It seems like you can’t really escape the news anymore. From breaking news alerts on our phones to our social media timelines to over-the-cubicle conversations at work, we are inundated with headlines. Unlike our parent’s generation where news either came delivered and curated to our stoop each morning or broadcast from three main TV networks at night, we are forced to think and process a lot of information all day long.
How can Christians do this well? On the one hand, we should resist the urge to think we have to know and comment publicly on everything all the time. On the other hand, we can’t love our neighbors as Jesus commanded us if we pretend nothing is happening. So what does Christian discernment about the news look like? Here are six questions to ask:
1. Do I have the whole story?
It’s too easy to just scan a headline and think we know the whole story. Today we are long on skimming and short on actual details. But if we are indeed people who care about truth, we can’t form opinions without getting all of the facts. This is where James’ wise words to the first-century church apply, with a slight change for application: Let’s be quick to listen to the whole story, slow to tweet, slow to outrage (James 1:19).
2. Is the writer and media outlet trustworthy?
Don’t fall for clickbait headlines and deceptive copy that frame a story in ways that make the subject look bad. Watch out for all publications, including Christians ones, sadly, that are built on sensationalism and half-truths. If a headline is too good or too bad or too sensational to be true, it probably is. And even among more established media outlets, it’s good to know which journalists and voices are fair and which ones are pushing an agenda.
3. Am I willing to read news from a variety of sources?
If we are truly concerned about knowing and communicating, “what is true” (Philippians 4:8), we have to be willing to process the news without the lens of our biases. For instance, I’m a conservative. If I’m not careful, I’ll only get news from conservative-leaning outlets. For progressives, this temptation is similar. We need to read a variety of sources, from a variety of perspectives. This doesn’t mean we abandon core convictions, but that we are willing to face and seek the truth, wherever it leads. It’s also good, sometimes, to read longer-form articles and listen to podcasts to get a fuller sense of what is happening, rather than relying on short and incomplete bursts of information.
4. Am I willing to hear bad news about my own tribe?
All of us are prone to a concept known as “confirmation bias.” This is the tendency to believe the stories that tell the best news about our guy or our tribe and the worst news about the other guy and the other tribe. This is especially acute and growing worse in the ways we discuss politics online, as politics increasingly replace religions as a source of meaning and purpose. Christians need to resist this, especially since, as Christians, we have already confessed our imperfections and sinful nature to God. We should be willing to acknowledge the fallibility of our own party or movement and willing to acknowledge the goodness of others in another party or movement. By the way, if we resist confirmation bias, it will keep us from the sensational click-bait type content we mentioned above.
5. Am I qualified to comment on this issue?
Social media has a habit of compelling you to comment on every news story from every source. But the reality is that commenting on every post isn’t necessary. Sometimes it’s okay to read news and refrain from posting our opinions. It’s good to stay in our lanes of expertise. Proverbs 17:28 is a great verse for the social media age: “Even a fool is considered wise when he keeps silent, discerning, when he seals his lips.”
6. Can I say something constructive that will provoke a healthy conversation?
Even if we have a good understanding of a news story, we should still ask ourselves if we are capable of adding to healthy public discourse. I’m amazed at how often we think cathartic rage-tweeting will convince someone to change their mind about an issue. I’m amazed at how often elite opinion-makers think that talking down to people will cause them to change their minds. This doesn’t mean we should never employ strong language in speaking out against evil, but most of the time when we think we are being “prophetic”, we are just acting angrily.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but perhaps these diagnostic questions can help Christians think wiser about reading and reacting to the news. It may keep us from just going along with the currents of social media where narratives and opinions are often formed with heated passions and few facts. It’s important for followers of Jesus to be discerning with our news media diet so we can accurately assess the world and more fully love our neighbors.