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FIRST-PERSON: Examine the ‘news’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The expanding controversy over CBS News reports on President George W. Bush’s National Guard service — and the network’s acknowledgement that it used faked documents in its report — raises a host of issues about truth-telling, media credibility and evangelical responsibility.

We live in an age of unprecedented media access, as almost every American home has access to multiple media options. Cable news channels provide a constant stream of reports even as the Internet erases the final geographic barriers to information transfer. Newspapers, talk radio and the older network news broadcasts must be added to the mix, providing citizens with an overload of information and images.

Most Americans never even stop to recognize how revolutionary this level of information access really is. Previous generations relied on word of mouth, handwritten communications, the Pony Express, the telegraph or radio broadcasts. Those over 40 years of age can remember the limitations of a black-and-white television with news packaged in the form of 30-minute network broadcasts, supplemented by occasional special reports. If you missed the nightly broadcast, you were out of luck and uninformed. No longer.

The really important question is this: Are we any wiser? The explosion of media access has provided some real benefits for viewers. Competition has led to improvements in both style and substance, and the expanding number of news organizations has added new checks and balances to the system. Still, much of the additional coverage is more concerned with “infotainment” than information or analysis. Furthermore, many citizens feel as if they are drowning in an ocean of competing reports and programs.

Christian engagement with the news media requires intelligence, thoughtfulness and an awareness of how the media elite really think. As always, knowledge is power.

Let me suggest 10 principles for responsible evangelical engagement with the news media. Our responsibility is to consider the news — and the making of news — from a Christian worldview perspective. That makes a huge difference in how we analyze, assimilate and judge media reports.

Principle One: In a fallen world, everyone is biased. There is no such thing as absolute objectivity. As a matter of fact, everyone comes to the news with some bias. We are all creatures of our own limited experience and information, and we all come to the issues of the day — controversial or otherwise — with a specific worldview. Even research scientists acknowledge that absolute objectivity is an impossible achievement. This is especially true when dealing with issues of worldview consequence. As Christians, we recognize that bias is not merely a matter of political interest or ideological conviction; it is evidence of sin. In a sinful world, bias creeps into every discussion, every judgment and every news report. Evangelical Christians therefore have no excuse for being surprised when bias appears — we should expect it, and judge accordingly. At the same time, we should be aware of our own bias and submit our own assumptions to careful analysis. Every single individual confronts the issues of the day from specific worldview commitments. There is no escaping this reality.

Principle Two: News reports are heavily filtered — and the filters matter. The news we receive on televised broadcasts, in newspapers and in virtually any other form comes to us only after passing through numerous filters. All along the process, reporters, editors, producers, executives and others are making judgments about what stories are important, how stories should be reported, what sources should be used and what perspectives should be included. These filters are extremely significant, and the news reports we receive are but a fraction of what could be published and presented. Someone is making those decisions, and the worldview of those decision-makers is of the utmost importance. The decision about what to cover is as important as decisions about how to cover any given issue or event. If we are unaware of these filters, we will assume that the news presented to us reflects what is ultimately most important. Actually, it may reflect only what individuals in the filtering process want us to see, read or hear. As Marvin Olasky argues in his book, “Prodigal Press,” “Many scholars suggest that journalists have their prime influence on society not so much by coverage of particular stories as by the choice of what to cover; journalists are sometimes called ‘gate-keepers’ or ‘agenda-setters.’ Readers and viewers should keep asking: Why was this story considered newsworthy?”

Principle Three: The media are driven by commercial interests. The vast majority of media outlets are commercial enterprises driven by a bottom-line desire for profit. This has a great deal to do with how the news is presented, how the readers or audience are addressed and how issues are framed. As media analysts Neil Postman and Steve Powers explained, much of what we see on television news is designed “to keep viewers watching so that they will be exposed to commercials.” Thus, producers and news directors are driven to cover stories that offer visual interest, regardless of news value. As the old newsroom adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Images often displace words, and a distorted picture of reality results. Furthermore, the commercial interest of broadcast news means that viewers must be held over a period of time by enticements. That is why news anchors advertise upcoming stories and, as C. John Sommerville of the University of Florida explains, “string us along.” As Sommerville argues, “The techniques of stringing us along show that the news industry is not as interested in satisfying a hunger as in creating an addiction.” The media have a commercial product to sell, and that product is television commercials.

Principle Four: The media elite are demographically and ideologically removed from the world inhabited by most Americans. As researchers S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda S. Lichter argued over two decades ago, the news business is now largely in the hands of a “media elite.” As these researchers made clear, these media elite are persons from a very thin slice of the American population. They are highly educated, socially mobile, metropolitan in focus and overwhelmingly liberal in terms of ideological bias. They have often attended America’s most prestigious universities, they were often radicalized by the 1960s, Vietnam and the Watergate experience, and they see the news media as an opportunity to revolutionize society. As Robert and Linda Lichter and Stanley Rothman described the media elite, “In their attitudes toward sex and sex roles, members of the media elite are virtually unanimous in opposing both governmental and traditional constraints. A large majority opposes government regulation of sexual activities, upholds a pro-choice position on abortion, and rejects the notion that homosexuality is wrong. In fact, a slight majority would not characterize adultery as wrong.” Does the coalescence of leading journalists into ‘media elite’ make a difference? Bernard Goldberg, a longtime veteran of CBS News, poses the questions this way: “Do we really think that if the media elites worked out of Nebraska instead of New York, and if they were overwhelmingly social conservatives instead of liberals, and if they overwhelmingly voted for Nixon and Reagan instead of McGovern and Mondale … do we really think that would make no difference? Does anyone really believe that the evening newscast would fundamentally be the same?” No sane person can believe this would make no difference, and in the case of media bias, naiveté is deadly.

