And Now for the News

From Dispensational Publishing House; used by permission.

What is your view of the news media? If you are like most people, your answer does not exude confidence.

According to Gallup:

Four in 10 Americans say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. This ties the historical lows on this measure set in 2014 and 2012. Prior to 2004, slight majorities of Americans said they trusted the mass media, such as newspapers, TV and radio. (Rebecca Riffkin, “Americans’ Trust in Media Remains at Historical Low”)

I spent 14 years working for a major news organization in the state of Wisconsin as a newspaper reporter and editor. I appreciate so many things that I gained from that experience, apart from which I would be lacking in a number of valuable areas. I do not claim to have seen it all—or really to have any secrets to share that you have not already figured out if you, like me, are a connoisseur of media (or, to put it in the vernacular, a news junkie). I do, however, have a few observations about the current state of the news media—and, especially, how we as Bible-believing Christians should consume media—that I think are worth sharing. Here they are, in no particular order:

News is a product.

More accurately, we might even say that news is simply a marketing tool for other products—since much of the news (on the radio and television, as well as online) is completely free to us, supported only by advertising sales.

As much as we might like to think that the people bringing us the news are doing so from altruistic motives—almost as if they were providing us with the secular version of Our Daily Bread—we know in our hearts that this is not truly the case. As a rule, the people covering the news are doing so to make money. In a time of national crisis or calamity, this rule may be broken. Even then, however, their service functions basically as an advertisement for their regular programming.

Being a capitalist, I am not opposed to news being a product. This very blog that you are reading now is, in fact, a similar type of product. There is danger, however, in failing to recognize this reality.

Perhaps you have never considered this before, but the medium which provides your news is not actually driven by the content of the news. Radio and television have a precise amount of time that they must fill with news coverage—whether it is a no news day, a slow news day or a day for the ages. Newspapers and magazines are likewise supported by advertising, and newspapers specifically determine their length based on the amount that they have. Again, there may be exceptions to these rules on just a few days in our lifetimes, but for the most part this is how the news business works.

Perhaps the one great exception to the strict relationship between news and advertising is found in online news. There it does not really cost any more to have a longer news story, and may not hurt to have a shorter one.

In the traditional media, however, news coverage is, by and large, driven by advertising and forces unrelated to the actual news.

Reporters cannot be neutral or objective; the best they can be is fair.

A longstanding myth (one which most of us have outgrown in recent years) is that news reporters must remain objective. As Bible believers, we should have always understood this to be an impossibility.

We recognize the effects that sin has had upon the mind and heart, rendering all of us incapable of sterile objectivity (cf. Jer. 17:9; 1 Cor. 2:14). The Apostle Paul testified that he could not fully know even the motives of his own heart (cf. 1 Cor. 4:4).

Beyond that, there are a thousand other factors that make complete objectivity a total impossibility—even in a political sense. After all, how is a reporter who is ultimately going to vote for, say, one of the two major presidential candidates, supposed to be objective in reporting on them? (See more on this theme in the next point.)

The best we can hope for is fairness—which is really better than objectivity anyway. After all, I really do not care how a reporter feels in his or her heart about either of the candidates, or whether or not the reporter is trying to meet some perceived standard of objectivity. What I care about as a reader, listener or viewer is fairness: equal time for all sides, the same questions (or the same level of questions) offered to each candidate, etc. If the reporter is being fair, I can learn from the information and also judge how objective and effective he or she is at the same time.

Anonymity does not equal objectivity.

Speaking of objectivity, perhaps one of the strangest myths surrounding journalism is that by hiding their philosophical and political preferences reporters are remaining objective. So you can be the world’s greatest conservative or liberal, but as long as no one knows about it—you are objective? This is completely absurd. They may appear to be objective, but that is not the same thing as actually being objective.

Now, we may genuinely admire someone who has the ability to write stories that do not betray their personal beliefs and preferences. And it is a blessing of common grace, I suppose, that a reporter is able to have a pleasant and positive interview with someone with whom he or she disagrees on any number of issues.

