A Christian approach to the news media

Klaas-Jan Gunnink:

Most of us interact with the news media on a daily basis. Even more so in recent weeks, as the Corona virus spreads over the globe and society, government advice, and casualty numbers change daily. We read the newspaper, watch the bulletin on television, open the news app on our phone, or read the news on social media. From ordinary news, to breaking news that really should get our attention, to fake news that shouldn’t have reached us at all. It consumes time and attention and fills many of our conversations. But how does it influence our thoughts and opinions, and how should we as Christians respond to the news? And what do daily or even hourly updates do to our mental health; how much anxiety is caused by the 24/7 coverage?

In this article, I want to suggest a Christian approach to the news media, focusing on interaction with the actual news items and not the media themselves; space restrictions (which are also critically important in all news media) won’t allow me to go into broader concerns of our TV or radio usage, nor into issues regarding social media, nor a general theology of leisure and the use of our time.

Why do we actually interact with the news media? First, to be informed about our society and major events. Therefore, the information should be true and factual. Secondly, to be educated. So, we read the analyses and commentaries of the experts – desiring that they are clear about their presuppositions and be objective. Thirdly, we check the news to be entertained. Therefore, it should be presented in an attractive way. But can news actually be gathered or presented with all these aspects?

What is news?

David Ingram gives four criteria for judging whether something is news: it should be 1) new; 2) unusual; 3) interesting or significant and 4) about effects on people.[1] If it lacks any of these, it is not newsworthy; whereas the stronger these points are, the higher the ‘news value’.

The output following from these criteria has changed considerably throughout history: ‘the first Boston newspaper, published in 1690, came out monthly … The assumption here was that there were not enough events classifiable as ‘news’ to fill a more regularly published paper. We now have twenty-four-hour TV channels and daily newspapers that have to be filled with stories regardless of significance.’[2] Yet, this extra time and space does not mean that the stories reported today are more comprehensive or objective than 300 years ago.

Why not? First, due to increased availability of news: modern communication techniques allow us to hear quickly about events on the other side of the world. The frequency and availability of news reports also create a greater supply of news items, for example from people who seek publicity for all kinds of reasons. Furthermore, business models of most news sources centre around advertisements. Thus, there is a financial stimulus for publishers to have the most sensational news, to publish a scoop, to formulate the most clickable headlines. Consequently, there is much more news available than what fits in the limited space and time.

Therefore, all news agencies and editors have to make choices what to publish. ‘Such decisions are crucial if the news is to be at all interesting. But news editing involves assumptions about relevance, importance, and values … “bias” in the news is not just a regrettable tendency. It is something which is unavoidable if news is to be reported at all.’[3] And that is very important to realise.

A quest for truth

David Porter then asks: ‘So should we abandon the quest for truth in the media? By no means … Nothing is more important for a Christian than truth. It’s who God is.’[4] The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth (John 16:13) and God’s word is truth (John 17:17). Oppositely, the devil is called the father of lies (John 8:44), and deceit and lies are against God’s will (cf. Exodus 20:16; Acts 13:10). Many New Testament letters warn against false teachers, who receive the strongest condemnation. Clearly, we should strive to find the truth and speak the truth – not just in matters of religion or theology, but also in the way we obtain and spread news.

We should however be aware of a number of complications. I have already given the first above: realise that news is always interpreted, never without bias. This might be obvious for media sources that clearly show their worldview, political alliance or focus on sensation and entertainment. The front page of a newspaper will tell you much in this regard, just compare The Sun with The Financial Times or with Christianity Today. But news sources that are regarded as ‘quality journalism’ might be less clear about this. For example, in an opinion piece about the mission of The Guardian, its editor-in-chief writes: ‘We will give people the facts … and we will stick to the facts… we are entirely independent and free from political and commercial influence.’ Yet, she continues: ‘Only our values will determine the stories we choose to cover.’[5] Thus, like any other news source, The Guardian won’t be  simply ‘sticking to the facts’ either in a neutral way, because there is selection of stories according to its progressive values. So, remember: every news source is biased!

Secondly, we should respond wisely by reading widely. Check how a news source with a different worldview reports the event. If you find discrepancies between the accounts, ask yourself: could one of the sources benefit from its particular angle on the event? Who is providing which facts. How are interviews carried out?[6] ‘Who has the correct version? Probably none of them. You will get nearer the truth the more accounts you read, and the closer you look at the “small print”’,[7] ie read the main text instead of just checking the headline, captions and photos.

