By Doug Mendenhall

Fewer than 10 faith-based universities are approved by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. I teach at one of these rare programs, Abilene Christian University in Texas. 

This is my alma mater, where back in the 1980s I was mentored by Charles Marler – both a church elder and a Ph.D. from Missouri’s renowned journalism school. I still have a paper Charlie presented about 25 years ago: Journalism Education in the Judeo-Christian Context. His thoughts about the symbiosis between strong faith and ethical journalism influenced me as I edited the university newspaper, then spent 25 years in daily newsrooms.

Ever a painstaking keeper of statistics and maker of lists, Charlie explored in that paper 17 biblical models for balancing disclosure and confidentiality, beginning with the Eden Model, then visiting Achan, Berea, the Areopagus and other places whose names are symbolic to students of Scripture.  Seventeen. Who knew?

Administrators of faith-based schools would do well to similarly study their sacred texts, pondering verses and chapters that touch on whether God prefers the open flow of information or a more authoritarian system that stifles discussion. 

When I returned to the ACU campus a decade ago, I got the title “Journalist in Residence,” which is probably more of a target on my back than a medal on my chest, given the current religio-political landscape.  

The student reporters I teach now still wrestle with the same tough issues we had back in the 1980s. Two examples:

  • Should a student’s arrest be reported? Will it make the university look bad? Will it increase the student’s embarrassment? Isn’t this just a private matter?
  • Can the university’s leadership be criticized in print? Isn’t that disrespectful? Doesn’t it sow discord? Isn’t it tantamount to blasphemy?

On delicate questions such as these, I understand the fortitude needed for an administrator to come down on the side of student press freedom. However, I still insist that forbidding potentially negative news or disagreeable opinions from student journalists is a false god. For Christians, that kind of whitewashing is not a virtue, but a temptation.

Certainly, students must be held to high standards if they’re going to be allowed to practice free-wheeling, professional-grade journalism on the campuses of Christian schools.

I tell my journalism students that as a consequence of graduating from a place with “Christian” in its name, any scandals in their professional careers will make bigger-than-typical headlines. They’d better be the best.

Of course, we know the same is true for presidents of Christian schools.  And I’m at peace with that on both counts. Christian students practicing journalism and Christian educators practicing leadership need to be exemplary, committed to honesty and openness.

Which is why I’m disappointed that so few Christian colleges have ACEJMC-accredited journalism programs. Today’s world can use more Christian communicators.

However, even for Christian colleges that reject the principles of the ACEJMC for one valid reason or another, application of biblical principles can lead to a solid, honest journalism program.

Doug Mendenhall is an associate professor and Journalist in Residence in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University, where he has taught since 2008. He holds a bachelor’s degree from ACU, a master’s from Middle Tennessee State University and a doctorate from Texas Tech University, all in mass communication. Mendenhall has 26 years’ experience in editing and design positions for daily newspapers in Texas, Tennessee and Alabama. He has written a weekly religion and spirituality column since 2000, first for the Huntsville (Ala.) Times and now for the Abilene Reporter-News, and is closing in on 1,000 columns.

Introduction to Series: When Freedom is not Free: Viewpoints on Student Media Controls on Christian CampusesMichael Longinow
With press freedom comes much responsibilityAlan Blanchard
Courageous Advising: A Free Press is Challenging but Do-ableCassidy Grom
Nationally Accredited Journalism Programs and Faith-Based Mission: Not Antithetical, Much Needed in Today’s Media WorldDoug Mendenhall
True liberty means press liberty: Let the students reportPaul Glader
Christian Journalism & Privacy LawsTerry Mattingly
Liberty & JournalismMichael Longinow
Mr. Falwell’s FollyTimothy C. Morgan
Liberty CensorshipDonna J. Downs
Inside Liberty’s Culture of Learning: An Opportunity to ExcelAmanda Sullivan Sokolik