But we must also recognize that it is possible to influence your audience subtly without ever disclosing an agenda. It is also very possible to simply ignore important pieces of a story that might set it in a completely different context, or even to bury the story altogether. Of course, most of us as conservatives believe that these are exactly the tactics that the national mainstream media uses every day.

I would not waste my time listening to a sermon or lecture by someone that I knew (or could find out) nothing about—just hoping to guess the preacher or teacher’s perspective on the basis of his content. In the same vein, I see little value in reading the news from a source which is unwilling to disclose its philosophical bent—and may, in fact, be attempting to disguise it.

Television news is the worst.

As a newspaper reporter, I cannot tell you how many times—after covering a story that was significant enough to attract the attention of the local television stations—I would go home and watch their coverage of the story and wonder if we were following the same event.

Keep in mind that, in general, many television news people are not really news people at all—they are people who want to be on television. Also, television stations are located in major markets but cover news over a wide viewing area. Thus, when they swoop in to a little town (like the one where I worked) to cover a major event, they are coming in cold. They do not know the background, the issues, the personalities or even the lay of the land. They have not spent hours in the community attending meetings, looking through minutes and agendas and cultivating relationships with local officials. They are looking for something that is (or can be made to appear) sensational. Often they miss major elements of the story or just flat out get it wrong. Add to that the fact that they must also condense a complicated story into just a few short minutes—despite the fact that so much of what they offer is mere tabloid fodder anyway—and you have a recipe for disseminating huge amounts of misinformation and nonsense.

Personally, I have given up on watching almost any television news—local or national. I will watch talk programs on television, but very little actual news coverage.

Today’s news is not eternally important.

As Christians, I think we sometimes get so discouraged by all the immorality evident in music, television shows, movies and other forms of media which saturate our culture that we think we will just turn on the news and at least expose ourselves to something profitable. I would like to challenge that line of thinking.

Is it really profitable to listen to a half hour of news? Not ultimately. If you doubt me, replay the news from five years ago today and see how much of it is still relevant. Beyond that, we know that even today’s news is not going to be important for long. After all, if it were, there would be no need for another newscast tomorrow.

Perhaps you, like me, have also been stopped once too often by a news flash coming across a television screen in a public place—only to find that this breaking news was the latest tidbit of celebrity gossip.

But, you say, Christians must stay informed!

I agree. Yet, I would ask, do I really need to know about bills that are stalled in Congress, or about the president’s vacation plans, or about a power outage or severe weather in a distant state? I realize that, to some extent, the news must be published in order to maintain accountability in a free society. But what am I actually going to do with all of this knowledge? Will any of it help me in any real way, or will it simply play on my emotions and raise my blood pressure? Is there a point at which I can saturate my mind with too much useless information?

The more cynical among us even wonder if the information offered in the daily news is presented merely as a diversion to keep us from discovering things that are of true importance.

So how should we respond?

I recommend that you limit your intake of news. You may want to check a number of different sources for the sake of balance, but be very careful how much time you spend on all of it together. Follow a mix of sources that you believe you can generally trust to tell you about things that you really need to understand. For local news, you will have fewer choices but may have a greater sense of trust in the source—and greater ability to verify it. When it comes to national news, you may want to draw from several sources that represent different vantage points (including one or more with which you disagree), and let them balance each other.

If you are hooked on the news, consider moving from hourly to daily alerts, or from daily to weekly. “One thing is needed” (Luke 10:42). Consider listening to a sermon or a theological discussion rather than another roundtable analysis of the political horse race. Remember that news and commentary are not the same as theology. They may assist us in this natural world, but they are of no eternal value.

I once heard syndicated columnist Cal Thomas say that he reads both the Bible and The Washington Post every morning—because he wants to know what each side is doing.

It is important that Christians be informed. Yet we must ask: What should we be informed about, and who will inform us? With our focus on the Word of God, we must select our sources of worldly information carefully—spending as little time as necessary studying the fleeting vagaries of this life.

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There are 12 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Good thoughts here, Paul. Thanks.

