Journalism -- an awkward calling

CHICHESTER, England -- Terry Anderson walked through refugee camps in Lebanon, filling his eyes, ears, nostrils and memory with death, disease and destruction.

He counted bodies. He interviewed evil people and innocent people. He wrote it all down, because that's what journalists do. Sometimes, he was able to give a suffering mother his water bottle or share food with a child. Then he had to go back to his desk and write.

"As a Christian, that's not enough. I want to do more for these people," said Anderson, speaking to a global conference of Christians who work in secular newsrooms. "But sometimes, as a journalist, you have to say, 'It's time for me to step back, now. I have to go write my story and that is the most good that I can do. That is my calling.' "

There came March 16, 1985, when the chief Mideast correspondent for the Associated Press became the subject of global headlines. The details are well known. He was snatched off a Beirut street and stuffed in the trunk of a car. He spent six years and nine months in captivity, sometimes in agonizing isolation, sometimes locked up with other prisoners.

But it was a question poised by the Rev. Benjamin Weir that served as the seed for Anderson's emotional dialogue with the 150-plus journalists - from 30 nations - who gathered last week at University College in Chichester, south of London. Soon after they met, in chains, the Presbyterian missionary asked: "How can you be a Christian and a journalist?"

Anderson continues to ponder that question, as a professor in the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. He is convinced that God does not fear journalists.

"The search for truth is not, in any way, in conflict with the truth that I know as a follower of Jesus," said Anderson, who is an outspoken Catholic. "But, you know you cannot be a Christian and a bad journalist. That doesn't work at all. You cannot practice Christianity and a journalism that takes away dignity, that has no compassion, that exploits pain and misery. That's not good journalism and it's certainly not anything that Christ taught."

Anderson wasn't the only person with a troubling story to tell, either in a speech or in the off-the-record sessions in which participants could pray with, or debate, each other. Obviously, journalists face spiritual questions in Bosnia, Rwanda, Jerusalem or Littleton, Colo. But it's also possible to crack while covering bishops, bureaucrats or bond markets.

The on-the-record speeches were intriguing enough. There was the anchorwoman from India who is leading a crusade against "dowry deaths" in which in-laws murder young wives. A journalist from war-torn South Sudan said he wants to start a newspaper in a region that doesn't even have telephones. A television-news executive from the American Midwest told how she quit, rather than accept a corporate order to stop teaching a Bible class in her spare time.

The conference was organized by Gegrapha (www.gegrapha.org ), a worldwide fellowship for Christians who are journalists. The name is Greek, and means, "I have written." It is found in the Gospel of John, where Pontius Pilate is asked why he put a sign on the cross claiming that Jesus is the king of the Jews. Pilate said: "What I have written, I have written."

The host was journalist David Aikman of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., who is best known for his 23-year career as a Time foreign correspondent. He stressed that the conference had no agenda other than to encourage professionals who often feel attacked in their churches and misunderstood in their newsrooms. Aikman defined journalists as people who "get rebuked for what they write and what they say, or who get rebuked for what they don't write and what they don't say."

These tensions are real, said Anderson. Nevertheless, he urged the journalists to remember that they, too, must learn to pray: "Forgive us our trespasses." "The most important one is the daily trespass into other people's lives, which we are required to do as journalists," he said. "That's just a part of our jobs. It can be done badly. It can be done carelessly. It can be done without respect for dignity."