It was one of the ugliest presidential elections in US history. On one side was a candidate who was smeared in the press as too sensitive to be a man and too brutish to be a woman. Fake news stories, planted by opposing forces, claimed the candidate supported a march toward war. Of course, it was hard to know what to believe; this same candidate had previously used every means possible to limit press freedoms and keep important information away from public eyes.
On the other side was a man widely rumored to have abused his power to sexually assault at least one woman young enough to be his daughter, a rumor his opponent happily exploited for personal political gain. It was claimed that if this man were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.”
It was the election of 1800. The candidates: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Fake news and consequent distrust of the media are nothing new. Politicians and power brokers have for centuries used the press and the gossip grapevine to manipulate the public. What is new is the speed and volume of information constantly bombarding our senses from a million different sources. It is easy to feel overwhelmed, and consequently to retreat to spaces filled with people who think and feel like we do. Media scholars refer to this as an “echo chamber,” where our existing opinions are reinforced and we are free from the discomfort of opposing viewpoints.
In our digital world of viral content and up-to-the-second breaking news, the stakes are higher, to be sure. But as Christians, we should see this as a call for greater discernment, not an excuse to disengage from the conversation or, conversely, keep adding fuel to the fire. How then can we allow God’s wisdom to help us make sense of the news we see, hear, and read every day?
What’s Fake and What’s Real
First of all, we must remember that there is a difference between honest journalism—which may still be honest even when it presents perspectives that contrast with a biblical worldview—and efforts to use the media for mass manipulation. Media scholars and executives have long known that people do not generally like to have their beliefs and behaviors challenged. It creates a sense of mental discomfort that psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” To avoid this discomfort, psychology suggests, we tend to favor and seek out information that supports our existing views, while avoiding information that conflicts with them.
In the era of the multi-channel, 24-7 news cycle, many media companies are happy to feed us a smorgasbord of rhetoric and information that makes us feel comfortable right where we are—no need to try to grasp the big picture or understand other points of view. Unfortunately, of course, the world isn’t that simple.
Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute, a leading journalism and media think tank, says that there is much more opinion content, sometimes sprinkled into straight news reporting, than there used to be. And frequently that content is left unlabeled. “The public, over and over again, does not understand the difference (between opinion writing and news reporting), and who can blame them because it’s confusing,” McBride says. “These are difficult questions to answer for a seasoned professional. They are near impossible for the public to determine.” This content then gets shared on social media, divorced from its original source, and it becomes even more difficult to separate fact from opinion.
Yet while there are plenty of propaganda peddlers and hype hucksters out there, there are also a lot of honest, hardworking journalists who take their responsibility very seriously. They are not perfect, and sometimes their biases show through. Sometimes the professional, secular culture of the news business will shape the information in ways Bible-believing Christians may disagree with. But these journalists are dedicated to finding and presenting the facts so that we can all be better informed in the decisions we make.
So in a time when we are bombarded by so many efforts to mislead us, it is all the more important that we look for good, responsible journalism. We must seek out those news outlets that are trying to play a fair game. We cannot acquiesce to our confirmation biases but must seek to sift the truth from the spin, the wheat from the chaff.
John Dickerson, pastor of Connection Pointe Christian Church in Brownsburg, Indiana, suggests some ways to do this in his new book, Hope of Nations: Standing Strong in a Post-Truth, Post-Christian World. If we are watching, reading, or listening to news that purports to be reporting, as opposed to commentary, then we should ask ourselves if the reporters are giving us verified facts. Have they checked their information against possible conflicting reports presented by other news sources? Do the journalists let us know that they’ve confirmed the information with more than one reliable source? Are they transparent about where they’re getting their information? Have they sought information from those people in the best position or from documents best able to give us the most accurate account of an issue or event? “If they’re not, then it’s probably not helping me understand reality,” Dickerson says. “Just like we would say, ‘I’m not going to go listen to a pastor unless he’s preaching the Word of God,’ we can also say, ‘I’m not going to listen to a reporter unless he’s reporting the facts.’”
Sometimes news stories may challenge what we believe, but we owe it to our neighbors and to our Christian witness to confront that challenge. In the process, we allow God an opportunity to reveal the greater complexities of how his will manifests in the world around us, and the foundations of our faith are made all the stronger for being tested.
The popular narrative among many in society that Christians—and conservative Christians especially—are less media literate is unfair, says sociologist and media scholar Francesca Tripodi. In fact, in her study of conservative evangelical Christians, conducted with the Data & Society research institute and released in May, Tripodi found that Christians often apply the same skills they use in studying the Bible to critique the news. She calls this “scriptural inference.” When studying Scripture, Christians often prioritize the text of the Bible itself, rather than outside commentary, to understand how to apply its principles in one’s own life.
