Dordt College News

Reformed Research

May 9, 2009

Dr. Tim Vos, who teaches journalism courses at the University of Missouri, says that the last presidential election demonstrated that people still want news.  Itís just that the form in which we get the news is going to change.

Istill have KDCR dreams,” Tim Vos (’83) recalls. “Actually, they are more like nightmares—I’m sitting down to do a newscast, and I don’t have a script or I’m still trying to get a story done.”

Vos, who worked at 88.5 KDCR FM for three years as a student and served as News Director at KDCR for twelve years, is currently an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, the oldest (and some say the best) school of journalism in the United States.

After his years at KDCR and four years of teaching in Dordt’s Communication Department, Tim, his wife Suzette (Luyt, ’82), and their two sons pulled up stakes, left Sioux Center and moved to Syracuse, New York, where he pursued his doctorate in journalism and Suzette worked toward a degree in nutrition science. Both received their degrees, and then for several years Tim commuted from Syracuse to Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, where he taught in the department of communication. 

That’s a 250-mile commute, but Tim says, “Suzette had a great first job as a dietician for a long-term care and rehabilitation facility, so I rented a room in South Orange and commuted back and forth once or twice a week.” These days, Suzette works as a renal dietician at Columbia DaVita Dialysis in Columbia, Missouri.

Vos’s interest in journalism began in high school and carried over to Dordt where interviewing political candidates campaigning for the presidency at the Iowa caucuses was an invigorating and exciting experience. But he notes especially the significance of his classes at Dordt.

“A lot of my best memories are from attending class—just being in a philosophy class or one of Don King’s political science classes and being engaged by what I was learning, but also naively daydreaming about changing the world. The idealism of youth was pretty heady.”

When asked about the overall effect of his Dordt education on his life, Vos is unabashedly forthright: “Attending Dordt College was the single most transformative experience in my life.  I had very little idea of what being Reformed really meant until I came to Dordt. Professors such as Jim Skillen, Rock McCarthy, Hugh Cook, and Charlie Veenstra challenged me to think about how radical it is to recognize Christ’s lordship over all of life. John Vander Stelt’s philosophy classes shaped my worldview in pretty profound ways. I still hear John’s voice in my own writing and thinking.”

Vos acknowledges that now as a teacher in a secular university he is not as explicit about his worldview as he was at Dordt, but he says that the questions he asks, whether in his research or the classroom, are all worldview driven.

“One of the questions that’s at the heart of my research agenda is the role that worldviews and ideologies play in how the news turns out the way it does. I presented a study at a journalism history conference last fall that dealt specifically with how biblical faith has shaped journalists’ meaning-making work. I’m continuing to work on that project with the help of the Center on Religion and the Professions, which is located here in the Missouri School of Journalism.”

Vos sees his movement from the somewhat protected world of Dordt and Sioux Center to the larger university scene as an occasion for his faith to mature in ways it otherwise might not have.

“At the end of the day, our faith needs to engage the world and, for me, that’s meant going out and being part of the great cultural dialogue. That’s why the Center for Public Justice had to leave Sioux County and set up shop in Washington, D.C. If you’re going to speak truth to power, you better go where the power is.” But Vos also acknowledges that he is lot more humble today about knowing exactly what the truth is, observing that even when he is convicted of the truth “it’s less of a monologue than a dialogue.”

Vos has little use for the culture wars mind-set that tends to draw the antithesis between good and evil along geographical or organizational lines. He notes that a secular worldview, though subtle, is still “very much present in places like Sioux Center,” and he recognizes that he had “to step away from Sioux Center and Pella to realize that.” But he is quick to point out that it was his “reformed or Kuyperian education” that enabled him to see that at all. And it is that worldview education that caused him to pursue a research focus in his career.

“One of the first things I took from my philosophy classes at Dordt was that Christ’s lordship extends over social institutions. Very little reformed scholarship has examined the news media as a social institution that has a unique calling or God-given task. Most Christian scholarship has focused on the ethical duties of individual journalists, but that leaves the institution largely unexamined. My research program is about understanding the news media as a social institution. Understanding historically situated and humanly constructed institutions requires a good deal of original empirical research…so that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Academic research careers in journalism at Tier One research universities are difficult to come by, so Vos feels blessed with his situation at the University of Missouri. The fact that he has received several prestigious research/writing awards and has an arm-long list of publications and conference papers probably has something to do with his being there.

In 2003, Vos won the Leslie J. Moeller Award for the top student paper from the Association for Education in Journalism and Communications, and in 2005 he had a Top Three Faculty Paper from the same organization. That year he also received the Catherine L. Covert Research Award from the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communication. But the award that gave him the most pleasure was the All-University Doctoral Prize from Syracuse University because, says Vos, “the dissertation is like a member of the family by the end of the process, and the award reminded me it wasn’t solely a personal effort.”

Because of his research work, Vos usually teaches just one course a semester. He also works with master’s and doctoral students on research projects, advising theses and dissertations, and reviewing manuscripts for journals.

When asked about the state of journalism in a time when newspapers are dropping like flies, Vos expresses confidence that print journalism will be with us for a while yet but acknowledges “that the economic model is in bad shape.”  While print journalism functioned effectively with the advertising-support model until recently, Vos says “the scale of online advertising just doesn’t pay for the kind of journalism the big newspapers were producing.”

One area of concern is journalism’s “watchdog” role. Vos observes that journalists “have never been as good at being watchdogs as they’ve claimed.” But he goes on to say that “when the government is handing over billions of dollars to a handful of big companies, when the country is fighting two wars, when allegations of war crimes aren’t going away, the need for public scrutiny is as high and deep and wide as ever. If journalists don’t or can’t fill that need, either some other entity needs to step to the plate, or our country is going to be in even worse trouble than it is already.”

But Vos is not pessimistic. “People still want news,” he says.  “It’s just that the form in which we get news is going to change.”

Meanwhile, Vos will be teaching and doing research, perhaps in some small ways fulfilling those “heady, naïve daydreams” he had as an undergraduate in a Dordt College classroom.


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