Two words I am sick of hearing in this post-election reality of what else can we talk about? news coverage: “fake news.” Never mind how helpful it might have been to voters to know prior to voting just how many online news platforms are run solely for profit and are not journalistic entities, the question remains of what the Christian’s news watching accountability is. Do believers have a responsibility to keep up with current events? Typically when talking about how Black Christians feel about current events, conversations typically hover somewhere between “the Lord is soon to come” and “there will be wars and rumors of wars.” Are we so spiritually minded that we are no earthly good? What would Jesus’ response be to social media as a source for both religious news and current events? I think, if I could use my sanctified imagination, there are three words Christians might do well to consider:
MEMES AREN’T FACTS.
I believe if you call yourself a Christian and live in America, you need to be as informed as you can be about current events. Whether you believe it was Protestant Reformation catalyst Martin Luther or Swiss theologian Karl Barth who said it, “the believer ought to have the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”
But in the age of digital sharing that makes passing information as simple as a keyboard click, and 24-hour newschannels that appear to prioritize being first with information over being factually correct, what is one to do?
We’re going to have to have to face some hard facts. The reason why it was easy to—at the very least—influence voters with click-bait propaganda disguised as news is because people realize how unlikely we are to vet anything. We have become a reality show culture where we expect folks to misrepresent themselves or say one thing one week and something else the next. We’ve been trained to have divided attention spans where we watch competition shows, vote for our favorite, live tweet and do all of this while we’re updating our Facebook and Instagram pages.
Heck, in some cases it is even too much trouble to even check and make sure the Bible verses we put on memes have the right chapters and verses before sending off into the cyber streets these days.
It is both a blessing and a curse to live in the digital age. Anyone with a computer can create a website or a blog and count on the fact that most of us won’t read past the headlines…in fact, the headlines are written precisely to get you to click so the website administrator can show these click number totals to advertisers so they can negotiate the rates they are paid to place banner ads on their sites, which is how they make money. Note that words like “truth,” “fact,” or “journalistic integrity” are not even variables in this payment equation.
We may as well start right there. One way you can tell if a website is pure ad click bait is by the number of ads that pop up. If you have to click the little ‘x’ in the corner for more than one ad just to see the story, or the ads move around or ‘jump’ every time you click “next,” there probably isn’t much fact there. Also note the language of the headline: if it says something like “so and so got owned…” there is a good chance it is click bait.
Remember that since the 1980s, news has changed quite a bit. Prior to CNN, which bowed in 1980, there were no 24-hour news channels…news came on in the evening (at 6pm and 11pm depending on your time zone) and that was it. Reporters made the time to verify their stories using an expression that is now being used pejoratively: they fact checked. There used to be investigative reporting; reporters would work on a single news story that went on over a period of time that was regularly updated in order to keep viewers informed on a particular topic. No more of that. Once news was de-regulated, investigative and consumer reports stories either got pushed to the backburner or eliminated completely.
President Ronald Reagan played a huge role in the de-regulation of television news, loosening the restrictions of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). If you are over 40, you may recall there was something called “the family hour” where programming was family friendly during the hours of 7-9pm EST and there was much more children’s programming on Saturday mornings, once of the first things to go away after de-regulation. De-regulation also allowed corporations to purchase as many media outlets as they could afford. (If you are interested in this breakdown, the documentary “Missrepresentation” does a great job. It’s on Netflix right now, fast forward in about an hour, and you will see what corporations own what media outlets.)
Once the promise of a family friendly time block was kicked to the curb, you could hear words like “ass,” “douche” and “bitch” on television shows.
News coverage changed as well. Investigative and call for action news stories gave way to on-air yelling and cross-talking conflict shows took the forefront. Anybody remember Morton Downey, Jr.?
Election 2016 news coverage showed us how much this format is still in play. Now that the election is over, I know I still have a headache from this news coverage format, where surrogates for either candidate go on news shows and lie and yell and yell and lie and as soon as someone says something you actually want to hear more about, the news reader will say “we’ll have to leave it there.”
Makes you want to scream, doesn’t it?
But I believe Christians must be informed about the world we live in. So how do you do that in a 21st century reality?
We are going to have to ask the questions that journalists would ask. Let me give you an example. We’ve heard a lot of statistics hurled around on news shows during the election. Remember that whenever someone provides you with statistics, that person is likely using the numbers to make whatever point the person citing them wants you to believe.
This is important, because we internalize too much garbage without vetting it. Let me use Black women as an example:
Person 1: 80% of Black women will never marry.
Person 2: According to whom? Can you tell me who it is that is tracking that? Cite your source.
Person 1: crickets
Unfortunately, what people tend to remember are the stats, whether they are correct or not. Far too much of what we accept into our hearing (and remember, faith comes by hearing) is not based in fact. We internalize (or develop faith for) negative self-talk and imagery simply because we have forgotten the rules of grade school: cite your source, and show your work.
How do we do this? How do we parse through information overload?
May we all walk into 2017 with our eyes wide open when it comes to current events and how we get our news information, and may God bless us all with tangible expressions of joy unspeakable.