I wish there was some way to rein in the media tendency to always go for the drama… but this is what sells.

But it has become a matter of life and death seriousness in the policing controversy (“police killings” vs. “killings of police”). No small part of the current racial tensions orbiting American policing is media created as so many go for the most anger-inducing headline/angle on every story that involves police shooting someone.

The “white cops are killing blacks for no reason/for reasons of ‘systemic racism’ ” narrative is the product of a combination of left wing tale spinning and media appetite for sensation.

Fortunately, we can still use media against media at least some of the time. Some data we hardly ever hear about

(https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/)

The media also frequently do nothing at all to encourage careful thought about correlation vs. causation, etc. Where anger can be found, tapped, or created… that’s where they swarm.

TylerR's picture

Editor

We haven't had cable for 14 years, so I haven't watched "news" regularly for a very long time. Even when I have had opportunity to (for example, when I worked in a regional operations watch center), I only watched what passes for "hard news." I have always had a special place in my heart for the Fox News show "Special Report," but that's about it. 

I almost always get my news from Google News, which ensures I can read different articles on topics from all across the ideological spectrum. I find it is the most convenient (and free!) way to get news today. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Joel Shaffer's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Good thoughts here, Paul. Thanks.

I wish there was some way to rein in the media tendency to always go for the drama... but this is what sells.

But it has become a matter of life and death seriousness in the policing controversy ("police killings" vs. "killings of police"). No small part of the current racial tensions orbiting American policing is media created as so many go for the most anger-inducing headline/angle on every story that involves police shooting someone.

The "white cops are killing blacks for no reason/for reasons of 'systemic racism'" narrative is the product of a combination of left wing tale spinning and media appetite for sensation.

Fortunately, we can still use media against media at least some of the time. Some data we hardly ever hear about

(https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/)

The media also frequently do nothing at all to encourage careful thought about correlation vs. causation, etc. Where anger can be found, tapped, or created... that's where they swarm.

I know this is a little off topic, but if America's population of white males is somewhere around 99 million and its population of black males is somewhere around 21 million, wouldn't it make sense that the numbers of police killings would be around 5 to 1 white to black rather than a little less than 2 to 1 as it stands now If there wasn't any racial bias by the police?    

You are right that the left-wing media and the media appetite for sensation does create some of this, but so does the right-wing media. They are both equally guilty.  People use the social media, beginning with a blog site that creates provocative headlines, stirring up anger which then becomes click-bait (which they make money on), which in turn is picked up by larger entities until you have a story (mostly a lie) that has spun out of control, which the public accepts it as truth with no accountability.  Anger sells.  

I recommend a book, "Trust Me, I'm Lying" that exposes this entire process.   Here are some links about it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFxwqwhG-ZA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIzWRTCMk0k

 

Bert Perry's picture

I, like Tyler, haven't watched cable news much for a long, long time, but one interesting thing I saw in yesterday's paper (yes I still take a local paper) is a "factcheck" of things said by Donald Trump.  What was interesting was that in each point, the "fact checkers" re-defined the question away from what Trump had actually said.  Well, yes, when you change the range of data you're looking at, the conclusions will be different, but that by no means that the original speaker was lying. It means you changed the question.  Agreed as well that sensationalism is worst on TV--"if it bleeds, it leads", and all that, and when I see a lot of things, I think "my great uncle would be appalled."  There were many nasty things about the newsroom of the 1940s, starting with the hard-drinking culture that ended Kenny's career with alcoholism, and the hard-smoking culture that ended his life with lung cancer, but he and peers like Ernie Pyle knew how to present a story fairly.  

Regarding Joel's "somewhat off topic" comment, my only thought is that if the police are doing their job halfway correctly, the # of police killings ought to scale with the number of criminals, not with the general population.  Of course, that is the very question we'd like to answer; are the police doing their job fairly and well?  And in that light, the relevant statistic would be , and we would then ask something more important; when police killings are reviewed, what proportion is justifiable, what is in a gray area, and what is clearly unjustifiable?

