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Discernment in the Age of Instant News

N&O Media Bias

With the technological boom we have seen in just the past few years, we find ourselves in an age where a seemingly endless amount of information is at our fingertips. We are constantly bombarded by a twenty-four hour news cycle, and the desire to be the first to “break” a story or the provide the most incendiary account has caused a rise in “so-called” fake news.

But how do Christians read and process news with discernment in this highly saturated news environment? Pastor Joe Carter of McLean Bible Church, The Gospel Coalition, and the ERLC has written an article on this topic, and he joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to discuss how we can read the news with discernment.

“Everything we do should be focused on living in the way God wants us to live,” says Carter. “And one of the ways we do that explicitly for the media is to really look at how does this differ from what God is telling me in our Bible.”

“We have a tendency to choose or reject a source of information based on whether we think it’s biased. The truth is all sorts of information are biased, since bias is just simply favoring one perspective over another. […] Truth may be on one end or the other. It may be on the extreme conservative end, it may be on the extreme liberal, and we don’t know until we look for the truth.”

So what are some of the best forms of news we can seek out and use in our discernment of truth? Carter urges us to stop watching broadcast news, since the information density there is so low. “If we want to become informed, the best way to read news, or to get our news, is of course from a printed form and in words,” such as from a newspaper.

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Pastor Joe Carter give advice for how we all can use discernment to search for truth within the news.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Discernment in the Age of Instant News

TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Many of us have been consuming way more news than usual in these weeks of social distancing. We hear a lot about fake news, and some have even wondered how much of our current societal and economic situation is the result of excessive panic stirred up by media outlets? It’s always been imperative that we read or watch news with a discerning mind and heart. It’s also important to help protect our children from getting weighted down by too much news.

Well, today we’re joined by Pastor Joe Carter, he is Executive Pastor at McLean Bible Church in Virginia, Editor at The Gospel Coalition, and Communications Specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Pastor Carter recently wrote an article entitled, “How to read the news with discernment,” and that’s our very important topic of discussion today.

Pastor Joe Carter, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

PASTOR JOE CARTER: Thanks for having me on.

TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s start with the basics; what do you mean exactly by discernment?

PASTOR JOE CARTER: Well discernment is the ability to judge well, and for Christians, biblical discernment is the skill of understanding and applying God’s word with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course. This separates truth from error, right from wrong, the primary from the secondary, and the transient from the permanent.

TRACI GRIGGS: So, we’re not just talking about a wisdom that interprets the Bible correctly, say in a church atmosphere, but we can apply what we learn in the Bible to what we’re reading in the news. How, in a practical way, can we do that?

PASTOR JOE CARTER: What the Bible calls wisdom is how to apply God’s word to our lives and understand how we should live. Everything we do should be focused on living in the way God wants us to live. And one of the ways we do that explicitly for the media, is to really look at how does this differ from what God is telling me in our Bible. As Karl Barth once said, “You read the Bible and the newspaper every day, but the newspaper should be interpreted from what you’re reading in the Bible. And I think that’s the key to it, just letting scripture determine how we see the world.

TRACI GRIGGS: So, in your article you said, “for Christians, the priority must always be the truth. Truth must even take precedence over our political objectives. Talk about that; what do you mean by that?

PASTOR JOE CARTER: One of the problems is we often talk how God is sovereign, He’s in control, but we tend to think, “Well, He’s not really in control,” because we think that if we don’t act in certain ways then the outcome we don’t want will happen. And that’s especially true in politics where we think that getting the political outcome we want is more important than the truth. And that’s not what the Bible says at all. And so we should be concerned more about the truth and let God worry about the outcomes. But one key way we do this, and we see this just every day on the news and in the media and in politics, is that we misrepresent what people say or do, or what they believe. We try to put the most egregious spin on whatever their position is to make it sound terrible, so that nobody will be attracted to that.

And I think that’s the problem, we’re so afraid that if we present our political opponents as reasonable people, well, people may fall for their arguments. And again, what we should be concerned about is the truth. If there’s something reasonable in the arguments, we should understand that. We should know why it appeals to people and how we can make sure that our arguments are stronger. We are on the side of truth. So, by misrepresenting people we’re misrepresenting God because we’re representatives, God’s ambassadors here on earth. I think that’s one of the reasons we have to be so concerned about the truth and be presenting other people’s arguments in a fair way.

TRACI GRIGGS: By doing this, and I think this is what you’re saying, which is a great point, that by allowing people who disagree with us to kind of punch holes in our argument and be open to that, we can discover what the weaknesses of our arguments are.

