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How to read the news with discernment

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth once advised young theologians “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” What Barth was recommending was that his students read the news with biblical discernment. 

Biblical discernment is the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the aid of the Holy Spirit to separate truth from error and right from wrong. Biblical discernment is therefore not only a habit needed to develop a biblical worldview, it is a primary reason for developing a biblical worldview and has the practical effect of helping us to live. 

Recognizing and rejecting false teaching is an essential element of biblical discernment, as well. As Paul tells us, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (1 Thess. 5:20-22). But too often Christians limit discernment to the teachings within the church and overlook the catechism they are receiving from the culture. This is especially true when it comes to consumption of news media. 

There is much more to discernment, though, than simply avoiding false teachings, as Sinclair Ferguson explains in his book In Christ Alone

True discernment means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the good and the better, and even between the better and the best.

How to develop discernment

“How is such discernment to be obtained?” asks Ferguson. “We receive it as did Christ himself—by the anointing of the Spirit, through our understanding of God’s Word, by our experience of God’s grace, and by the progressive unfolding to us of the true condition of our own hearts.” Ferguson is clarifying that, as with most spiritual disciplines, biblical discernment contains both a passive and an active element. We must rely on our union with Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But we also must develop our understanding of Scripture and our ability to make critical judgements about how to apply what we learn. 

Let’s look at a few necessary steps for developing the skill of discernment when reading the news:

Consider what you believe about the news. Which is more important to us, God’s Word or the news? What if someone were asked to determine that answer by observing our habits? The uncomfortable truth is that we often spend far more time reading news articles than reading the Bible. And we spend more time watching news programs than actively acquiring wisdom. How would your life differ if you changed your news consumption habits to develop wisdom and understanding?

Understand that “news” is a product for consumption. The term “news” is most commonly used in our daily lives to mean information about current events that is delivered to the general public by the news industry. The news industry produces one product but sells 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 nonprofit donors).

For the news industry, you are both a consumer and a product. But in the age of social media you have also become a free distributor. Your friend who daily shares the content of a cable news show on Twitter and Facebook is essentially an unpaid intern working for Fox News or MSNBC. That means most of us are an unofficial part of the media and will be held responsible to God for how we use the news to promote or degrade the understanding and truth. 

Unfortunately, many of us don’t even bother to read the news we share. As philosopher Michael P. Lynch has noted, current research estimates that at least 60% of news stories shared online have not even been read by the person sharing them. We can’t be discerning if we are spreading a product that we have not even taken the time to evaluate. 

Guard your mind. 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, use outlets like Twitter as a shortcut to find out what agenda the news industry has set for the day.

Too often Christians limit discernment to the teachings within the church and overlook the catechism they are receiving from the culture. This is especially true when it comes to consumption of news media.

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 picture of reality being drawn by the news industry is not likely to match the reality produced by our 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.”

Consume less news. Most news products are the mental and spiritual equivalent of junk food. By consuming less of it, we won’t necessarily improve our health, but we can limit its negative effects on us. But what if we miss something? The late media theorist Neil Postman offers this response: 

If you are concerned that cutting down your viewing time will cause you to “miss” important news, keep this in mind: each day’s TV news consists for the most part, of fifteen examples of the Seven Deadly Sins, with which you are already quite familiar. There may be a couple of stories exemplifying lust, usually four about murder, occasionally one about gluttony, another about envy, and so on. It cannot possibly do you any harm to excuse yourself each week from thirty or forty of these examples. Remember: TV news does not reflect normal, everyday life. 

News is for reading, not watching. If you are an American, you likely get your news in the worst way possible—through the medium of video, specifically television news. Studies show that more than half of adults in the U.S. get news from TV. We can improve our ability to discern the news by shifting our habits of consumption and obtaining the bulk of our news in printed form (including online text), listening to radio news sparingly, and avoiding TV news like it’s spreading a plague.

The primary reason for developing this preference is the way each medium communicates information. TV has a lower informational density than a newspaper. All the words spoken in an hour of TV news could fit on a single page of a newspaper, says Postman, so TV viewers are getting much less news content than newspaper readers. Postman also notes, “The grammar of images is weak in communicating past-ness and present-ness” and prefers change rather than stasis. That’s why, says Postman, violence finds its way on television news so often—it is a radical and attention-grabbing form of change. 

Arm yourself against “fake news.” Almost everyone in America agrees that so-called “fake news” is a problem. A study by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 73% of Americans say the spread of inaccurate information on the internet is a major problem with news coverage today, more than any other potential type of news bias. But there is less agreement on what the term means. So, let me offer my own definition: Fake news is information about current events that is distributed as news but has no concern for the truth; its purpose is only to motivate a particular form of acceptable thought.

The reason fake news has become so common is because there is a strong demand for it. And it isn’t the fake news of those we disagree with that we should be worried about but the news from those on “our side.” We all want to believe, especially when it comes to politics, that our preferred ideas, policies, and politicians are so obviously superior as to be above reproach. But for Christians, the priority must always be the truth. Truth must even take precedence over our political objectives. As Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “Christian values . . . cannot be accepted as a superior utilitarianism, just as a means to an end. The biblical message is truth and it demands a commitment to truth.”

Pray for guidance. We should ask God to open our hearts to his Word and allow us to see any specific issue clearly. We should also continuously pray, as did the psalmist, “I am your servant; give me discernment” (Psa. 119:125). For every minute we spend consuming news products, we should spend a minute in prayer about how we discern the news. And if you don’t have time for that much prayer, you don’t have time to be wasting with the news. 

This article originally appeared in Light Magazine

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