Believe it or not

In an age where bad information runs rampant, Christians can act counterculturally.

Elvis lives.

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?

Fake news?

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.

11. Fast

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.

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Discerning truth in news

From the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity: Former BBC journalist Julia Bicknell talks about navigating misinformation, disinformation, “fake news” and conspiracy theories. This is comprehensive, thoughtful and worth your time.

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Smartphone Photography

Here’s an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning news photographer Scott Strazzante, who is also one of the best in the world at smartphone photography.

LINKS

Hipstamatic camera app

Scott’s portfolio page at Photoshelter

Scott’s Instagram feed

Scott’s book: Shooting from the Hip

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Apocalypse Sunday

Editor’s note: In a departure from the usual type of Go Tell It post, this one simply illustrates how creative writing can teach. My friend, Cherice Ullrich, and her colleague, Chris Jones, teach Bible at Rockford (Ill.) Christian High School. They were looking for a creative way to help their students study the Book of Revelation. I think they found it.

“I was transported to another reality. I saw the 55th bowl coming down from the sky in the Sunshine State. And there was great shouting as the final battle began. Out of the southern sea came one like a goat, branded with the number 12, who had six rings on one hand and his other hand appeared deflated. He led an army of men from the sea against warriors wielding a large arrow. These were clothed in red, the color of blood, with golden hands and feet, and a head that sat on top of their other head. Their leader had only one ring on his hand. 

“And I saw sitting around the warriors many holding up posters of two snakes around a staff with wings. They wore white masks and held out needles to inject the world with a life-saving potion. The battle lasted for one hour but also three hours. There were pauses in the battle, during which the multitudes were tempted to spend their money on the idols of the Bald Eagle. Many times I saw those like zebras that held out a great yellow cloth and the battle would stop. 

“There were shouts for victory filling the air, when suddenly the sky went dark. Fire shot up into the clouds. Time stopped, and I was surprised that suddenly the weekend began. Out of the darkness rose a man clothed in red robes. In his hand he held an instrument that made his message heard around the world. Out of the shadows came another army. Each wore the same red robe as he, but on each of their faces was a horrendous mask. Each held a star in his hand and encircled him as he moved. While I was still pondering these things, I was blinded by the light and could not feel my face in his presence. He continued to preach to the roaring multitudes until his allotted time came to an end.

“And I looked and I saw the sea rising over the warriors, and though they shot their arrows again and again, they could not stop the rising flood. The warriors of the land were engulfed and overtaken. The goat had conquered by taking the skin of a pig near a structure made of gold four times. At the end of the battle, shards of all the colors of the rainbow in the vault above rained down from the sky. Those in league with the goat of the sea rejoiced, and he was given a seventh ring with many jewels on it to signify his reign.”

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Overcoming the monster

Godzilla vs. Kong, 2021, Warner Bros

People who teach writing like to talk about the basic elements of any good story. Characters. Setting. Conflict. A 350-foot-tall lizard that breathes lightning and threatens humanity.

Stick with me here. Any story needs a monster, and according to three dozen movies, Godzilla stands as the king of all monsters. Name any great film or novel and tell me it wouldn’t be even better if Godzilla were somehow involved. Gone with the Wind. Chariots of Fire. Driving Miss Daisy. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Gojira (Godzilla), 1954, Toho Co. Ltd

All Godzilla films follow a standard plot. Humans test nature’s limits, and something awful is awakened. The monster almost destroys us, amid stories involving nuclear attacks, the Cold War, technology run amok, genetics run amok, hostile aliens run amok and, especially, other giant monsters run amok. Most of the early Godzilla films were made in Japan, as a response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some are pretty good (like the 1954 original). Most are cheesy (the bottom feeder being 1994’s Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla). The 2014 incarnation, “Godzilla,” was the best of the bunch. I’m not much for sci-fi or comic book films that become a two-hour video game; this story takes a nice, long time to rev up before the Tokyo-smashing begins.

Last week, Warner Bros revealed the trailer for the most spectacular Godzilla movie since the last one. Godzilla vs. Kong comes out in March and involves “a swath of destruction across the globe.” You can make the following presumptions about this movie: 1) It will be stupid. 2) I will watch it anyway, as part of my quest to remain perpetually 12 years old. 