PASTOR JOE CARTER: Yeah. We should be able to explain somebody else’s position in a way that they would say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.” And we should hope for the same thing from us. And when people start poking holes in it, it’s just like Christian apologists for years have not been afraid to say, “Here’s what the Bible says, here’s how to explain it.”

TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s talk about sources of information then. If we’re going to be discerning, if we’re going to try to discern some truth out of all this that we’re hearing out there in the marketplace—and it’s not just the COVID-19, of course—this has to apply to all of our elections that are coming up. So how do we do that? What are some good sources of information for us to begin?

PASTOR JOE CARTER: Well, let me start by pointing out the wrong way to do it. We have a tendency to choose or reject a source of information based on whether we think it’s biased. The truth is all sorts of information are biased, since bias is just simply favoring one perspective over another. But what we mean by biased is that we want information that is biased in the direction we prefer. In the 1980s, 1990s, conservatives like me, we used to complain constantly that the media had a liberal bias. And then came talk radio and Fox News,and now we have all these sources of what appeared unbiased, when in reality they were just biased in different directions. And the result was that so-called conservative media was getting us to believe all sorts of things that weren’t true simply because they were telling us what we wanted here.

I think a better approach is to choose sources of information based on what they have to lose. A source like the New York Times, for example, may have a liberal bias, but they also have a lot of credibility to lose. So that newspaper isn’t going to print anything that they know is just outright false. Now, in contrast, some anonymous person on the internet who has little or no reputation to lose, they may have no qualms about spreading lies or inaccurate information. In general, it’s often better to choose a source that has a lot to lose even if they’re wrong, even if they don’t share our particular biases. To be honest, I would say we shouldn’t be watching cable news at all. I think cable news is the wrong way to get information. I think that’s the problem; we’re focused on the bias; we’re trying to find a balance between this bias and that bias, and what we should be looking for is the truth. “What is the truth of the situation? What are the facts? What do I need to know to make a reasonable opinion about this?” Instead of like, “What kind of information can I take in to confirm what I already believe,” you know, confirmation bias, things like that. I don’t necessarily think we need just a balance of the right or the left because the truth isn’t always in the middle. The truth may be on one end or the other. It may be on the extreme conservative end, it may be on the extreme liberal, and we don’t know until we look for the truth. And that’s what we should be focused on rather than just trying to balance out the bias.

TRACI GRIGGS: Right. So, it sounds like you’re not all that thrilled with broadcast news and steering us toward reading. And why would that be the case?

PASTOR JOE CARTER: Oh, well, often in the news, whether on TV or on a computer screen with a video on a computer screen, is the absolute worst way to get our news. And the reason why is because TV video has a lower informational density than the print, such as newspaper. All the words spoken in an hour of TV news could fit on a single page of a newspaper. TV viewers from the start are getting much less news content than newspaper readers, and we are much more able to gain information from the printed word than we are from images, because images are all about change. If we look at an image too long, we quickly get bored and that’s why cable news shows us several images competing for our attention all at once. We’re expected to listen to the person talking; we’re supposed to process all these rapidly changing graphics; and we’re supposed to read the scrolling text at the bottom! It’s not there because they’re trying to provide us with information; it’s there just cause they want to capture our attention and all of this activity just gives us the impression that we’re actually learning something, when TV news is actually just making us dumber. We’re not getting more information. We’d be better off watching some reality TV show than cable news because it’s not really providing accurate information in a way that’s really helping us become informed. If we want to become informed, the best way to read news, or to get our news, is of course from a printed form and in words.

TRACI GRIGGS: When we’re reading, we do have the opportunity to follow some links and look things up for ourselves, don’t we?

PASTOR JOE CARTER: Yeah, absolutely, especially in the age of the Internet, we have so much access to go to the actual sources. We don’t have to listen to the talking head on TV, say, “Here’s what is in this law.” We can actually go on, read the text of the law, and find out for ourselves what it actually says. And even with printed media, most of it is fluff and, “Here’s a quote based on what people think about this,” rather than, “Here’s the facts of the matter.” I think that’s what we should be looking more for, is what kind of information do we need to make decisions. COVID’s a great example of how it’s a disease that doesn’t care about our opinions. There are facts that it’s either killing people, it’s either infecting people, it’s hurting people, or it’s not. That’s a fact. The opinions are the people like, “How serious is it?” We should listen to experts who have reasoned judgments about this.

TRACI GRIGGS: Now we like to point fingers at everyone else, don’t we, for sharing fake news or creating sensationalized stories, but sometimes we’re the culprit.

