Part 5 of Reading the News Like a Christian
By Abigail Woolley Cutter
This post wraps up a series on reading the news like a Christian. In the last four installments, I’ve written on how our information technology contributes to news overwhelm, how we can learn to pray through the news, how news might prompt us to examine the ethical structure of our own lives, how news exposure can create or trigger trauma, and whether there’s any room for me to be joyful as long as I am aware of others’ suffering.
But there’s an elephant in the room. For many, when we start to think about hard questions raised through engaging the news, the most glaring issue won’t be anything I’ve named so far. Instead, the first response will be eyes rolling.
“Oh, you mean the lying liberal media?”
Or, “Good grief, don’t even get me started on Fox News.”
That is, which sources of news we consume — and which we don’t — often serves as a symbol, renewed through our daily ritual of catching up on the world, of which group we belong to and in whom we place our trust.
It should be no surprise that Christians are caught up in this trust battle. Our theology teaches us to recognize the wide-ranging effects of the Fall, so we don’t even have to wait for bad experiences before we ought to know not to trust everything on offer. Of course humans have to be held accountable.
But when it comes to news consumption, many of us go beyond this wise discernment and get caught in partisan cycles that worsen the breakdown instead of fostering restoration. Some of this damage is coming from distorted beliefs, which contribute to distorted kinds of belonging. Let me highlight two ways I see this happening.
First: If we think of the world out there as sinful, imagining we can preserve ourselves from its taint, we fall prey to defensive sectarianism.
This pattern has at least two problems. The world is fallen and twisted, yes. But even more fundamentally, the world is God’s good creation, and God is faithful to it. All humans, Christian or non-Christian, can discover beautiful, good, and true things about the world and make valuable contributions. Our work as gardeners — whether we “garden” as farmers, doctors, mechanics, scientists, philosophers, artists, teachers, or caregivers — is the kind of thing all humans are called to share. Each “sphere” (Abraham Kuyper’s term) has rules and standards of excellence that, while obstructed by the brambles that characterize fallen creation, Christians and non-Christians alike can perceive and abide by.
Christians go wrong when we look at “the world” and see nothing but sin, as if God has abandoned the world he made.
Journalism, with its hard-won professional standards like confirming facts, inviting comment from multiple sides, and printing corrections when necessary, is one of those common human endeavors that Christians should support toward excellence — allowing journalists to hold us accountable, even as we not only hold them accountable but also respect their efforts toward excellence. If, instead, our basic posture is skepticism and hostility toward the profession, we risk cutting ourselves off from some of God’s gifts. If we choose only to trust a select group who have pledged loyalty to us and our interests, we are missing out on the pursuit of all truth, particularly where it calls us to account. All sides have lost out on the opportunity for a partnership of accountability.
The second mistake embedded in defensive sectarianism is the idea that sin is something we can avoid by keeping our distance from non-Christians. If we stay as far as we can from secular cultural activity, and spend most of our time with Christians of our own brand, we may think we are more likely to be holy. While the first sectarian mistake misses God’s goodness throughout the world, this second mistake misses sin’s effects on our own turf.
Perhaps this mistake is easiest to make when we believe that we must stay far away from any area of the world where we see sin. We can’t avoid everything — we have to live, work, and find community somewhere. So if we feel the need to move about only in “pure” spaces, it becomes important to find groups that we believe are relatively untainted. Once we’ve gotten comfortable with a group, we can become irrationally defensive, refusing to take seriously the criticisms of our people — whether Christian leaders or the political leaders we have decided are for us.
Our news consumption can easily reinforce this blindness to the sin within our own communities. If the news reporting and analysis we consume never hesitates to remind us that “they” are the problem, but is slow to tell us when “we” are, we are surely not letting journalism do its job.
Second: While we can reject “the world” (and its journalism) too much by misattributing the effects of the Fall, we can also forget that, more than any nation or party, “our people” is God’s people.
Abraham Kuyper reminded us that before creation is fallen, it is God’s, it is good, and it receives God’s ongoing grace. On the other hand, St. Augustine reminds us that, because God’s peace is something other than this-worldly flourishing, Christians must see past our earthly loyalties to nation and party. God’s people is composed of persons from all nations, and it is this people that must receive our primary loyalty.
At first glance, it may seem as if this point brings us back to sectarianism. Does identifying first and foremost with the people of God lead us to become further entrenched in the narrow interests of the people who seem most like us? On the contrary: looking beyond the earthly ties of place and party, we ought to be able to recognize that God’s people can be found in “every tribe and tongue.” Furthermore, our brothers and sisters are not only around the world, but also embedded in diverse parts of our own society — even in the tribes we are tempted to reject.
It’s surely possible that the Christians “over there” are sadly misguided; that they have allowed their Christianity to take a back seat to political interests; that their news sources are mostly propaganda. These states of affairs are conceivable, and sometimes true. (I recommend Jonathan Rauch’s recent The Constitution of Knowledge: In Defense of Truth for its bilateral critique of “information warfare,” including how the favorite techniques of left and right form a vicious cycle.)
But there are Christians “over there,” nonetheless. And more than any other group with whom I feel a kinship, they are my people. If I forget that and reject them, I only thicken the wall between competing realities, further break down trust, and handicap us all in the pursuit of truth.
To push back against the tendency of our news consumption to divide us, here are some practices I recommend:
- Pay for your news. If you’ve agreed that Christians should do what we can to support high-quality journalism and discourage sensationalism, consider paying for subscriptions. Why? Because if you are not paying for your news, advertisers are. If journalists need to attract advertising dollars, they are left competing for your attention, and the consequence is that the most successful stories are incendiary, click-baitey, and trivial. They appeal increasingly to your emotions — mostly outrage. To avoid being manipulated this way (at least in part), just pay for the news.
- Choose an intentional assortment of news sources. Following a variety of sources will help you attend to a range of issues and insights. And while no source will be entirely free of bias, reputable sources can and should adhere to professional standards and hold themselves accountable. This may seem obvious, but I think many of us are lazier in our news consumption than we would like. So make a point of selecting some sources that lean right (like the Wall Street Journal or The Dispatch) and some that lean left (like The Guardian or The New York Times). Try to balance fact reporting (e.g., AP, Reuters) and analysis (e.g., The Atlantic, The Economist). The News Bias Chart created by Ad Fontes Media is a thoughtfully constructed and continuously updated tool for locating sources within the media ecosystem.
- Look for resources that help you see the best in “the other side.” When you hear someone explain the ideas you disagree with, do you come away thinking, “I can’t believe anyone falls for that,” or “They have a good point: I’m going to have to chew on that one”? If it’s usually the former, that’s a good sign you need to diversify. Consider subscribing to The Flip Side, a newsletter that charitably presents diverse perspectives on current events, with the goal of increasing respect across the political divide.
- Cultivate curiosity. Take inventory of your own goals and emotions as you read about current events. Are you actively participating in us-versus-them thinking, or are you building bridges? Do you relish having a tidy explanation with no loose ends… or are you often thinking, “Where might ‘we’ be wrong?” “What don’t I know?” “What do my group’s views not explain?” When you engage with knowledgeable people who disagree with you, are you more compelled to learn, or to argue?
- Don’t let your encounters with reality be too mediated. It’s easy to let our sense of self, other people, the world, and even God be developed far too much in reference to distant personalities and presentations, which we can only consume passively. Get back to conversations—long ones, with as many people as you can, mostly not about politics. Get back to prayer—daily prayer, and sometimes long prayer. Get back to scripture—and notice where it chafes against your political reality. Then take that back to God.