The Bible gives us a good illustration of this principle in giving us not one but four gospel accounts.  The Holy Spirit has not just inspired multiple men to give us a more complete picture of Jesus’ life, but ‘the multiple attestations of these accounts from very early sources provide stronger evidence for the truthfulness of their claims.’[8] And so it is with reporting of historical facts and events today.

Thirdly, reading widely counters two other issues: it prevents us from staying in an information bubble, where the perspective is your own. If this happens, you are only confirmed in what you already know, instead of challenged to grow in discernment and understanding of the views of people with a different worldview. And fourthly, reading widely will also protect you from believing fake news, for real events should have been reported by other media as well.

Is this the world we live in?

Reading widely does however not solve all issues. If you would reconstruct our world and society based solely on information from the news media, you would end up with a dramatically different world. This has multiple reasons. First, because news is about the abnormal, about what happened just now, we get a distorted view of time. Each news bulletin wants to tell you something new, and websites keep updating to attract views. The focus is on what ‘happened in the last half-hour. We become obsessed with short events, with facts rather than process. We are interested in the “what”, “when” and “where”, rather than the “how” and “why”.’[9] This distortion of time stimulates us to compulsively skim the news all day, to constantly stay up to date and silence our fear of missing out. But, as Tim Challies writes, ‘looking at photographs and reading a few headlines is knowledge of but not knowledge about.’[10] We are in danger of becoming addicted to checking for updates, without growing in any real understanding of our world. The current pandemic proves this point, as many news media have live channels and streams to provide you with the latest statistic and updates.

True, this almost real-time involvement in major events is what keeps it interesting. And doesn’t the Bible do something similar? Entire lives are told in a few verses, time gaps of many years are often not explicitly mentioned. For example, the Gospels tell us about the life of Jesus Christ by focussing on a limited number of important events (didn’t John have the same space limitations as a modern-day news editor? See John 20:30-31).

Yet, we shouldn’t forget that this is not how our lives really are. There is much more mundane and common than exciting or unusual in our lives. But remember, although not as newsworthy, the many years of Jesus that are not written down are still meaningful. All his suffering and obedience, his entire life without sin, it enables him to be a sympathising Saviour (Heb 4:15, 5:8). Coming onto this earth as a 30-year-old man, only to die on the cross, wouldn’t have been enough. Similarly, our ordinary, daily life is not meaningless – even though it might never reach the news.

Secondly, this compressed, short-term picture doesn’t  accurately show the way most changes in society happen: many things change gradually, take time. But those issues won’t reach the news; when would it ever be the time to report on them? Let’s not fall into either a short-term mentality ourselves nor into too much appreciation of, for example politicians who focus on the short-term, just to be newsworthy.

A world reconstructed on the basis of news items would be distorted, thirdly, because it would almost completely lack religion. Except for Christian news publishing, of course, the media simply ignore the spiritual dimension of life.[11] This contradicts what God reveals to us in the Bible: ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”’ (Ps 14:1). Ignoring God and worshipping creation instead of the Creator leads to eternal condemnation (Rom 1). Rather than believing the distorted picture of the media, we should put front and centre in our lives the greatest news that was ever announced on earth: the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ – where the ‘reporter’ was an angel (Luke 2:10)! And likewise, after Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection, the apostles were sent out into the world to be news reporters: to proclaim this good news to all the nations, so that it even reached us!

One last distortion of the real world we live in is the result of overemphasis on the latest crisis. The media coverage on the Corona virus is enormous. This could almost make us forget the war in Syria, the refugee crisis in Turkey and Greece, or even more forgotten crises as the war in Yemen or natural disasters in recent months. Every new crisis pushes all previous ones to the background. The bigger the current crisis, the more we forget all others.

So, what do we do with all that news?

Having considered these cautions, how should we approach the news? ‘Critical analysis is useful and necessary, but inadequate if it only develops scepticism in viewers, listeners and readers. Even sceptics need to recognise that enjoyment, enlightenment, insight and delight may come to us through the media … Though “objectivity” may be elusive, news reports reveal scandals and problems that need to be corrected and punished.’[12] We can take part in that striving for a better world.

And despite the limits described above, the news media give us at least some awareness and understanding of events, people and cultures far away from us. This allows us to see more of the diversity and beauty of creation and also helps us to better interact with people from other places.

