By Ryan Sanders
Clergy abuse, cover-ups, gay marriage, abortion, religious violence.
It seems that matters of religion and morality are making news at every turn lately. And it’s not likely to stop. As America becomes more religiously diverse, the collision of various worldviews is bound to generate more headlines.
In such an environment, it’s important for church leaders and people of faith to be savvy news consumers. So here are five tips to better process what you read in the headlines and hear over the airwaves.
1. Read. Don’t watch.
Let’s start with a controversial one: News is better consumed in print than in images.
While there’s certainly a place for broadcast journalism (and lots of broadcast journalists would disagree with me on this point) there’s also a high risk of misunderstanding with television news.
The images in a news story can convey meaning that the reporting itself does not intend. Plus, it’s much easier to miss a phrase or be distracted by the visuals when consuming televised news.
I once worked for a political pundit named Rob who appeared on a weekly debate show. People would stop him on the street and say, “Hey, I saw you on TV!” Rob would say, “Oh yeah? Which episode? What was I talking about?”
They wouldn’t remember what he talked about, but they could explain—down to the detail—what he wore on air.
Too often with broadcast media, the visuals overpower the journalism. If you really want to understand a story—to catch its nuance, it’s causes, and its implications—then read about it.
2. Read News As Genre.
Seminary professors teach students to treat different parts of Scripture differently, depending on genre. Poetry and epistles should be handled differently. Narrative isn’t the same as wisdom literature. We do the same with modern texts. We may enjoy the latest superhero movie but we don’t expect it to be an accurate depiction of real-life events.
Let’s apply the same logic to the news. News is a genre, and it’s important for news consumers to understand what kind of genre they’re reading. Journalists are trying to get at the hidden truth of things.
They want to tell people something true that they don’t already know. Newspapers and magazines don’t print stories that say the sun came up yesterday. That’s not news. It literally happens every day. We know why it happens every day and we know there’s no hidden agenda or corrupt politician behind the sunrise.
The sunrise isn’t news. Neither is your Bible study or your VBS or your denominational meeting that affirms the same positions it’s affirmed for the past 100 years. Those are all wonderful things and worthy to be known. But they aren’t news because there’s no hidden truth to tell.
People of faith will do well to adjust their expectations about what they’ll find in the news media and how much of it will support their particular event, organization, or worldview.
3. Pay For It.
Newspapers have struggled in recent years in large part because of the disruption caused by the rise of the internet and its proliferation of news sources, all of them offering free content. When that disruption arrived, everything online was free—music, data, research, and yes, news.
But the internet has changed as we’ve discovered that free content isn’t always good content. We pay for more of the internet now—streaming services, music libraries, and news sites. Though there are certainly reputable journalists whose work is available for free online, we’re coming into an era when a simple axiom might apply: Free news is sometimes fake news.
The alternative is simple: Subscribe. I suggest two subscriptions for everyone: one to your local newspaper and one to a national magazine that interests you. If you’d prefer not to kill trees, they all offer digital-only options.
4. Read Carefully.
It’s certainly acceptable to scan headlines and skip over stories that don’t interest you. Here’s a secret: No one actually reads every story in any publication; often not even the people who work at those publications.
But don’t let headlines be the sum of your news intake. Choose one or two stories each day and read them thoroughly. Identify the story’s sources and ask yourself what other sources you would have liked to hear from. Consider how you would write the story.
And by all means, read the byline. It’s important to know who you’re reading. A novice news consumer says, “I saw something in the newspaper…” A savvy news consumer says, “I was reading David Brooks…”
And don’t stop there. Comment on the story online. Consider contacting the writer if you have questions or something substantive to add. You might be surprised at how responsive journalists are.
5. Read the Other Side.
I’ve saved the hardest for last. If you really want to understand issues covered by journalists, including those related to faith, intentionally seek out news sources that promote viewpoints opposed to your own.
Are you conservative? Swing by Mother Jones. Are you progressive? Take a look at National Review. But follow these three rules: Don’t go there to argue, don’t stay long, and don’t go there at all if your blood boils as soon as the page loads. The best journalism is still the kind that at least tries to be fair and balanced, but understanding an issue means seeing it from all sides, even the side you’re convinced is flat wrong.
Good journalism should help readers make sense of the world. It should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It should expose the truth no matter how offensive that truth is. Aren’t those exactly the things good ministry does as well? If we’ll learn to be savvy news consumers, we’ll be better equipped to engage and influence the culture around us.