Smile Politely

The truth of the matter

This past year as a journalism student at the University of Illinois, I was told repeatedly that my first responsibility is to the truth: to seek it out, to report it, and to do so precisely and carefully. The facts must be checked, verified and confirmed by multiple sources; we reporters should hold ourselves to a standard of objectivity and try to see a story from as many angles as we can. 

As an undergrad at a Christian college, I was introduced to the fascinating idea that truth is a Person—namely Jesus.  I can’t for the life of me remember whom to thank for this assertion.  I was raised in church, so I knew the verse in the Gospel of John that quotes Christ as saying: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  But to hear someone state that Christ equals Truth still set me back on my heels.

I tried, this year, to merge these two ideas into one duty: my first responsibility is to truth, which is embodied in the Person of Jesus Christ.  This actually made things much easier, after I gave it some thought.  I had many professors and editors, but Jesus was the big boss to whom I ultimately answered.  If I wasn’t doing Him any dishonor with my work, then I didn’t have to be concerned with how many times my byline showed up around town, or what grades ended up on my transcript. 

I found that God was actually a lot easier to please than I sometimes imagined.  If my first priority was to do others justice in print with my words and to treat them all with respect and fairness—while taking care not to twist or distort stories into what I wanted them to be—I could sleep well at night.  If my job became all about me-making myself look courageous, independent, cool or powerful-I was pretty much set to fall flat on my face, and my writing would fall flat, too.

However, uncovering the facts can be tricky. I found that there were various subjects that local officials did not particularly care to discuss.  Prostitution was one, sex education another.  It was hugely frustrating to see how closemouthed Champaign-Urbana can be.  (One of my colleagues, however, seemed to have no trouble getting the mayor to discuss prostitution; maybe it was an especially busy week when I called the office.)

Meanwhile, at times I found myself getting a little squeamish at asking certain questions that my professors insisted must be asked.  One wanted to know whether one of my interviewees, who is HIV-positive, was sexually active, whether his partner was also HIV-positive, and whether they practiced “safe sex.” Generally, that’s a question I wouldn’t even ask my closest friends.

In previous years, I’ve agreed with the aphorism that what  someone does in the privacy of one’s own home-especially the bedroom–is his/her own business.  However, it doesn’t take a second before I’m adding qualifiers. What if there is child abuse going on?  Spousal abuse?  Emotional or verbal abuse?  Marital rape?  What if one or both parties are married to others?  Sometimes third parties have a defensible interest in what happens in the bedroom.

The public has a right to know the truth, but when that right to know conflicts with the individual’s right to privacy, judgment calls take the place of black-and-white morality.   At least, I’m pretty sure that’s the politically correct way to think about it. But I’m not really capable of being politically correct all the time.
So back I go to Jesus, who really didn’t pull any punches when it came to other people’s sex lives.  He pointed out to a total stranger (the “woman at the well”) that she was sleeping with a man who wasn’t her husband.  Apparently Jesus’ respect for her privacy was overshadowed by His desire to pull her out in the open.  He also didn’t call for her stoning, as some religious people of the day did with a woman who had cheated on her husband. He didn’t even tell her to cut it out; he astonished her by merely reflecting the reality of the situation.

As I head out from grad school, I’m no less squeamish about asking other people about what they do in private.  I’m starting to wonder, though, if a little more accountability among friends and neighbors might not be a good thing.  Should I ever be the one to say, “Hey, that guy you’re sleeping with isn’t your husband.”?  I guess I’d want my friends to do that for me.

But who has the guts to say that kind of thing?


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