This emphasis on original text is frequently transferred to discourse on current events. Rather than simply accepting the messages presented from major news outlets without question, the participants in Tripodi’s study sought out authoritative sources—such as the Constitution, the tax code, or the original words of a speech—to dissect the text for themselves.
“I think there is a really great value in scriptural inference, and I think that more attention among secular thinkers to this very curious exploration process is important,” Tripodi says.
The problem, her study suggests, is in the way Christians are accessing these resources and embarking upon this exploration process. The first place many people go when looking for information is Google. But Google searches don’t weigh facts; they rank results, Tripodi says. Very small syntax changes can have a dramatic influence on the information we get back. Knowing this, media outlets customize their content using search engine optimization to reach audiences who will be most receptive to their views. Conservative media outlets know that many conservative Christians prioritize exact words and phrases, so they tag their content with these terms to show up higher in the Google results.
For example, in September 2017 when President Trump tweeted that NFL ratings were “way down” and the league should “fire or suspend” football players who knelt for the national anthem, this became a popular topic among the people in Tripodi’s study. When she Googled “NFL ratings down,” using Trump’s own words as scriptural inference might suggest, Tripodi found the top headlines came from conservative outlets and seemed to confirm Trump’s claims. However, she found that if she searched for “NFL ratings up,” Google would return an entirely different set of links from a more liberal political perspective. Taken together, these contrasting viewpoints offered a more complex picture than readers might get if they were looking at only one side of the story.
If we want to challenge our understanding of the issues and not simply reaffirm it, then we need to have “a little bit more critique of our own key searches, think a little more deeply about what we’re putting into Google,” Tripodi says.
Above all, we need to embrace the proper balance when it comes to how much news we consume. As a former full-time journalist himself, Dickerson says there was a time when he would spend two hours or more every day reading the news. Eventually, he realized he didn’t need to be spending that much time filling his mind with what’s going on in the world: “Even if I’m focused on the facts, the reality is what I most need to give me perspective and sanity in a shifting world is the Word of God.” We need the Word of God to define our reality, he says, not the news.
The problem with too much news intake is that it’s likely to make a person fearful, Dickerson says, because it causes us to lose the eternal perspective that this world is not our home. We’re also likely to see people as political objects instead of eternal souls, and so we are less likely to engage them with grace. Too little news intake, on the other hand, makes us unaware of and insensitive to the people around us: “We’re not going to be very good at showing and telling the good news of Jesus if we’re not aware of what life is like for most people in the world.”
Dickerson offers a few concrete practices that Christians can use to be more mindful about the information they consume. First is what he calls the five-day challenge. For five days, track the number of minutes you spend taking in media, including social media, and compare it with the amount of Scripture you take in. “As a follower of Christ in an era of so much information, I’ve got to be really intentional that the Word of God is shaping my thoughts so that it shapes my life.”
Second, he says, try once a week to read the opinion pages of a news outlet that you know you disagree with. In the process, try to move from thinking, “Do I agree with this?” and move toward thinking, “How does this person see the world? How can I understand this person?” Dickerson says he views the news media like a coffee shop, where we can go around and sit down with people of various backgrounds and perspectives. The goal, he says, is not to prove ourselves right; it’s to understand how people think.
Finally, Dickerson advises Christians to be very cautious when posting on social media, particularly when it comes to controversial topics. You rarely convince people who disagree with you, and you may end up burning bridges with people God wants you to reach. “If you feel there’s someone in your life that needs a deep conversation in some area, then pray about it and meet with them face to face,” he says. “Don’t use social media as a shortcut for genuine conversation because it just doesn’t work.” Moreover, when we sit down with others in real-time, respectful, face-to-face conversations, we are able to listen, not only speak. We can express our thoughts and feelings openly, but we can also be open to ways in which we may have been wrong.
History’s example tells us that even the most estranged relationships can be reconciled. After all, even John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ended their lives as friends. These once bitter rivals, having re-established a correspondence, were eventually able to respectfully confront the thorny debates—such as the French Revolution and the strength of the federal government—that beforehand had so deeply divided them. Where they had once used the power of the press to tear each other down, they now used the power of the pen to rebuild their relationship.
While politicians and media moguls may seek to spin information and manipulate consumers for power and profit, the book of 2 Corinthians tells us that as Christians we have been given the message and ministry of reconciliation. This means, for one thing, that we can’t be consumed by the news, but we can’t run from it either. We should think critically about the information we take in, neither blindly buying nor immediately dismissing it based on whether we agree and being aware of how our own stances affect our neighbors.
Jesus tells us, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” But if we’re going to seek the truth and share it with others, we’re going to have to step outside our echo chambers.
Jeff Neely is a freelance writer and a journalism professor at The University of Tampa.