What is it about Godzilla that fascinates us? How come three dozen bad films couldn’t destroy him? I think it’s because the basic storyline always rings familiar: human achievement, pride and, yes, sin eventually cause problems we can’t control. All hell breaks loose. And then sacrifice is required to set things right again. 

Film critic Roger Ebert once wrote: “All good art is about something deeper than it admits.” In other words, universal themes emerge — themes that resonate with people even if a story’s characters and setting don’t. Experts believe there are really only seven stories*, and they just keep getting retold in different ways. Godzilla is story type No. 1 on most lists: Overcoming the Monster. Something terrible interrupts good. Sacrifice and struggle are required. Good prevails

Sound familiar?

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From prayer letter to video story

 

The video above came about through strong communication among Wycliffe Global Alliance partners. Let me walk you through the process.

Jurek Marcol, director of the Biblical Missionary Association (Wycliffe Poland), wrote a letter about working with Roma people in eastern Slovakia. He sent it to the Wycliffe Global Alliance Prayer team, who recognized it as a potential story and sent it on to our Communications team.

I emailed Jurek, asking his permission to produce a story for Wycliffe.net. I also asked him some follow-up questions:

  • What is the name of the village where you have been working, and in what part of Slovakia is that?
  • How did Wycliffe Poland become aware of the Roma people in this village?
  • You mentioned that most of the village attends church about 12 km away. Is this a Roma church, or mixed? Do they walk there? Or how do they get there?
  • Are they reading the Bible in the Slovak language, or a Roma translation? What is the status of Bible translation in their Roma language?
  • Finally: Do you have two or three photos we could use with the story?

An evangelistic gathering among the Roma people in Bezovce, Slovakia.

Jurek emailed back the next day with detailed answers, plus even more contextual info about the Roma in Slovakia. I already knew some of this, having reported stories from Slovakia in 2016 about the Old Testament translation project happening there. But Jurek’s information brought me up to date.

Next, I edited Jurek’s piece for clarity, style, and to add the new information he had provided. I kept the piece in his first-person voice (“I”). That is not something we always do, but in this case, he was telling the story from his personal experience. It made sense for me as the editor to stay out of the way.

Jurek also sent me close to 20 good photos — photos of their team’s work in Ukraine and then of their more recent work in Bezovce, Slovakia.

 

Assembling video pieces

With the written story done, and a good supply of photos, next we tried something additional. I emailed the story back to Jurek, and asked if we would be willing to shoot a cellphone video of himself reading it. He was happy to do that, so I sent him our tips for shooting smartphone video of yourself — including the important point of shooting the video horizontally, to match photos and screen formats.

Jurek sent his video recording back to me a few days later via Google Docs. Now I had the pieces to turn this into a video story. I work in Adobe PremierePro, but the process would have worked equally well in iMovie, Adobe Rush or any number of other video editing applications:

  1. Start by creating a track with Jurek’s video of himself reading the story.
  2. Overlay relevant photos to match what he is talking about in the story. This is called B-roll, and it transforms a video.
  3. Add some transitions and effects, such as slowly zooming or panning in some of the photos (this is sometimes called the Ken Burns effect, named after the famed American documentary filmmaker).
  4. Add the Global Alliance and Biblical Missionary Association (Wycliffe Poland) logos at the beginning and end.
  5. Add music. It plays very softly behind the story, but it provides continuity. I downloaded the track, called Mirage, from Facebook’s free Sound Collection — though there are many other free sources.
  6. Export the video, then upload it to The Alliance’s Vimeo page.

I am not the best video editor, and the result certainly will not win an Academy Award. Jurek’s written story would have worked just fine on its own. But accessible technology and communication tools helped bring this story to life. All it required was a little knowledge of photography and videography from the person living the story. Certainly it also helped that Jurek speaks English … but even if someone does not, you can use a translator and then add subtitles to the finished story in whatever language you want.

With travel limited, God’s stories don’t stop happening. As we seek creative ways to identify and report them, a simple video like this is another tool worth trying.