It sounds cold, but I don't get worked up about it when a guy pulls a gun on a cop and gets hurt.  Sorry, we're better off without him.  SWAT raid on a house resulting in grandpa's heart attack or a kid getting shot?  That bothers me.

 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

I, like Tyler, haven't watched cable news much for a long, long time, but one interesting thing I saw in yesterday's paper (yes I still take a local paper) is a "factcheck" of things said by Donald Trump.  What was interesting was that in each point, the "fact checkers" re-defined the question away from what Trump had actually said.  Well, yes, when you change the range of data you're looking at, the conclusions will be different, but that by no means that the original speaker was lying. It means you changed the question.  Agreed as well that sensationalism is worst on TV--"if it bleeds, it leads", and all that, and when I see a lot of things, I think "my great uncle would be appalled."  There were many nasty things about the newsroom of the 1940s, starting with the hard-drinking culture that ended Kenny's career with alcoholism, and the hard-smoking culture that ended his life with lung cancer, but he and peers like Ernie Pyle knew how to present a story fairly.  

Regarding Joel's "somewhat off topic" comment, my only thought is that if the police are doing their job halfway correctly, the # of police killings ought to scale with the number of criminals, not with the general population.  Of course, that is the very question we'd like to answer; are the police doing their job fairly and well?  And in that light, the relevant statistic would be , and we would then ask something more important; when police killings are reviewed, what proportion is justifiable, what is in a gray area, and what is clearly unjustifiable?

It sounds cold, but I don't get worked up about it when a guy pulls a gun on a cop and gets hurt.  Sorry, we're better off without him.  SWAT raid on a house resulting in grandpa's heart attack or a kid getting shot?  That bothers me.

 

Here is the problem, if you dig a little deeper when it comes to police killings.   

"However, black men accounted for 40 percent of the 60 unarmed deaths, even though they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population. The Post's analysis shows that black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/08/08/black-and-unarmed/

Bert Perry's picture

....it were the only problem, dear brother.  Lots of opportunity, to put it mildly, for a lot of analysis.  I just looked through another list--lots of substance abuse, mental problems, toy and bb guns, and people getting hit by cruisers or killed by tasers--and it would be fun to be part of a team looking to see how this might be helped....well, at least except for people who are too interested in their own soapbox to listen to evidence who would instantly accuse me of being either racist or anti-cop for taking part.  Or both.  

And to bring it all back to the subject, not helped at all by simplistic, biased journalism.  Let's stoke the fires of resentment, boys!  Sigh.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bert Perry's picture

Here's one I saw today--apparently a brother in Christ--where an Iowa football player was approached by police seeking a bank robbery suspect, and, thanks be to God, was not hurt despite doing a BUNCH of things wrong.  Now I'm not an officer, but my gut reaction is to wonder what they might have done to make it more obvious what was up.  Maybe....lead with the badge?  

OK, a bit more dangerous, but this scares the heck out of me.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I couldn't agree more, especially about how bad television (cable and network) news is. But online news can be worse when the highlighted stories are the ones with the most clicks, so instead of stock market news or a report on the military coup in Turkey, the headline in bold - accompanied with a picture, no less - is some celebrity who went out in public wearing see-through clothing. Is that news? Do we not already know that celebrities are fascinated by their ability to take their own clothes off?

And once you know the language of media fear tactics, newscasts start to sound ridiculous. 

For instance:

The use of the word "possible, as in "possible link between", "a possible connection between", "a possible outbreak", "a possible attack". . . All the word "possible" means is that Nothing Happened. 

Also, using words like "shocking", "alarming" right before a commercial break. If we are going to be so shocked and alarmed, why not tell us before the commercial? Apparently it's ok for us to sit through a 15 minute commercial break before we hear the "alarming" news. By the time the commercials are over, I'm past alarmed, and went straight to annoyed.

My favorite is when they say "as many as", as in "As many as 10,000 people in America may be diagnosed with a newly discovered virus this year". Which means any number of people between 0 and 10,000. And no one knows anything because it hasn't happened yet!

