amid the privations of life in the eastern North Carolina of the 1860s. The publications are an early example of a blog because of their personal nature and emphasis on immediacy, says my friend Michael Ray Smith of Campbell, who’s written a book about the journalist and his newspapers.

 An examination of the journalism of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network of the late 1970s and early 1980s, with some interesting video of long-form pieces on topics such as child pornography. The advocacy journalism there reminded me in tone and in their didacticism of Edward R. Murrow’s coverage of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

In keeping with today’s changing media landscape there were presentations about social media like Facebook and Twitter, a study of pastor and “A Purpose-Driven Life” author Rick Warren, and even an examination of the origins of the “Veggie Tales” video series for children.

One that I talked about with my News Writing class this week as we started discussing coverage of law enforcement was a study by a group of professors from Regent University of TV news coverage of crime in Virginia Beach, Va. The researchers examined stories about crime over a period of time, and they found racial profiling not in the depiction of perpetrators – which were about evenly divided between white and minority – but in the portrayal of victims, who, in the stories at least, were overwhelmingly white.

My own contribution to this gathering was entitled “Rethinking Campus Media: What do I tell my students about journalism and faith?” I posed some questions that arise from media coverage of Chirstians doing some un-Christian things – like the funeral protests of the Westboro Baptist Church and the Quran-burning pastor in Florida. What’s the role of the Christian journalist in covering stories like this? Is it his/her responsibility to explain that these actions don’t reflect what most Christians believe, or should the reporter just present the facts and let the reader figure it out?

It was all great food for thought and a nice getaway from the everyday grind of classes and grading papers. But we also got a good reminder of the importance of that part of our jobs in a keynote by Wally Metts of Spring Arbor (Mich.) College, some of the most profound things I’ve ever heard spoken over an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. Click here for a link to his thoughts on teaching college students how to think in the digital age.

Throughout the conference was the call to, as Paul said in the book of Ephesians, “speak the truth in love,” a good thing for communicators of all kinds everywhere to remember.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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