In an age where bad information runs rampant, Christians can act counterculturally.
The moon landings were faked.
Some of the world’s leaders are really alien lizard people.
Prominent politicians are part of a secret sex-trafficking ring that drinks the blood of children.
COVID-19 was engineered by the media and ruling elites as a secret means of population control.
Earth has already been sucked into a black hole inadvertently created by scientists in 2012, and therefore the end of the world has already begun. (This would explain the Cubs’ 2016 World Series win.)
In an age of distrust and tribalism, false and misleading information has run wild. When 2020 and 2021 saw both a global pandemic and a bitterly fought presidential election, conspiracy theories went mainstream. Millions of evangelical Christians were among those buying into provably false theories. Even if we steered clear of those, we bought narratives based on misinformation or disinformation. If Trump won, all would be lost. If Biden won, all would be lost. Our responses to COVID-19 depended more on our politics than on public health information.
In 2021, surveys show about half of Americans believe things that are provably false, or disbelieve things they can plainly see. Can we agree this is bad, and orchestrated by our spiritual enemy? It’s an even more serious crisis for the church. When Christians believe and promote false ideas, why would anyone think our gospel witness was any more reliable?
Part of the problem is the economic decline of journalism. Fewer reporters from fewer news organizations are covering far less news than they once did. In a hyper-networked world, that’s an ideal breeding ground for conspiracy theories. In the absence of information, people create their own.
Journalism also has a credibility crisis. Part is deserved, part isn’t. All journalists are biased, because all people are biased. This doesn’t mean any news not coming from our favorite source is worthless or “fake.” It means journalists’ biases and personalities play a part in every story they report, from the people they interview to the information they choose to include or leave out to the order in which they place that information.
There’s always been good journalism and bad journalism. This hasn’t changed over centuries. What has changed is the public’s capacity (or willingness) to engage thoughtfully with it — to think critically in an age where it’s easier to let someone else do that for us. So we self-separate into tribes based on where we get our information, and we “cancel” everyone else.
COVID-19 poured gasoline on this fire. Isolation, especially from people who see the world differently, has made us all angrier, less patient and more likely to believe things that confirm the biases we already had. Breaking away from bad news-consumption habits takes time and energy … but so do the anxiety, sadness and anger we’ve been feeding.
So … from 40 years working in and around journalism, let me humbly suggest a few ways we can all improve our news consumption. Not just to make us better citizens, but to improve our Christian witness in a culture that desperately needs it.
1. Read more news than you watch
TV is a passive medium, meaning we don’t have to engage our brains. Reading requires attention and effort, meaning we are more likely to think critically.
2. Vary your diet
Audit your news consumption. Don’t read, watch or listen to the same news source all the time. A variety of voices — including voices we disagree with — helps us form a better-informed worldview. Allsides.com is a good place to find varying points of view on the same story. They also produce this media bias chart that can be helpful:
3. Recognize the difference between news and commentary
The 24-hour cable news networks, and political talk radio before them, have done a great disservice by blurring this line. The personality-based evening shows are especially bad, sowing fear and division under the guise of informing people … but usually from only one end of the spectrum. Steer clear.
4. Don’t trust social media
Social media algorithms send us stories and posts that confirm our biases and push us further away from “those people.” Some of these stories are real journalism. Some are not. If you see a news story on Facebook or Twitter, test and weigh it — especially before sharing it. Is it coming from a reputable news source, or something you’ve never heard of?
5. Check things out
Along with the bad information out there, there’s lots of great information. Independent sources like Snopes, FactCheck.org, LeadStories or FullFact.org are good starting points if you’re trying to find out whether something is true. Also, if someone says, “The mainstream media won’t touch this story,” there probably a good reason.
6. Be OK with saying, “I was wrong”
A huge reason we are so divided as a culture (and a church) is that we’ve staked our identity less in Christ and more in being part of the group that “gets it.” Admitting we’ve been misled requires honesty and humility. The Bible says those are good things, right?
7. Act prayerfully
Does the post I’m about to share contribute to chaos and confusion? Division and fear? Anger and pride? Us vs. them? Does any of that look like Jesus?
8. Recognize our human tendencies
We gravitate to bad news because we are naturally attuned to threats. We all like to say we wish there were more good news reported. Actually, there is – we just don’t pay as much attention to it.
We seek simple explanations for complex problems because we don’t like uncertainty. We also don’t like randomness. So we assume everything must somehow be connected … and planned.
9. Know how an argument is constructed, or twisted
Aristotle’s Three Appeals are ethos (why you should trust me), pathos (the emotional hook) and logos (facts, logic and reason). Misinformation is typically long on ethos and especially long on pathos. But it’s short on logos; under serious scrutiny, it just doesn’t hold up. In our perpetually distracted culture, we can’t forfeit the God-given ability to test and weigh, and to hold fast to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
10. Recognize why news exists
All for-profit TV networks, websites and print publications follow the same model. They work to capture our attention, which in turn enables them to sell ads and subscriptions. That’s how almost all American journalism works (save for publicly funded models like PBS and NPR).
That doesn’t make journalism bad. But it does make it beholden to market pressures. When its goal is to capture and hold attention, a news organization can do that with sensational stories that aren’t ultimately as important as they seem, or with a steady diet of content that produces confirmation bias. That’s when we believe what we want to believe and we gravitate to those who tell us what we want to hear.
Pick a day or two every week when you will not watch or read news and social media. Use the time to connect with people and with God. Things quickly look better. The news will still be there when you get back.