James Maidment-Fuller, Megan Lackie and Davie Piper work for Trans World Radio UK which broadcasts Christian radio throughout the UK. They spoke with Abi Jarvis, Public Leadership coordinator, about their passion for Christian engagement with mainstream news and what it means to be a Christian journalist.
Why is it important to report on ‘mainstream issues’ and not just ‘Christian news’?
James: We can’t ignore ‘mainstream issues’. With Jesus at the centre of our lives, we have a unique perspective to offer a hurting world. Let’s not waste that opportunity by looking inward.
Dave: To take a mainstream news story and give Christians who are involved or experienced in the issue a platform, is the next step towards news that informs and helps us pray and act.
Megan: Some of the most vital work that the Church is doing at the moment is addressing the very real, practical day-to-day problems that people are facing. Meeting people where they are and giving them the help they need in the moment is one of the most effective ways we can evangelise. Highlighting Christians and Christian organisations who are doing just that is a way of saying ‘look, your day to day matters to God’ and ‘look, there is a space for Christian mission in every area of life.’
James: When I think about ‘Christian news’, I don’t think of the relatively minor stories that get very little coverage in the mainstream media. I think of the main stories, because whatever they are they will probably impact our lives.
Megan: To me as a Christian my faith plays out in every area of my life – my political outlook, my attitude to social justice, my day-to-day relationships etc. There is no separation of the Christian part of my life and then the rest of it, and so to me it should be the same with news and the way we view the world generally.
Dave: There’s no such thing as a “non-Christian” story. We’re living in this world, so what happens affects us all. Brexit. Donald Trump. Marmite prices going up. All these are things we need to know about – so we can pray! “Lord, let now thy servant depart without Marmite” would probably be appropriate for half the population. But on a serious note, how can situations be changed if no-one prays? And how can they pray if they don’t know? And how can they know if no-one reports the news?
Megan: Content makers are in an important position – how stories are told can influence the outlook and worldview of the people who consume them.
Dave: I’d rather have a Christian reporting world events, taking care to report the facts and remove the tabloid-y hyperbole and shock-value gratuitousness. I think there’s value to that, whatever the story.
James: When you watch the news on the BBC or Sky you’ll have noticed that you get the banner at the bottom that provides extra information for the viewer. That’s how I like to think about what we’re trying to do. Our listeners are watching (listening) to the news, while we give a running Christian commentary.
Megan: We should take the Christian viewpoint to the headlines, instead of viewing them as irrelevant to us if they don’t directly impact or involve Christians. As a Christian news outlet I think that’s how we become a voice for change, in the public sphere but also in the media world itself by doing news differently.
Why TWR? Why not work in the mainstream media?
James: One of my frustrations as a young Christian was coming up against fellow believers who weren’t interested in engaging with the issues my non-Christian friends were worried about. I started a Christian radio programme which went on to win a couple of minor awards and I was really pleased to get students engaging with some of the big issues of the day from a Christian perspective. I saw a job advert for TWR and saw that they were passionate about news and current affairs. It seemed like the perfect fit.
Megan: For me it was just God opening this door. I hadn’t thought about working specifically in Christian media. This role makes it possible for me to use the skills and training I’ve developed to make content that has a real Christian message at its heart, so I’m thankful to be here and use my platform to tell important and hopeful stories.
Dave: Mostly it was pure, unvarnished opportunity – I was leaving University, with an English degree, and therefore no idea what to do with my life. I’d been involved with my Uni radio station my final year at Lancaster. My mum spotted an advert for junior presenters at another national Christian broadcaster in the Midlands in a well-known daily devotional. So I thought I’d give it a go. Nine years on, I moved to TWR.
What difference has your faith made to the way you do your jobs? What challenges have you faced?
James: As a news editor I have to read an awful lot of nonsense. It would be easy for me to get Christians to “face off” on major issues in order to get more listeners, but I’m constantly pulling myself back from that. We won’t gain friends in the world if they only see us arguing amongst ourselves.
Dave: Hopefully, we are showing listeners there is a higher level when it comes to journalism – that even that can be done in a biblical way!
Megan: One of the challenges of this job is that a lot of news can be bad news, or sad stories. It’s hard to maintain morale sometimes. However, the blessing of this being a Christian station where we interview Christian guests is that for every bad situation I’m reporting on God is always moving, and the guests I speak to always remind me of that.
James: I like to think that we offer a supportive role for Christians who want to engage with the big issues in the world.
Dave: We can encourage Christians who are making a difference in society to speak up about it, and share their example. It’s all too easy to go with the flow. To say “Well, they’re reporting this as their top story, so we should too”.
Megan: When I’m feeling sad or heartbroken about a particular story, the people I’m speaking to about it are often the ones doing the important work to change these situations. Hearing from them, and how God is using them, is always an encouragement. It’s also about keeping sight of the fact that God is in control, even amidst the chaos that we’re often reporting on.
James: I’m also conscious that journalists can be opinion formers, that’s not something I take lightly. It comes with challenges.
Megan: When you’re a journalist people view you as having a certain insight or a certain authority on different subjects. It carries responsibility. I’m conscious of the way I put stories together, as I’m aware my words could be influencing the person listening.