Principle Five: Headlines often lie and language often misleads. Readers of newspapers are often unaware that the reporter usually has nothing to say about the headline of an article or report. Headlines emerge from the copy-editing process and are used to draw attention to a story and attract readers. Furthermore, the headlines are powerful editorial devices, casting a story in a particular context of meaning, even before the article is read. But headlines often lie — and careful readers often will discover that the claim made in the headline is completely undermined by the content of the article. Some newspapers are particularly offensive in this regard, showing clear bias in their headlines and article contexting. Similarly, language and terminology within an article or broadcast can be used to mislead the public. What words are used to describe principle figures in a story? Will the reporter describe a suicide bomber as a terrorist or as a freedom-fighter? Will an individual be identified as a presidential aide or a political operative? Will a spokesperson be identified as an opponent of same-sex “marriage” or as a defender of traditional marriage? These decisions amount to both distinction and difference and can often mean the difference between understanding or misunderstanding. The choice of language is of vital importance, and with the culture of political correctness now invading newsrooms across America, this usually means that those arguing for an overthrow of moral restraint are referred to in a positive light, while defenders of traditional morality are referred to as repressive and negative. Beware the power of words!

Principle Six: The likelihood of being uninformed and misinformed increases as the number of news sources decreases. Dependence on just a few media sources, whether newspapers, Internet sites or television news programs, is dangerous. We can grow far too comfortable with familiar faces, trusted reporters and patterns of habit. The reduction of news sources means that the filtering process poses an even greater danger, and viewers or readers are far more susceptible to influence and bias. This is also true when it comes to the form of media input. Television reports must be visually interesting, fast-paced and energetic — regardless of the story. Furthermore, television news broadcasts tend to rely on reductionism, making it more likely that bias can creep into a reporter’s summarization without notice. Christian citizens should develop the discipline of wide reading and selective viewing — checking reports against each other for accuracy and bias. Do not trust just one network, one cable news program, one newspaper or one commentator.

Principle Seven: Beware the error of following the crowd. As a commercial business, the media industry must produce a mass audience and must compete for viewer attention. Thus, the network or program that offers the most drama, controversy and excitement often draws the largest viewership. Similarly, the newspaper that is most salacious, most sensational and most superficial may well draw the largest readership. In other words, the crowd is often drawn to a spectacle, just as the ancient Romans demanded bread and circuses. As the crowd grows larger and larger, the content may grow smaller and smaller, and the opportunity for thoughtful engagement with the issues of the day may virtually disappear. When this phenomenon takes place, celebrities often replace specialized authorities in matters of public debate, energy substitutes for information, and the whole enterprise produces far more heat than light. As your parents warned you long ago — beware of following the crowd. Far too many Americans rely on superficial reports and on entertainment wrongly packaged as news.

Principle Eight: Those who get their news only from broadcast media are missing much of the story and much of its significance. Limiting news intake to television programming is a special danger. Televised news reports tend to be image-driven, more superficial and more simplistic than the print media. Television news broadcasts tend to be framed as conversations, producing “talking heads” who often provide more drama than content and information. This produces an artificial understanding of reality. As Sommerville explains, “It turns out that being informed really means knowing what the people around you are talking about. Our reality is the news, not the world.” There is no substitute for reading, and a diet limited to broadcast news will impoverish the mind. As Postman and Powers argue, “anyone who is not an avid reader of newspapers, magazines, and books is by definition unprepared to watch a television news show, and always will be.” There is no substitute for careful and thoughtful reading. The visual medium is given to entertainment and visual dependence over content and careful analysis.

Principle Nine: When it comes to issues of importance, turn off the tube and think. As veteran newscasters sometimes lament, matters of grave and great significance are often strung together on the news and mixed with unimportant and inane items with the familiar formula, “and now this.” A report about genocide in Sudan can be followed by the latest development in reducing auto emissions, which can be followed by a story about a talking parrot. This leveling of significance produces a distortion of reality. Christians must learn to think about the issues covered in media reports and resist the temptation to be narcoticized by an endless stream of disconnected reports of unequal significance. This requires discipline and focus, which in turn require silence — which means turning the television off.

Principle Ten: Use the news media as material for worldview analysis. When watching the news or reading the newspaper, Christians should learn continually to reframe the question. Thinking in explicitly Christian terms, armed with the full measure of Christian conviction, the Christian must reason from biblical truth to the issues of the day. We cannot accept the issues as framed for us by the news media, but we must continually reframe in light of Christian truth. For example, controversies about everything from the economy and abortion to the environment and animal rights must be reframed in terms of a biblical perspective. Otherwise, we will commit the error of attempting to reason to a Christian worldview from a secular premise. We must reverse the question, reframe the issue and subject every controversy and question to careful worldview analysis. This is important for all Christians, but it is especially important for parents as careful engagement with the news media affords an excellent opportunity for training children in Christian worldview thinking. They will be engaging the media for the rest of their lives, and faithful Christian parents will prepare their children for media engagement that is genuinely Christian.

As with every dimension of life, our engagement with the news media reveals our deepest convictions and our true beliefs. Christians must engage the news media as Christians, ready to think, to analyze, to make judgments and to draw accurate conclusions. Inevitably, Christians will either lead or be led.
This column was adapted from Mohler’s Crosswalk.com weblog. Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. For more articles and resources by Mohler, and for information on “The Albert Mohler Program,” a daily national radio program broadcast on the Salem Radio Network, go to www.albertmohler.com.

    About the Author

  • R. Albert Mohler Jr.