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Examine the 'news' from a Christian worldview
October 11, 2004
By R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, Southern Seminary
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.
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 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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, naivet... is deadly.
Principle Five: Headlines often lie and language often misleads. Headlines emerge from the copy-editing process and are used to draw attention to a story and attract readers. 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.
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. Christian citizens should develop the discipline of wide reading and selective viewing — checking reports against each other for accuracy and bias.
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 your parents warned you long ago — beware of following the crowd.
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. TV news reports tend to be image-driven, more superficial and more simplistic than the print media. TV news broadcasts tend to be framed as conversations, producing "talking heads" who often provide more drama than content and information.
Principle Nine: When it comes to issues of importance, turn off the tube and think. 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. This is especially important for parents as careful engagement with the news media affords an excellent opportunity for training children in Christian worldview thinking.
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 and to draw accurate conclusions. Inevitably, Christians will either lead or be led.