Discerning the News

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It’s no secret that many Christians harbor deep skepticism of the “liberal media elite.” Some have been burned by the media, noting unfair or unfriendly coverage from the past. “I never just accept what newspapers say about people. I’ve seen them get facts, quotes, and reasons wrong far too many times,” California pastor Rick Warren wrote on Twitter earlier this year. Or, as popular blogger Jon Acuff has suggested, Christians tend to treat the secular media as though it were Satan’s newspaper.

The skepticism runs deeply in response to perceptions Americans feel about how the media treats religion. Just 19 percent of Americans say the news media is friendly to religion, a poll from the Pew Center found in a March 2012 survey. Skepticism of the media seems to run deeper for evangelicals, at least when reporters cover religion. About half of evangelicals believe the press is “unfriendly” to religion, compared to 35 percent of Americans overall. The result can be a tendency for media consumers to read only those we agree with or ideas we want to affirm.

But carrying an unhealthy cynicism toward the media can rattle our sense that there is indeed knowable truth. Instead, the savvy Christian should seek to gather several pieces of information and ideas before filtering them through what he or she knows to be true. We can look to media accounts to begin to understand general revelation, God’s providential work manifested in the world around us.

An early form of reporting can be found in the New Testament, where Luke launches his Gospel with the defense that he relied on eyewitnesses. He says he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” so that the recipient of his letter, Theophilus, could have “certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” The Bible offers us four different Gospels and two accounts of the kings of Judah to help us understand different sides of the story. Similarly, journalists aim to report eyewitness accounts and carefully investigate the truth.

At its best, journalism provides accurate, comprehensive, and timely information. Shortly before his death, Carl F. H. Henry, the founding editor of Christianity Today magazine, challenged a group of journalists to uphold its own standards. “Insofar as the press professes to serve truth, decency, and society, it has an obligation to pursue these objectives aggressively,” Henry said in 1999. In challenging deception and untruth, he urged, the media should not dwarf its public responsibility. Perhaps Christians could imitate an attitude that encourages the media to uphold its own standards.

Engaging news consumers should understand that journalists operate under certain assumptions that might impact news judgment, prioritization, and story selection. Journalists set out to report observable facts, ones that we can quantify, identify, and interpret. Few reporters would attribute someone’s “good fortune” as “a blessing from God” or “an answer to prayer.” Readers might then infer their own interpretation from the facts offered.

Journalists also focus on unexpected changes or events that suggest something significant or noteworthy has happened. When journalists are faced with choosing between a story about a Roman Catholic priest accused of molesting children or a priest serving at a homeless shelter, we can guess which story will make the 6 o’clock news. The tendency is not necessarily a bias toward or against religion as much as it is a question of what journalists see as newsworthy.

When the Roman Catholic Church faced much media attention over abuse allegations, Ross Douthat, a Catholic columnist for the New York Times, told Catholic leaders to welcome scrutiny “as a spur to virtue and as a sign that their faith still matters, that their church still looms large over the affairs of men, and that the world still cares enough about Christianity to demand that Catholics live up to their own exacting standards.” Call out bad reporting or unjustified allegations, Douthat wrote, but don’t focus on the media as the culprit. Perhaps we could consider a similar attitude.

Those who avoid engaging in the media might say that the news makes them anxious or depressed, knowing humanity’s depravity has crippled possible perfection. But the Christian who understands both the fallen nature of humankind and our ultimate hope in things unseen will be better able to combat discouragement. We should not gloat in being uninformed, since we are called to be shrewd, not to be zealous without knowledge (Matt. 10:16; Prov. 19:2). Instead, we can look for multiple accounts to verify and advance the truth of a claim (Deut. 19:15; 1 Tim. 5:19).

The discerning reader can check to see whether a particular media report quotes several sources and attempts to capture all sides. The thorough reader will read a wide variety of sources from different persuasions to uncover nuances in the news. The wise reader will remember that we serve a powerful God who provides us hope as we watch a fallen world’s history unfold.

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