By PAUL J. SCHARF, M.Div.
Editor in Chief
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.
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 this 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 truly is not 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 can 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.
Copyright © 2016 Dispensational Publishing House, Inc.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®.
Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Rebecca Riffkin, “Americans’ Trust in Media Remains at Historical Low,” <http://www.gallup.com/poll/185927/americans-trust-media-remains-historical-low.aspx>; Internet; accessed 23 June 2016.
Thank you for this article! As “news junkies” we began to realize that the television “reporters” could not hear us yelling at them! We made a conscious decision to no longer watch the “news” unless we felt that there was a particularly momentous event… such as BREXIT. Even then, we only listened to a few men who were able to speak about it intelligently, and from an insiders view…
Thanks for the good comment, Nan!
Good article, Paul. My husband and I gave up TV 8 years ago, haven’t missed a thing of importance! We use our laptops, tablets, and smart phones to search out what news we want to read (or hear) when we want to read it.