Dave: And even little things, like going along with bias or divisive language, because it makes the story more interesting. But ultimately, working as a Christian, for a Christian broadcaster, there’s that higher goal. And that’s refreshing, in a world of click-bait and hyped-up headlines.
What does a typical day at work look like?
James: When my alarm goes off I reach straight for my phone and log on to various news apps to find out what’s going on in the world. At 6am I turn on the Today programme on Radio 4 – my wife often entertains our friends by telling them how BBC Radio 4 is on in the bedroom, BBC 5 Live in the kitchen and BBC Breakfast on the TV. When I get to work, we decide as a team which stories we’ll cover during the day. By 8:30 we’re already reaching out to guests and writing features for our daily live news programme at 12pm.
Megan: We have news bulletins throughout the day, and then a live news show at 12pm each day. My morning usually consists of getting interviews for the 12pm news and writing the other bulletins around that.
Dave: The day begins way too early – but I think that’s the case whatever shift you work! If you’re working 11am-7pm, 9am seems early. But it’s a mix of listening to programs to check they’re Ofcom-compliant, reading news stories online and pestering Christian charities and organisations for interviews.
James: For the rest of the day I’m producing content, researching, editing and putting together a magazine programme called The Exchange.
Megan: After the 12pm I’m usually working on features that go into our two hour Saturday morning news programme. These focus on everything from political headlines to inspiring projects that local churches are carrying out to looking at the persecution of Christians around the world, it’s very varied.
James: I also edit TWR-UK’s flagship news and current affairs programme NewsDesk. We broadcast this programme from 8 in the morning on Saturday and it’s a chance for us to look at the news in-depth over a couple of hours. It’s the highlight of my week. Essentially I’m an organiser, making sure there’s enough content to fill all the gaps in our schedule.
If you’re interested, I end my day by listening to The World Tonight and watching Newsnight… as I said above, I’m a news addict.
What would you say to Christians working in the media world, who are struggling to integrate their working life and their faith?
James: They have my every sympathy. It’s a difficult world to work in, full of pitfalls, deadlines and stressful environments.
Dave: It’s a privilege to be a journalist – but also a bit overwhelming. When you stop and think that people will credit what you say because of your job title! Mistakes are made, even by prominent members of the major mainstream corporations. But all the more reason to press on and do our best as Christian broadcasters.
James: I’d advise them to be accountable to someone who’ll help them to grow spiritually. I’m not just talking about picking a friend at random. Find someone who believes in your vision but will, if necessary, tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.
Megan: Recognise that your passions and your skills all play a part in God’s purpose for you. You might be the only Christian voice in your particular media outlet, don’t let that make you think your Christian life is separate to your work life – perhaps you’re there to show God’s heart on the content you’re working on.
James: We have to deal with so many bad news stories. There have been days when I’ve got home from work having focussed on thousands who’ve died during the conflict in Syria, sex abuse inquiries and terrorist attacks. Never forget: God is on the throne.
Megan: I think Christians working in the media world face the same challenges as Christians working in any other sphere, and for all of us that’s an ongoing process to continually offer up our lives in service to God. I love the way The Message puts Romans 12:1-2:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
How has your church supported you during your career?
James: My church has been great! They don’t make a big deal of my job, but if I need them I know they’ve got my back. My small group has also been fantastic; I’ve lost count of the amount of times one of them has come up to me with something they’ve seen in the news that they think we should cover. I love that they get the vision.
What guidance would you give to an aspiring Christian journalist?
James: There are so many people trying to “make it” in the media, you can put yourself ahead in the race by gaining as much experience as possible. It’ll cost you a lot of time volunteering but it will be worth it.
Dave: I’d say get involved now. Find opportunities to volunteer, and find out what area fits you like a glove. You’ll know them when you find them – partly because everyone will tell you how “natural” you are, and partly because it’ll be – dare I say it – fun! Once you’ve got over the nerves. It’s only taken me nine or so years so far and I’m nearly there!
Megan: Ask God to break your heart for what breaks His and you’ll soon see a whole world of stories worth reporting on. The world’s idea of news values and who/what matters can sometimes be very different to God’s idea of who/what matters. Seek His heart on the issues and let that inform your journalism.
Dave: I’m not an expert – I’ve only experienced my own career path, which is hopefully still in its early days. And I’ve mostly got by without too much forward-planning or strategic thinking. So think how far you could get with some planning!
James: My top tip? Be interested in the world. Read as many books as you can get your hands on and keep learning.
Any advice for someone interested in appearing on your news programmes?
Megan: Have a story to tell – we love hearing personal stories, people who have been impacted by what you’re doing. Look out for national stories or topics of national interest that relate to what you’re doing on a local or community level. Listen to our news coverage to hear the kind of tone we go for and the types of guests we have on.
Dave: Some of the best bits of interviews come right at the end. After you’ve thanked the guest, and stopped recording. Those moments when they say – “I wish I’d said…” and reel off the best soundbite you could’ve hoped for! Ah well, we live and learn.
Any final words?
Dave: In true broadcast-style; thanks for your time today, and if you’d like to share your thoughts, email email@example.com.