The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Their family and friends call the media ‘fake news.’ But these students want to be journalists.

Erin Corey, assistant news editor of the Liberty Champion, makes changes to the layout plan for the next edition of the paper on Sunday. (Timothy C. Wright for The Washington Post.)

LYNCHBURG, Va. — What do you do when everyone around you thinks the media is “fake news” — and you want to work for the media?

That’s the question professor Amy Bonebright needs to help her students answer. This is Liberty University, the world’s largest evangelical Christian school. Most students come from politically and religiously conservative families and churches inclined not to trust the news — and, indeed, the president of the university is Jerry Falwell Jr., a fervent advocate for President Trump, who throws around the term “fake news” to refer to most mainstream media reporting.

So when Bonebright teaches a room full of aspiring reporters in her “Community Journalism” class, she needs to teach them more than just how to craft a lede and conduct an interview. “Now, everyone’s down on the media,” she says to her class. “Maybe you go home over break and see your parents’ friends. And they say, ‘Remind me what you’re studying.’”

A nervous giggle rises from many of the students. They have had that conversation before.

“You say journalism, and they go, ‘Hmm,’” Bonebright says. “What should our response be, as a Christian going into a field like that?”

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For these college students, the answer to that question is deeply rooted in their faith. Because while they might not always see the news media as truthful, they do believe in the truth of the gospel — and they think that’s a principle they can apply in the newsroom just as they do in the pews.

“As Christians, we believe in truth,” senior Timothy Cockes raises his hand to say. “Christians actually should be the best journalists there are, because we believe there is truth out there.”

Newsrooms aren’t known as very religious places. While statistics on the faith of professional journalists are hard to come by, in 2007 the Pew Research Center reported that 17 percent of national journalists and 26 percent of local journalists go to worship services every week or almost every week, while 29 percent of national journalists and 27 percent of local journalists never go to church or other services. (Among the general public that year, 39 percent of adults went at least once a week and 27 percent seldom or never attended services, according to Pew.  By 2014, the percentages for all adults had changed to 36 percent and 30 percent, respectively.)

At Liberty, by contrast, nearly all the students are evangelical Christians. Politically, they are fairly uniform, as well. Falwell, who runs the university, which his evangelist father founded, appears frequently on television and Twitter as one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in the religious realm. While not all students agree with Falwell’s support for the president, they are overwhelmingly conservative: In Virginia’s recent gubernatorial election, Falwell proudly tweeted the vote tally at Liberty’s precinct was 1,213 votes for Republican Ed Gillespie to 51 votes for Democrat Ralph Northam.

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This is a place where the ads in the student newspaper promote theology graduate programs and the gospel choir gets a front-page story. Bonebright starts class this week flipping through the issue, highlighting her students’ work. “Katie, a football story? Nice! Did you sit in the press box and everything? Is this your first time?”

Meanwhile, two students are quietly chatting in their seats about the sexual harassment scandal embroiling comedian Louis C.K. “I wish this was a regular school so that I could talk about it,” one young man jokes; apparently masturbation is not to be discussed in Liberty classrooms.

What they do discuss, proudly, is the interaction between their chosen profession and their faith.

TJ Davis, a senior from Leesburg, Va., raises his hand. “Anytime I mention journalism and people, especially older people, say, ‘That’s such a terrible, dark field,’ it just encourages me to pray: ‘God, use me as your vessel to bring You glory,’” he says.

In the view of many conservative Christians he knows, Davis says after class, the media “seems to be contributing a lot of bad in the world right now.”

He doesn’t disagree entirely — he thinks a lot of journalists just look for a quick quote without caring about getting the complete, accurate story, and he suspects BuzzFeed and other outlets post articles before verifying they are true. He sees a flawed newsroom as a sort of mission field.

“I want to go into these dark places and be the light in that place, use that as an opportunity to bring God’s glory,” he said. “You can go into a place that’s riddled with people who are out there with ulterior motives, or people who don’t have those same standards as you.”

Describing his dream job, he says one of the outlets he would love to work for is the New York Times.

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Davis is exactly the sort of student Bruce Kirk wants to send out of the journalism program at Liberty, which he runs. Before becoming dean of Liberty’s school of communications, Kirk worked at local television stations across the country. In his wide-ranging career, he says, he saw reporters who let their liberal bias creep into their news coverage.

Now, he tells students they might encounter the same thing.

“I had a student a couple years ago who interned at CNN. You know CNN’s reputation has really gone down the toilet,” he said. He thinks that a diversity of voices in editorial meetings would improve the channel’s coverage, and his student could someday provide that. “Some of these claims of ‘fake news’? If there were more people who were questioning and challenging, I suspect some of that ‘fake news’ would go out the door.”

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Current student William Collier says he’s experiencing a mission field of that sort as an intern right now in the sports section at the News & Advance in Lynchburg, Va., “It’s just a matter of trying to hold on to who you are. … The newsroom is definitely different. It’s not a bubble of just super-devout Christians,” he says.

Collier says he wants to conduct himself as a Christian should, even when conversations in the newsroom get racy. He also doesn’t want to preach. “I don’t know if this is going to sound too left-wing. But I don’t want to be a Christian journalist. I just want to be a journalist that’s a Christian,” he said.

Others have decided they would rather write for religious publications than work in the secular media. A surprisingly common ambition in this class is to work in communications for a nonprofit that does foreign missions work, so they can write promotional copy about missionaries to drum up donations.

All of the students say again and again they’re committed to objectively airing all sides of a debate — the ethics at the heart of any journalism, religious or not — even though most of them have strong views about political and moral issues.

“We believe the truth is so powerful [that] we’re not afraid to share the other side [that] we believe is wrong,” Bonebright puts it.

In fact, some students say, the complete truth is what God demands. “If you truly believe you’re being held to a divine standard, think about how much more worthwhile it is to hold yourself to an ethical standard,” Sydney Jones says.

It’s another reason evangelical Christians belong in newsrooms, these students say, even as their families and friends sometimes warn them to steer clear.

When class ends, they rush out of the room, many of them clutching notebooks. They have stories to file.

This story has been updated.

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