PASTOR JOE CARTER: Oh, absolutely. I’ve heard a study that 60 percent of the news stories that were shared online, the person didn’t even bother to read the story that they were sharing. They just read the headline, it confirmed what they already believed, and so they share it. And in the age of the news now, because of social media, we become unpaid interns for Fox Newsor CNN,or any other news source. We’re just kind of out there becoming our own distributor of this stuff. And most of the time we don’t take the time to say, “Do we really understand what the article is saying? Do we actually believe it, and why aren’t we sharing it?” It’s like Jesus says in Matthew, that on the Day of Judgment we’ll be held accountable for every empty word that we’ve spoken, and that should make us more careful about what we share because we’re essentially sharing empty words that we don’t even know if this is true, and yet we’re sharing it and expecting other people to believe it and shape their view of the world based on this information we’re giving him. We haven’t even taken the time to actually understand it ourselves.

TRACI GRIGGS: During this COVID-19 social distancing, people are finding themselves at home quite often, more often than ever before with their kids all day long. Young kids, older kids. How do we go about helping them to form a foundation that will help them be discerning?

PASTOR JOE CARTER: Well, children learn to make distinctions by asking variations of the question, “Is it this or that?” They learn to discern the difference between a cat or dog by looking at him say, “Well, is it this category, that category?” And same with alphabet letters. Almost everything they do, they put in categories based on, “Is it this and is it that.” We can teach them kind of like biblical discernment by questioning things such as, the difference between sin and just imprudence. For example, it might not be wise to eat chocolate cake for breakfast, but it’s not necessarily a sin. However, if a child is told by their mom not to eat chocolate cake for breakfast and they disobeyed, well disobeying your parents is sin. We can kind of help discern the distinction between sin and things like that to learn how to apply that to the Christian life.

Another way is to play the game of ‘spot the lie’ in advertising. If for example, they are watching a toy commercial or cereal commercial, ask them to point out the claims that aren’t true. Now we don’t want to turn them into skeptics, but kids often assume that most everything they hear from adults is true. So, helping children learn to identify exaggerations, or outright lies in the media, can help them make broader, you know, build discernment skills for later in life.

TRACI GRIGGS: What about amount of time? We know we want good sources, we want to be discerning about what we read. But how much time should we be spending looking at news these days, do you think?

PASTOR JOE CARTER: We kind of look at that backwards. We’re like, “How much time should I have spent on this activity?” rather than, “What is the purpose of this activity? What am I trying to get from this activity?” And if we go in with that mindset, like for example, if I go to the COVID issue, “What do I need to know? What I need to know to live my life?” Not just to scare me or to give me anxiety, but what I need to know today that will help me live today. I go on there and search for news like that. And maybe that takes five, 10 minutes; it shouldn’t take you hours to read up on things that you can’t really apply, that are not really actionable. And I think that’s the way we should approach everything we take in. If we approach the Bible like that, rather than saying, “Well, I’m going to go spend 15 minutes with the Bible,” instead of just like, “Well, what does God want me to know?” and therefore to determine how much time I should be spending on that activity, I think that will really change how we approach life.

TRACI GRIGGS: That’s a great point. You know, it’s a mental health issue too with the suicide rates and the rates of depression already so high in our country. Seems like it’s a matter of good mental health to not spend a lot of time dwelling on that.

PASTOR JOE CARTER: Absolutely. Part of the problem is that it used to be that the news we knew about was actionable. I mean, farmers needed to know what crops we’re selling for and what the weather was going to be like. That was the news for them, that was something they could act on. Now, most of our news that we hear is unactionable. We hear things that we have no control over and we can’t really do anything about. You know, sometimes if we hear a tsunami in Japan, we can decide, “Okay, well I need to find some way to support them or give them aid.” Most of the news we hear about, it’s just as Neil Postman, the technologist, once said, “It’s all about the seven deadly sins and we already know about those already.” We don’t need to hear more stories about murder or rape or greed or all that stuff. We see enough of that in our own hearts that we don’t need to go out and looking for it in the news. If we spend more time looking for actionable news, “How can I help my neighbor based on the news I hear,” we would quickly recognize there’s a lot of news we just don’t need to know about.

TRACI GRIGGS: All right, well we’re just about out of time for this week. Before we go, what are some resources that you recommend for people who want to become better at discernment?

PASTOR JOE CARTER: About 10 years ago, me and my friend Tim Challies, published a book titled, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. It’s a really helpful book about how Christians can be more discerning. I’d also recommend John Somerville’s book, Why the News Makes Us Dumb, and it’s probably the best book ever written on how Christians should think about the news. So those are two resources I’d highly recommend.

TRACI GRIGGS: That’s great. Well, thank you very much. Pastor Joe Carter, he is the author of the article, “How to read the news with discernment.” Thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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