But, besides filling our minds with interesting facts and satisfaction of knowing what’s going on in the world, can we actually do something? Often, it does not affect us at all, nor does it change what we do that day. Postman describes this as ‘a great loop of impotence: news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.’ Beware of the anxiety this could create, when you focus on your inability to influence anything in the latest crisis. Remember that our sovereign God is in control (Matthew 6:25-34).

Furthermore, Tim Challies writes: ‘[Neil] Postman was right on many accounts, but wrong on a key one: News we can do nothing about. There is always one thing we can do: We can pray.’[13] Pray for our brothers and sisters all over the world, pray for people in need, for our government, for doctors and nurses. And in relation to the news media, let us also ‘pray that journalists and editors be strengthened in their dedication to truth and fearless in their quest for it. We might pray too that we might be more sensitive and discriminating hearers of the news, and more dedicated witnesses of the “good news” of Christ.’[14]

And following prayer, especially in pondering bad news, we should consider Jesus’ warning of Luke 13:5 and repent, lest we ‘will all likewise perish.’ The news helps us to see the brokenness of this world, the effects of sin. Let that make us ever more thankful for and relying on God’s answer: the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Bibliography

Calthrop, Siobhan O’Reilly, Fake News: Countering the Culture of Deception | Connecting with Culture. 10 February 2017. https://www.licc.org.uk/resources/fake-news-countering-the-culture-of-deception-connecting-with-culture/ [accessed 25 September 2019].

Challies, Tim, Neil Postman on the Earthquake in Haiti. 14 January 2010. https://www.challies.com/articles/neil-postman-on-the-earthquake-in-haiti/ [accessed 25 September 2019].

Challies, Tim, There Is Nothing Trite About It! 12 March 2018. https://www.challies.com/articles/there-is-nothing-trite-about-it/ [accessed 25 September 2019].

Challies, Tim, Today, More than Ever, Read Beyond the Headlines. 17 August 2017. https://www.challies.com/articles/today-more-than-ever-read-beyond-the-headlines/ [accessed 25 September 2019].

Challies, Tim, What I Want From the News. 17 October 2017. https://www.challies.com/articles/what-i-want-from-the-news/ [accessed 25 September 2019].

Got Questions Ministries. Why are there four Gospels instead of one? n.d. https://www.compellingtruth.org/four-gospels.html [accessed 30 September 2019].

Ingram, David. The News Manual – A professional resource for journalists and the media. 2012 (original print ed. 1991). https://thenewsmanual.net/ [accessed 30 September 2019].

McDonnell, James. Christian Discernment in a Mass-Mediated Culture. 1992. http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/christian-discernment-mass-mediated-culture [accessed 27 September 2019].

McLeish, Robert. ‘Public Broadcasting – Servant or Leader?’ in: David Porter (ed.), The word on the box (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1997) 1-22.

Pariser, Eli. Beware online “filter bubbles”. March 2011. https://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles [accessed 30 September 2019].

Phillips, Justin. ‘Is more news good news?’ in: David Porter (ed.), The Word on the Box (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1997) 23-52.

Piper, John. How Should We Respond to Calamity in the News? 29 June 2015. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/how-should-we-respond-to-calamity-in-the-news [accessed 9 October 2019].

Porter, David. User’s guide to the Media (Leicester: IVP, 1988).

Stetzer, Ed. Being people of truth in a world of fake news. 7 August 2017. https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2017/august/being-people-of-truth-in-world-of-fake-news.html [accessed 27 September 2019].

Turner, Steve. Popcultured (Nottingham: IVP, 2013).

Viner, Katharine. A mission for journalism in a time of crisis . 16 November 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/16/a-mission-for-journalism-in-a-time-of-crisis [accessed 25 September 2019]

 

[1] Ingram, https://thenewsmanual.net/Manuals%20Volume%201/volume1_01.htm

[2] Turner, p84. (see Bibliography).

[3] Porter, p51-2 (see Bibliography).

[4] Porter, p60.

[5] Viner (see Bibliography).

[6] For a longer list of helpful checks, see Porter, p63.

[7] Porter, p58.

[8] Got Questions Ministries (see Bibliography).

[9] McLeish, p15. (see Bibliography)

[10] Challies, Neil Postman on the earthquake in Haiti.

[11] Porter, p72.

[12] McDonnell, James. Christian Discernment in a Mass-Mediated Culture. 1992.

[13] Challies, There is nothing trite about it.

[14] McDonnell.

2020-06-12T16:08:44+01:00