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Why media literacy matters for Christians

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January 25, 2021

If you’re like me—and I’m hearing from more and more people that they are—you have family and friends in your life who are believing some very interesting things about what is going on in our world today. Whether it’s COVID-19 related or a belief that the election was part of some conspiracy on the right or the left, many of our Christian brothers and sisters are being deceived and believing things that simply aren’t true. I am not God, and neither are you, so I can’t refute every false claim that comes at me with a counterpoint of truth. But Christians can and should exercise discernment as we engage with any and all forms of media. 

The need for discernment

Currently, there are some people who passionately distrust any information from the “mainstream media.” And yet, some of those same people are quick to believe what a random individual says on his YouTube channel or social media account. It’s true that there is broken trust between media outlets and the general public. People are tired of fear mongering and bias and many other things. I acknowledge that exists. Afterall, we are a capitalist society and when something sells—whether it’s good for people or not—someone will sell it. And fear sells. Thus, the 24 hour news cycle exists. So hear me say that I understand that distrust exists between the media and their audience. 

However, I don’t believe the answer is to disregard all forms of media and turn to the vocal, independent (and random) actors out there on the internet. Some Christians are operating on the belief that if they “remain in the Word” (you should) and then proceed to scour the internet for information that will assuage their anxiety and fear or confirm their beliefs or suspicions, their time in the Word will enable them to discern truth from falsehood. I believe this approach actually makes these people more susceptible to those that are seeking to capitalize on their fear. As I said before, fear sells. So if you start a YouTube channel (or a website, or an Instagram account) and start telling good stories with confidence, people will believe you. And if those stories are told in such a way that the viewer believes he/she is getting secret, never-before-seen knowledge, they will trust you even more. Furthermore, if your stories are driven by fear or anger, your audience will most definitely grow.

Many Christians in our churches don’t realize that there are people out there who are simply aiming to grow an online audience. Why are they trying to do this? Because you can monetize an online audience. These “truth-tellers” on the internet who are peddling conspiracy theories know this. They will ask you to share their videos and RT their Tweets or sign up for their email list for “exclusive” information. People who are doing this are trying to grow an audience so that they can make money. They exploit people for profit. So be wary of these folks in your search for “truth,” fellow Christian.

Three things to consider

Now, I am not here to tell you that the “mainstream media” is not also in the business of making money. They, too, must earn a profit or they can’t continue their work. The difference here is that these large media companies have processes and accountability (checks and balances) that individuals with an online platform typically do not. So here are a few things to keep in mind when you are tempted to disregard anything from a more established media outlet:

  1. Accountability. Your typical journalist/reporter has a boss that they are accountable to just like you are accountable to your boss. Because they are human, they will bring some bias into their reporting. But that does not mean they are purposely telling lies. They can’t or they’d be fired. As one person I know told me, when these reporters and journalists were trained in their skill, “simply misspelling one name could knock off enough points to get a failing grade on a story.”
  2. Review. Your typical news outlet will have several people who review content before it is published or put on the air. Again, this doesn’t mean bias doesn’t exist. But several people are doing their jobs to make sure the information or arguments being presented are credible. Even here at the ERLC, though we are not a media company, nothing is published on our site that hasn’t been vetted by many people with the sources checked for accuracy before publishing. We all know we are held accountable by the standards of our organization, so we cannot simply say whatever we want about a given topic. Every media outlet has its own bias, for sure, but it is simply false to assert the “mainstream media” is part of some conspiracy to play mind tricks on you.
  3. Fact check. Writer Hannah Anderson said it so well in a recent post, about how our ability to go directly to a source is much easier these days. So any news outlet worth their salt knows that people are able to “fact check” what they say. At the very least, this ensures that journalists are unlikely to push or promote ideas that are easily falsified by a simple Google search. Again, this doesn’t mean there isn’t bias. But we shouldn’t assume everyone is lying if they speak or write from a major media outlet. Rather we would be much better off to cultivate a “healthy” news diet by watching/reading multiple sources.

My friend Chris Martin, an author who writes about internet culture and social media trends from a Christian perspective, said this about our need to discern what various sources are saying:

“I have noticed that truth can often be found where the Right and Left outlets’ stories are the same. For example, if a Right outlet and a Left outlet both report that Event X occurred, that it occurred in City Y and that approximately Z number of people were impacted, all of that is likely true. When Right and Left then explain the implications of Event X, whether Event X was right or wrong, & perhaps who may be to blame for Event X, this is where bias may exist and the stories may differ. This isn’t always the case, but I have often found it to be so.” 

If as Christians we only trust the sources we find in the obscure corners of the internet, including websites with donate buttons and other obvious clues that they are out to profit off of their audience, we are actually trusting more in ourselves.

Hear me say this: we should be in the Word daily and we should be discerning as we engage with any media. But if “discernment” means that we only trust the person who says what we want to be true, I think that means we are putting our trust in ourselves and not the God who will help us discern. We must do better, Christians. Our public witness to a watching world matters and as we show that watching world how the Bible influences our ability to think and reason, we show that our God is living and active, not cowering in a corner waiting for his people to fix the mess here on earth. God is on his throne and in control. He is active in our lives and as we continue to wade deeper into 2021, I am incredibly grateful for that truth. 

Julie Masson

Julie Masson serves as Director of External Engagement for the ERLC. She is responsible for strategic planning, development and implementation of the ERLC brand strategy across all ERLC departments and provides leadership and oversight for the ERLC marketing team as well as coordinating external affairs and partnership deliverables. Julie and her husband Jesse … Read More