Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of The Master’s University Magazine. Dr. Bob Dickson will be a speaker at TMU’s MUSE Conference on Nov. 12. Learn more and register at masters.edu/muse.
By Dr. Bob Dickson, Chair, Department of Communication
It’s no secret we live in a contentious time in our culture. Ideological, political and spiritual battlelines crisscross the landscape of our lives. They create divisions in our relationships at work, in our churches and even within our homes.
This is nothing new, of course. As a nation, we have always engaged in spirited debate over the issues of the day. Such debate, in fact, has been welcomed and necessary for the health of a representative democracy; propositions are brought to the marketplace of ideas to be scrutinized and debated, and then either adopted, amended or rejected.
However, the divisions we are experiencing today are different. They do not bear the hallmarks of healthy debate. There is little we would recognize as an exchange of ideas. Instead, we see separate ideological camps digging in – as walled off from one another as missile silos. Constructive conversation is rare, at best, and always a risky endeavor.
If you have attempted to discuss one of the hot-button issues of the day with someone from a different ideological camp – perhaps even at the dinner table – you have felt the effects of this change. You have probably been frustrated by how rapidly those kinds of discussions devolve into something less than fruitful. The frustration is felt by all sides.
The reason we can no longer seem to engage in healthy debate is that we have lost the most important ingredient: We no longer agree on a common set of facts. Without that, we have no foundation for a rational exchange of ideas.
What is the source of this confusion? Put simply, it is the news media. In America, we are losing our trust in the news media at a rapid rate. A 2021 poll conducted by the Pew Institute found that in the last five years, Americans who say they have “a lot” or “some” trust in information coming from the national news fell from 76 to 58 percent.
The reasons for this are numerous, but they reveal a credibility crisis within the news media industry that has been building for 25 years, congruent with the rise of the internet. As late as the mid-90s, everybody got their news on a 24-hour cycle. They read a morning or evening newspaper and supplemented that with the evening news on TV.
The internet eviscerated the traditional news-delivery model. Suddenly, news could be communicated across the world in seconds. In this new, minute-by-minute news cycle, speed – always valued in the news industry – became critical, sometimes at the expense of accuracy. Add to that the financial pressure resulting from plummeting subscriptions and advertising revenue, and the monetization of clicks and views, and you have a witch’s brew of rushed, sensationalized and loosely vetted information pouring into society.
So here we are in 2021, with a largely misinformed or ill-informed population not able to agree on a set of facts and largely unwilling to consider that another set of facts could possibly be true. Meanwhile, the very institution we rely on to find and present those facts is at best playing fast and loose with the truth and, at worst, engaging in informational subterfuge for profit.
In such an environment, the onus falls on the news consumer to discern the truth. It is the news consumer who must wade through the swamp of information and misinformation to get at the actual facts.
It is with that in mind that TMU’s communication department began offering a course titled News Media Literacy this fall. The course, which is required for most communication majors, is designed to teach students how to spot truth from error in news reporting. If we are to pursue our mission to “empower students for a life of enduring commitment to Christ, biblical fidelity, moral integrity, intellectual growth and lasting contribution to the kingdom of God worldwide,” we must teach them this skill.
The course focuses on 12 ways in which news can be slanted or misrepresented, intentionally or through shoddy journalistic practices. We call them “The Dirty Dozen.”
They are ordered below from easiest to spot to the most difficult:
That final one, confirmation bias, is especially tricky. We tend to more readily accept information that confirms what we already believe. In the realm of biblical truth, that makes sense. There is no need to question what we read in Scripture because we know it to be the inspired, inerrant and authoritative Word of God.
In the arena of news media, however, we must be willing to set aside our assumptions and proclivities and consider new information objectively. We must be willing to stop curating our news feeds to the point where they only tell us what we want to hear. If we are unwilling to do this, we have effectively removed ourselves from the marketplace of ideas, and we are as unwilling to be moved as we consider the “other side” to be.
Our culture is suffocating under the weight of misinformation, half-truths, distrust and confirmation bias. Public debates are no longer debates. They have become cage matches. In such an environment, our students must be prepared for battle. But they can also learn to find the common ground, or at least to acknowledge that if such common ground does not exist, perhaps it can be forged.
The response to our News Media Literacy course this semester has been eye-opening. Publicly, I have lauded the purpose for teaching this material, while privately, I have wrestled with doubt over how willing my students would be to learn it. Acquiring news media literacy is challenging. It’s uncomfortable. It takes effort. It forces students to see some ugly truths about how the media world operates and even about how they have participated in it … not exactly a hopeful professor’s recipe for success.
What I have discovered is that our students are well aware of the issues; they feel the divisive effects of a failing news model on an extremely personal level. Several times already this semester, I have had to rewrite lesson plans on the fly because I accounted for only a fraction of the discussion time needed for a particular subject. These young men and women are sharp, and they have a lot to say about how the current state of ideological polarity is undermining their relationships, unsettling their hearts, and eroding their peace of mind.
The course seems to have come at just the right time.
One day, I ended class with a brief detour. We had been discussing how misleading headlines are often meant to stoke our fears, and that fear is the greatest motivator to get us to fixate on current events and thereby drive the economics of the 21st century news model.
I had been sharing with them that when it comes to journalism today, clicks and shares equal dollars, and when you combine that economic reality with the reality of a sin nature, you have the perfect storm. We concluded that even the most noble intentions can be corrupted by greed, and that we shouldn’t be surprised to find journalism in its current state of disarray.
I felt compelled to remind them, however, that while I want them to become skeptical, I don’t want them to become cynics. The line between the two is thin, but for Christians, it is significant.
This is the Lord’s world. We all know this, but after spending days and weeks awash in the duplicity and hypocrisy we must explore in the class, we might be tempted to despair.
The problems are huge. They can seem insurmountable, and that gets discouraging. But recognizing that the magnitude of a problem is too large to overcome is a perfect place to be for a believer. From that place, we recognize what we have known all along – that this too belongs to the Lord. We do our part. We remain vigilant and we stay faithful.
Then we rest in Him.
If you’re interested in learning about modern media through the lens of Scripture, register for Saturday’s Muse Conference.
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