When we are interested in a news story, we try to find a primary source. So if the city council is meeting (as ours did tonight) about how to deal with the legalization of marijuana in Ohio, we read the City Council agenda and minutes, not what is on the news or in the paper. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

SusanR wrote:

But online news can be worse when the highlighted stories are the ones with the most clicks, so instead of stock market news or a report on the military coup in Turkey, the headline in bold - accompanied with a picture, no less - is some celebrity who went out in public wearing see-through clothing. Is that news? Do we not already know that celebrities are fascinated by their ability to take their own clothes off?

This is why I don't use major news outlets for online news. FoxNews.com is basically a tabloid. On Google News, it automatically organizes news into pre-arranged topics. It has the top five to seven stories for each topic, with the option to click on the topic and find more stories. So, for example, just this morning I read:

  1. A piece from the Guardian about how the new British Prime Minister traveled to Ireland to mend fences and reassure the Irish that the Brexit focus on immigration will not mean the border between Ireland and Britain will be controlled
  2. A story about how the Iraqi government in Fallujah has decided to dig a 40-ft wide, 5-ft deep trench around Fallujah in an effort to control the city, which was recently wrested back from ISIS
  3. A piece from Asia Times about how Turkey is once again the "sick man" of Europe

I wouldn't have got any of this from my local paper, The News Tribune. I certainly wouldn't have got it from the local television news - and if I did it would be a condensed snippet of the real story. Online print news is where it's at now. I think television media, with rare exceptions, is basically a joke. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

I too got rid of cable years ago. I find The Economist to be the best major news source. It certainly has its bias but overall I think they do a pretty good job. 

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Most common media error by far is so old, there's a Latin name for it. Two in fact. Post hoc ergo propter hoc and cum hoc ergo propter hoc.

The error basically says "this thing goes before this other thing, therefore must be causing it" (post hoc...). The even stupider error is "these things happen together so I'll say one causes the other" ("cum hoc...). Both amount to taking correlation for causation.

The variant in the case of the police crisis is an even bigger leap: "this thing happens and we so we assume the other thing is happening before it (racial bias) and then also assume it must be the cause." This is "unsupported correlation taken as causation." I don't have words for how irresponsible this is form media sources.... and U.S. Presidents who repeat it as fact.
I get why the advocacy groups repeat it. It's their bread and butter, their raison d'etre.

Here is the problem, if you dig a little deeper when it comes to police killings.   

"However, black men accounted for 40 percent of the 60 unarmed deaths, even though they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population. The Post's analysis shows that black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/08/08/black-and-unarmed/ (link is external)

This is not actually the "the problem" but is a component of it. The question no one in the media seems to be addressing (it's probably there but buried) is "are black men engaging in behavior-likely-to-get-a-person-shot-by-police at a rate seven times higher than everyone else"? It's possible that the figure is more than 7 times higher rate, because the data exists (see the paragraph with footnote 19 on it) showing that under the same conditions, a cop is actually slower to pull the trigger on a black subject. (But these studies are still pretty small in scope. The question is not being studied enough.... does geography alter the results? Does the cop's age shape results? How about number of years on the job? How about looking at how this correlates with the overall violent crime rate in a region? So much is unexamined... and even more is ignored by the meda.)

The media like to echo the term "disparities" as though it were automatically incriminating, but they are only looking at result disparities and then assuming causes. They need to look at causal disparities.

Bert Perry's picture

...some of the questions I'd be asking about the statistic Joel cited are this:

  • Were the men complying with the police or not?
  • If not, was there a reason they were not complying--like the Iowa football player wearing his headphones?
  • What was their physical size and condition?  6'4" and 250 lbs is by no means unarmed, really.
  • Were they mentally ill?
  • Is it possible that visibility--dark skin reflects less light--plays a role in police approaches towards black people?
  • Did they have a toy or BB gun? Were they pretending to be armed?

....and the list probably goes on a while.  But unless journalists start asking these questions, we're never going to get anywhere.  And sad to say, they're not--there is too often a narrative they're pursuing, and these questions never see the light of day. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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