By Fleming Smith
The Reverend David Crabtree recently received an honorary degree in civil law from Sewanee, and as part of his visit to campus he addressed his views on the connection between religion and journalism, sharing his opinion that God indeed has a presence in not only the newsroom but in every workplace.
In addition to working as a news anchor and reporter in North Carolina, Crabtree is an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. He began his talk by explaining how many of his colleagues in the newsroom hesitate to associate themselves with religion, wondering if God should be in the newsroom at all.
“Journalists often want to keep their distance from anything that seems religious, or spiritual, or biblical,” Crabtree commented. “We’ve seen so many people abuse religion, or at least in the name of religion, that we fear that we may be tainted or tarred because we even took the time to consider a religious belief and influence on either the subject of our story or how we might be influenced in our reporting.”
However, he stressed the power of an “unmistakable human tragedy” to bring all people, including reporters, back to God. “God is there whether we choose to acknowledge it,” he stated.
Crabtree also addressed other dilemmas he has faced in the newsroom, especially regarding perceptions of how reporters choose which news to report. Many viewers complain that he never gives them any good news, or insist that he should only provide the facts in order to allow viewers to make up their own mind.
In response, Crabtree mentioned the importance of context in any news reporting. He gave the example of news that the sun is shining, which at first glance does seem like good news. If the area is experiencing a drought, however, the news becomes less positive in that context.
During his talk, Crabtree showed images from news he had reported, including photographs from Haiti and Iraq. One image displayed a young girl in a hospital after an attack, wrapped in bandages and staring with hollow eyes at the camera.
“Look at the eyes of this child. It takes the sanitization away from a war that’s often fought now with drones, a decision made thousands of miles away in Washington,” he commented.
While discussing how viewers should respond to such graphic images, Crabtree explained, “I believe the goodness in humanity is there, and is always there…but it’s the stories of suffering that change us.”
Crabtree stressed the role of “people of any faith” to watch the news and then decide how they themselves would be involved and improve the lives of others.
“Each of us has their own God and their own idea about how God does or does not affect our decision making. There’s no absolute wrong or right answer,” he said. Crabtree shared a line from one of his favorite poems, “The Little Black Boy” by William Blake, reading, “And we are put on earth a little space,/That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
“To bear these beams of love requires a great cost and a great commitment,” Crabtree explained. “Every day in that newsroom, when we’re making decisions on what to show and what not to show, about how much of something to show and how little to show, and knowing that once we finish we move on with our lives while to those who have been directly impacted, that impact continues—we have to calculate that cost every time. Because that cost is real. It’s part of the cost to ourselves,” he explained.
Crabtree’s own philosophy regarding life, he told the audience, involved the way every individual has the power to plant seeds of change. In that sense, the news is not only what the viewer watches, it is what the viewer can create, for good or bad.
“Just know that each of you has a bag of seeds,” Crabtree concluded. “It’s up to you to decide what you want to do with them.”