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5 keys to shooting smartphone video of yourself

Suppose you need to shoot a video of yourself speaking. Even if you have no equipment other than a smartphone, here are five ways to maximize quality:

1. Lighting

Light your face. If there is a window, it should be in front of you (out of view) or to the side — never behind you. A desk lamp just behind the phone camera will help light your face. Better yet, use two desk lamps, at the 10 and 2 positions.

2. Stabilization

A shaky camera is distracting and can even make your audience nauseous. Stabilize your phone camera. If you don’t have a tripod, set it on books, boxes, etc.

3. Camera angle

  • Set the camera at your eye level.
  • If you are alone, use the phone’s rear-facing camera (on-screen) so you know exactly what the shot looks like.
  • Minimize distractions in the background.
  • If you wear eyeglasses, angle your camera to minimize any distracting glare or reflection.

4. Framing

  • Use landscape mode (horizontal), never portrait mode.
  • Don’t put the camera too close to your face, or too far away. Let your head and shoulders comfortably fill most of the frame, with some room to spare above and to the sides. The shot should feel comfortable, as if you are sitting across a table from someone — not up in their face, not half a room away.
  • Maintain eye contact with the camera, which equates to eye contact with your audience.

5. Sound

  • Audio quality is even more important than video quality. Find a quiet place to film. This will usually be indoors in a room that does not have a lot of echo. Minimize background noise: fans, heating and cooling vents, music, traffic, birds and insects. All will be more distracting than you realize. Be aware of background noise that may occur as you are filming, and pause if necessary.
  • Put your phone on airplane mode while filming, to avoid calls and messages.
  • Use an external microphone if possible. If you do not have one, check your phone’s earpieces. They may have one built in. If not, you also can record the audio on a second phone, positioned much closer to you than the camera phone. These can be synced later.

Here’s a good video that illustrates some of these tips.

Additional phone tips

  • Film in the highest resolution possible. Check the settings for your camera app. If 4K is an option, choose that. 1080p (full HD) is the next step down, and 720p is the minimum option.
  • Do not zoom by “pinching” your fingers on the screen. This lowers the resolution. Keep the normal focal distance and, if adjustment is needed, just move the phone closer to or farther from your face.
  • With your face in the frame, record about 10 seconds before and after you speak. This helps with editing.

 

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Inside jargon, outside voice

During a recent sermon, American televangelist and presidential adviser Paula White prayed: “We command all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.”

Wait, what?

Social media went crazy. Isn’t she pro-life? Who is satanic and pregnant? Those Christians really are nuts.

Later, White tweeted:

“I don’t normally respond but clearly this has been taken out of context. I was praying Eph 6:12 that we wrestle not against flesh and blood. Anything that has been conceived by demonic plans, for it to be cancelled and not prevail in your life, that is- any plans to hurt people.”

“Satanic pregnancies” is not a term I had ever heard, and I have no interest in Paula White and her brand of prosperity theology. But, this was yet another example of a Christian invoking outrage and ridicule through a careless choice of words.

The problem was, she used extreme insider jargon with her outside voice. When we communicate online, the whole world can hear us.

Another term for this type of insider jargon is Christianese — terms, puns and catchphrases only comprehensible within particular Christian denominations or sects. Outside of that context, they may sound weird, creepy or even dangerous.

Here’s a short, alphabetical list of common Christianese. If you’re writing or speaking within reach of any audience outside of your church walls, it’s a good idea to avoid these.

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Writing for a global audience

Imagine you are talking with a friend. Then write that way.

That was one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received in college. It has served me well through almost four decades now, because it helps me remember that writing is a relationship with the reader. We write to be clearly understood. We and our local audience share not just a heart language, but also a heart dialect and common experiences.

Perhaps the nicest compliment I ever received as a writer came from a friend who read one of my feature stories in the newspaper. He said, “I knew it was you even before I saw the byline.”

The “write it for a friend” rule still works if I am writing strictly for an American audience — or for any English-speaking audience familiar with American speech patterns and vocabulary. The rule works for anyone writing to a similar audience in their own cultural context.

But what about writing for an international, multicultural audience? Must we follow the plentiful advice out there that says keep it absolutely simple, clear and … blandly generic?

