The first rough draft of history

The inescapable hurry of the press inevitably means a certain degree of superficiality. It is neither within our power nor our province to be ultimately profound. We write 365 days a year the first rough draft of history, and that is a very great task.”

— Phillip L. Graham, Washington Post President and Publisher, 1953

In a 2010 Slate column, writer Jack Shafer explored the origins of the idea that journalism is the “first rough draft of history.” It’s taught in most journalism schools, but usually it goes unattributed. Shafer concluded that the phrase probably originated among several writers on the Post’s editorial board in the late 1940s.

I can appreciate the effort to nail that down, but knowing how the phrase originated wouldn’t much change my appreciation for it. The thought lends great significance to what we do as journalists.

“First, rough, and draft all have separate and distinct meanings,” Shafer wrote, “yet they all point to a morning greenness, a raw beginning where truth originates.”

I was talking the other day with someone I care about deeply, who has trouble accepting the Bible as historically accurate. He’s adopted the belief made popular by books like “The Da Vinci Code” that the New Testament was a political construction by Emperor Constantine and the Nicene Council in 325 A.D. The council rejected all accounts they didn’t like, the thinking goes, and blended various anonymous stories into four gospels that made it into the Bible.

I believe journalism – the first rough draft of history — helps settle this question. The Bible’s gospel accounts were based either on first-hand observation or on reporting: interviewing eyewitnesses. In the first four verses of his gospel, Luke sets forth his credibility as having “carefully investigated everything from the beginning … so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

Writer and pastor Timothy Keller has pointed out that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written when many eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus were still around. Paul’s letters, which reference many events in the life of Jesus, were written only 15 to 25 years after the Crucifixion.

“Paul refers to a body of 500 eyewitnesses who saw the risen Christ at once,” Keller writes in “The Reason for God.” “You can’t write that in a document designed for public reading unless there really were surviving witnesses whose testimony agreed and who could confirm what the author said.” (pp.101-102)

Much of this applies to reporting stories from the mission field today. Whether we are journalists writing for a news organization or missionaries writing a monthly newsletter, our job is to report what we see and what we hear from eyewitnesses. It’s to report important stories that otherwise would go untold to a wider audience. It’s to distinguish facts from rumors and to give an accurate account.

The future of the world may not be riding on how well we do that, as it did with the writers of the New Testament. Still, the world benefits when we report compelling stories accurately. Those who write later drafts of history will rely on how well we do our jobs today.

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