Article Jan 25, 2018

How should Christians think about ‘the news’?

What exactly is the “news”? Who decides what constitutes news? What makes it important? What distinguishes news from mere gossip, ephemera, or trivia? What it’s purpose for the individual? How should Christians relate to news?

These questions have significant implications for how we engage with our world, and yet Christians rarely—if ever—stop to consider them or question our habits of consuming the news. In a brief series of articles, I want to consider such questions and examine such issues as how we deal with the scourge of “fake news,” why we should (almost) never watch cable news, how we address bias, and other ways to better engage the news as Christians.

The news is a product—and so are you

Let’s start with the easiest question by defining the term “news.” For our purposes, we’ll use the term “news” in the way that is it most commonly used in our daily lives: information about current events that is delivered to the general public by the news industry. The news industry is often referred to as the “media,” but using the term in that way is misleading and narrow. The media should be thought of as a particular type of environment, which is an aggregate of social and cultural conditions that influence the life of an individual or community. The news industry is merely a particular subset of the media environment.

What makes the news industry unique within the media environment is that they produce one product but sell two: they produce news content that they sell to news consumers (i.e., you), and they package the attention of news consumers (again, you) that they sell to others (usually advertisers but sometimes non-profit donors).          

To the news industry you are both the consumer and a product.

For the news industry, you are both a consumer and a product. But in the age of social media you have also become a distributor. When I was a boy I was paid to deliver newspapers to the homes of my neighbors. But thanks to social media, most of us distribute the product of the news industry without any compensation at all. Your friend who daily shares the content of cable news show on Twitter and Facebook is essentially an unpaid intern working for Fox News or MSNBC.

The agenda-setting function of the news industry

The news industry directly produces two main products—news content and your attention. But they also create and sell a service—agenda-setting.

The idea that the news industry sets the public agenda is as old as news itself. But agenda-setting theory became a topic of study around the 1960s, and gained prominence in 1972 with the publication of a paper titled, “The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media.” In the abstract to that article Maxwell E. Mccombs and Donald L. Shaw write,

In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position. In reflecting what candidates are saying during a campaign, the mass media may well determine the important issues—that is, the media may set the “agenda” of the campaign.

This agenda-setting function was easier to notice in the 1970s when there were fewer influential news industry outlets. At the time, whatever was written in the New York Times on Monday morning would be on the television news that evening and in every other regional newspaper in the country on Tuesday. But even today it’s not difficult to recognize which news industry outlets are setting a particular agenda. Tell me what news stories you consider most important and I can likely tell you which outlets you get your “news” from. (This is even true for the current president of the United States, who apparently allows one particular cable news show to set the agenda for what he thinks and tweets about.)

Determining what we ‘think about’

To say that the news industry sets the public agenda is not the same as saying the news industry controls what we think. As the political scientist Bernard Cohen explained in 1963,

The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about. The world will look different to different people, depending . . . on the map that is drawn for them by writers, editors, and publishers of the papers they read.

As the philosopher Alfred Korzybski wrote in 1933, “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness” [emphasis in original]. The map of reality drawn by the news industry may be similar to the structure of reality. But how can we know if we don’t even recognize that we are looking at a map? And how can we know if the map is leaving off essential features and drawing our attention to others that are trivial?

You may consider yourself an “independent thinker,” but if you are a news consumer you’re conditioned to “think about” whatever issues the news industry has decided you will think about that day. This is especially true if you engage on social media outlets like Twitter, where a recurring joke is to ask, “What are we upset about today?” Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, turn to outlets like Twitter precisely because we want to be told what everyone else has already been told to think about. We use it as a shortcut to find out what agenda the news industry has set for the day.

Christians don’t need to believe the news industry has nefarious motives to find this agenda-setting function troubling. Whether we are getting our news from Fox News or NPR, the fact is the map drawn by the news industry is not likely to match the map of reality produced by its Creator. The Bible commands us to set our “minds on things above, not on earthly things (Col. 3:2), which is impossible to do when we’re tuned into around-the-clock “headline news.” As the former news reporter Malcolm Muggeridge admitted,

I’ve often thought that if I’d been a journalist in the Holy Land at the time of our Lord’s ministry, I should have spent my time looking into what was happening in Herod’s court. I’d be wanting to sign Salome for her exclusive memoirs, and finding out what Pilate was up to, and—I would have missed completely the most important event there ever was.

What are you missing out in life because you’ve allowed the news industry set the daily agenda for what you think about?

ERLC2018