A Gallup Poll revealed last September that “Americans’ distrust in the media hit a new high this year.” A full 60% of us have “little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.”
Mostly, it’s conservatives (47%) thinking the media is too liberal, though 13% think it’s too conservative. Gallup said, “Prevalence of the perception of bias was highest among partisans, with 78% of conservatives reporting a perception of bias, 53% of liberals reporting a perception of bias, and 46% of moderates reporting a perception of bias.” Only about 36% of us think the media is “just right.”
As a journalist, I often grit my teeth over many Christians’ responses to the media—especially believers who watch only one cable news station and read only evangelical newspapers and magazines such as World (but never Sojourners). Because these believers agree with the biases presented on conservative stations and in print, they don’t notice when they get news slanted in their favor. So sadly, in the words of Lifeway researcher Ed Stetzer, “Too often, Christians are in a state of perpetual grievance, where each passing day brings another new controversy about which we must act or else Christianity in America will crumble.”
Most of us want to be part of a positive force for change. And griping about how liberal the media is fails to accomplish that goal. So how can we improve our witness and our influence?
· Understand the difference between “news” and “editorial.” News reports are factual and expected to be neutral. They include stories such as “Syria rebels will skip talks unless they get arms,” and “The United States has fared worse in job gains than six of the nine countries surveyed by a federal agency.” Such reports are neither “conservative” or “liberal.” Editorial reports, on the other hand, are openly laced with opinion and usually marked as “editorials” to distinguish them from hard news. Consider the editorials in the New York Times that have lambasted the Obama administration. Editorials in print might include lampooning cartoons. In print or television, they include outright opinion pieces, including interviews with people who state opinions. Often complaints about bias come from people viewing or reading editorials and thinking, “This is supposed to be news. Why does it include this liberal opinion?”
· Recognize that we are so biased that we miss attempts at fairness. When the New York Daily News endorsed Romney for president, I don’t remember hearing any evangelicals object to media bias. When the New York Times editorial board said President Obama has lost all credibility because of government snooping on emails and phone records, I don’t recall hearing anyone applaud the openly liberal paper for criticizing a fellow liberal.
· Listen. We don’t have to agree, but we should at least hear other Christians’ points of view on issues that fall outside of the Nicene Creed. Evangelicals have differing views on gay marriage, for example. Are we willing to listen to why without assuming those who disagree must have a low view of the Bible? Some believers think the government has no business deciding what marriage is. Some think commitment is better than serial sexual relationships, thus seeing gay marriage as landing higher in an ethics hierarchy than uncommitted relationships. Some read in Romans 1 that “God gave them over,” and reason, “So why don't we 'give them over' too”? Another example relates to the Boy Scouts of America decision to open membership to gay kids, but not scoutmasters. Most on my Facebook feed see the decision as a complete moral compromise that proves our country is doomed. But some believers see the decision the same way they would view allowing a gay kid to attend a church youth group. Proverbs 18:2 serves as a fitting reminder here: “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.” How much are we willing to listen without labeling people as "liberal" whenever we disagree with them?
· Recognize that a reporter can’t always find someone to speak for both sides. Journalists usually pride themselves in getting complete coverage. Most want this even more than they want to advance their own ideas. But sometimes they can’t find people on both sides. When I was in Jordan four days after Barak Obama was elected as president, I tried to find a Jordanian Christian who disliked the results. I asked and asked, but I could not find one. The absence of such a perspective slanted my reporting, but that doesn’t mean I intentionally left anyone out.
· Help to create the right demand. We create demand by clicking on hyperlinks and leaving comments about stories that matter most to us. If we demand (by our clicks and comments) news about Prince William and Duchess Kate but don’t demand stories about government snooping or the U.S. response to Israel, guess which branch of the news will get staffed with the most and best reporters? Consider what happened when Christians demanded more news about the Gosnell trial. This also means we need to affirm what is true, even when it comes from sources we dislike—maybe even especially when it comes from unlikely sources. A Christian ministry in Dallas last week ran a brilliant quote they had to pull off their website. Why pull it? The person who spoke the truth was a Democrat, and too many Republican Christians left embarrassingly hateful comments about the politician and his views.
· Teach through leaving insightful, well-informed comments. People write inflammatory comments on every news story. Believers can counter arguments by being the reasonable people in the conversation. But we have to show up. If we want to influence those with whom we disagree, we need to appear in places they read and help them think about different angles on the stories. Rather than retreating only to our own news ghettos, where we shield ourselves from hearing opposing opinions, we need to help unbelievers see the winsomeness of a Christian worldview where they live. I consider this a hugely neglected mission field. The most credible responses are devoid of modifiers ("crazy," "unbelievable," "insane," "demonic," as well as Christianese), and simply state the balancing idea and/or the facts.
· Consider a career in journalism, or helping to finance Christian journalism students. The top five liberal papers, according to media insiders, are the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune. The top five conservative papers are the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, New York Post, Manchester (NH) Union-Leader and Daily Oklahoman. Notice that more of the highly respected papers are on the left. We need good journalists writing for both sides. I find I most often quote the New York Times because they have high standards for verifying news. How do I know? By how often they have to retract exaggerated body counts, for example. Caring about truth in reporting should be a core value for us, too.
· Affirm what you appreciate. Few people send editors positive mail. When a reporter does a good job, thank his or her boss. It will motivate the media to provide more of the same. When the New York Times Book Review features a book such as the new one by Christ-follower Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, as they did last week, send an affirming message to the editor (whose contact info appears on the front of every e-issue). A reporter ran an article about my brother-in-law being killed by a texting driver while biking uphill, and this journalist included quotes about Gordon’s faith that made the front page of The Oregonian. That “liberal” paper ran a pull-quote about the Lord Jesus Christ on page one. Consequently, the reporter received thank-you’s from our family, with specific appreciation expressed for refusing to edit out the parts about Gordon’s faith. If you want to see journalists treat Christians and Christianity with more respect, send mail that reinforces those who do so.
· Get the facts, and refuse to exaggerate. If a story seems sensational, wildly opposing your worldview, suspect that it’s exaggerated. Do some research before publicizing it. And wait a few days before posting or forwarding it. Remember when we heard that the U.S. Army was blocking evangelical websites due to theological or cultural differences? That news was later debunked. And the one about how the military was going to arrest soldiers for sharing their faith? In response, a Department of Defense spokesman insisted that members of the military are indeed free to share their faith as long as they don't harass others. Stetzer lamented, “So many Christians were quick to believe a false report. Again.” Refuse to be that person.
· Speak up when our own are out of line. At an Evangelical Press Association national conference held at Focus on the Family headquarters, a panel of local Colorado Springs journalists included a number of non-Christians. One, an openly gay man, promised that if Christians would stop their own from speaking violence against gays, he would commit to stopping the gay community from similarly threatening Christians. Ow! How sad that he should even have to say that. Also, when one of our own says a hurricane is caused by God’s judgment, we need such an outpouring of Christians objecting that the “liberal media” does not even have to criticize--because so many Christ-followers are speaking up to give the other side.
· Pray. Ever heard anyone in church humbly pray for journalists or speak of them in compassionate terms? Me neither. Sometimes I wonder if we believe in civil laws and political power more than we believe in the life-changing power of our Almighty God. Do we really believe Jesus died even for members of the "liberal media" and their readers? Could he possibly change their hearts?