I believe we can find an acceptable compromise. Here are a few guidelines to make cross-cultural writing understandable but still keep your voice:

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Interviewing for video

Even though I had worked for decades as a print journalist, I had to relearn how to interview people for video stories.

A good interview is a conversation, not an interrogation. In a two-way conversation, both people talk a lot. Sometimes in sentence fragments. Sometimes with a one-word response. When I interview someone for a written story, this mix works just fine. I record the interview, transcribe it and then sift through the transcript for the best quotes. Material that is more complicated, or less compelling, can be paraphrased. If the person stumbles through a sentence but I know what they meant, I can just paraphrase that part.

A video story relies much more heavily on the person’s uninterrupted, unedited responses. Remember, television is not our model. TV news and interview shows tend to focus as much on the interviewer as the subject. By contrast, in a short video story the interviewer should disappear. Usually, your voice will not be heard and you will not be seen in the final video. Your job is to help a person tell their story well. Ask good questions, listen actively and ask good follow-up questions rather than simply working from a list. Then stay out of the way.

Editing video can take far more time than the interview itself. But with a few organizational techniques during the interview, you can minimize editing time. Most good stories contain a few simple elements: characters, complication (or conflict), a key moment or event, and resolution. Quite often, those elements occur in that order. If you arrange an interview in the same linear order — a story with a beginning, middle and end — you can minimize the amount of cutting and rearranging of pieces. Here’s a simple framework you can build from:

Character(s): Ask the person to state their name, where they are from and what they do.

Complication / conflict: What was your life like before?

Key moment / event: What happened? What changed for you?

Resolution: What does your life look like now as a result of ____?

 

Before you start

  • Let them practice before the camera is on. Start with an easy question — even as simple as, “What did you have for breakfast today?” Get them comfortable talking.
  • Tell them the types of questions you will ask. No surprises or ambushes.
  • Tell them what the interview goal is. Be a team. You are working together to clearly tell the story.
  • Remind them to speak in complete sentences. Your voice will not be part of the video, so their responses need to make it clear what the question was.
  • Don’t make them feel like they’re in a TV studio. Use minimal lighting and audio equipment. Minimize the number of other people in the room. It should feel like a normal conversation, not a performance. Put them at ease.
  • Minimize or get away from background noise: fans, heating and cooling vents, music, traffic, birds and insects. Noises that are hardly noticeable when you’re doing the interview can ruin the recorded result.
  • If you can control the room temperature, keep it normal to cool. Don’t make someone sweat.
  • When setting up the camera, pay attention to visual elements. Does the light fall pleasantly on the person’s face? (From the side is ideal.) Is the background free of distractions? If the person wears eyeglasses, can you arrange things to eliminate glare or distracting reflection?
  • Tell the person to look at you, not at the camera. It’s not a hostage video.
  • Remind them: “This is not live TV. If you mess up, or if I mess up, we can just pause and then start the sentence again.”

During the interview

  • Ask open-ended questions. How or why rather than yes or no. You want the person to tell you a story rather than just give a quick answer.
  • Never interrupt. Ask a question, then stay silent — even if the person pauses momentarily.
  • Think about pacing. Leave short pauses between when the person stops talking and when you start. This reduces editing time by making the cuts easier.
  • Be aware of changing audio background and pause if necessary. (I once learned this the hard way when conducting an interview at twilight in Staten Island, N.Y. A swarm of locusts flew by, and the sound of their buzzing wings obliterated the voice of the person I was interviewing. The video was visually beautiful, but unintelligible.)

Working with a translator

In an international context, the language barrier introduces another challenge to the goal of having a natural conversation and getting accurate quotes. Much relies on your translator. Tell him or her that you are looking for word-for-word translation, not a paraphrased summary. Later, if the interview is transcribed by someone who understands the interviewee’s language, you can sharpen the quotes even further.

Finally …

A great way to end any interview is to ask: “What else should I have asked you?” Often the answer will be “nothing.” But sometimes you may discover an aspect to the story that you otherwise would have missed. It’s also a way to honor the person you are interviewing by giving them control of when the conversation ends.

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