Ask the Editor: Investigative journalism


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, April 6th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

We’ve had many variations of this question: Every few months you seem to run an investigative story that reports unseemly details about a Christian ministry. Why must you expose dirt before a world all too ready to think the worst about Christians? And what steps do you take to avoid messing up?

EICHER: Here now is WORLD Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky.

MARVIN OLASKY, EDITOR IN CHIEF: World began in 1986. That was the year Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s empire began to collapse. WORLD founder Joel Belz often said his biggest regret in those early days was not being equipped to expose the PTL scandal — a scandal that destroyed PTL’s ministry and landed Jim Bakker in prison.

WORLD learned from that debacle. At times we may be tempted to cover up the bad things some Christians do, but the dirt will eventually come out. When that happens — and Christians have been silent — the world equates Christianity with corruption. But when we find and tell the truth, the world sees us upholding a higher standard. That glorifies God.

Investigative reporting is hard work, especially when we have to tell bad news about friends or allies. Investigations take resources away from other stories. They stretch our already limited staff. They cost money.

So here’s how an investigation typically begins. A reader contacts one of our editors or reporters, and offers a scoop. Our first response is usually skepticism: Journalists and lawyers know that eyewitnesses are unreliable. Details that seem too amazing to be true often are. We scrutinize stories for inconsistencies.

When a story seems valid, we start asking questions: What good can we accomplish by pursuing it? Is it a story with national importance? Will an investigation help to protect the innocent? Will it be a voice for those who would otherwise be voiceless?

Then we ask more questions. Is the objectionable behavior recent or old? Is the problem an exception or part of a pattern? Is it a matter of organizational policy and culture — or a personal rogue sin? Are we confident that our sources are not perpetual malcontents who have exaggerated a problem?

We have procedural questions: Will our sources of information go on the record? If we do need to rely on credible unnamed sources, we tell readers why we’re doing that. Withholding the name of sources is legitimate when identification of them would put lives or jobs in jeopardy.

Note that the word is “sources,” not source. We use the Biblical standard: the testimony of two or more witnesses. Since witnesses are fallible, we usually need to see documentation. I’ve gone line by line with reporters dozens of times: How do you know this? How are you sure about that?

Chapter 5 of 1 Timothy states, “As for those [leaders] who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”

So that’s what we do, and what we’ve done at least 75 times during the past 26 years. It’s hard work. We don’t do it lightly. We keep in mind Paul’s sobering word in 1 Corinthians Chapter 10: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”

Please pray for us.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Marvin Olasky.

 


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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