Francis Schaeffer warned in the mid-1970s that the news media can be used by the elite to manipulate public opinion.[i] Today, forty years later, traditional news outlets are in a struggle with online alternatives for attention and trust. The presidential election of 2016 exposed the importance and the intensity of this struggle. The phrase “fake news” is now used on all sides to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of rival news sources. What are Christians to think about this ugly fight? What should we do in response? Francis Schaeffer did not foresee the way the internet would multiply news sources to challenge the news shaped by an elite, humanist worldview.[ii] Yet his call for Christians to exercise discernment in watching the news remains sound.[iii]
In the final episode of his video series, How Should We Then Live?, Schaeffer shows two news reports about an encounter between police and a group of protestors. One report shows peaceful protestors being roughed up by angry police officers. The other report shows restrained police officers being attacked and injured by violent protestors. After the second report, the encounter is shown from farther away, revealing that the two reports were filmed of the very same event. Different camera placements and voice-over narratives had been used to paint two very different pictures. Schaeffer uses the competing reports to make two crucial points. First, we easily mistake seeing on a screen as seeing in person. Second, when we see an event on a screen, we see only an edited image or symbol of the event. The editor’s expectations or agenda shapes what appears on the screen.
The first time I watched this segment of Schaeffer’s series I was a freshman at Covenant College. It was the fall of 1978, and the experience was electrifying. I was already a philosophy major, and Schaeffer’s analysis showed that critical thinking was important. Chapter 12 of Schaeffer’s book—“Manipulation and the New Elite”—changed the way I handled news sources: I could not simply accept them passively. Thirty-eight years later in early October of 2016, I returned to Schaeffer’s warnings about the news media as the basis for a talk at Covenant’s L’Abri Lectures, “Would Francis Schaeffer Listen to NPR or Watch Fox News?” My answer was neither (as a sole source of information about the world) and both (as part of an even broader familiarity with a wide range of news outlets in order to understand the spirit of the age).
A lot happened to the public conversation about the news media in the weeks between my talk on October 1, 2016 and February 1, 2017 (the writing of this article). The presidential election quickly went from an expected landslide win for the Democrats to a close Republican victory on Election Day. Many were concerned about the quality of the news that people were using to inform their voting choices even before the results were in. As pundits and others tried to explain the surprising outcome, the role of “fake news” became a major issue. Not only was fake news widely thought to be a significant contributor to Mr. Trump’s victory, but everyone became eager to charge their opponents with being guilty of producing fake news. The phrase “fake news” is now used for so many purposes it is tempting to think it has become meaningless.[iv] Christians should resist the temptation to shrug their shoulders and wait for the fascination with “fake news” to fade. The internet is not going away. For the foreseeable future, it will offer a riot of information that must be handled with care and discernment. Schaeffer’s warnings will still apply, and it is likely that the challenges will only get more difficult.
“Fake” and Other Kinds of News
The problem of fake news would be tiny if the only alternative to fake news was straight reporting of the basic facts. Even when it contains minor errors, a news story is “real” if it only makes claims corroborated by independent sources, makes the author’s biases clear, and keeps interpretive commentary to a minimum. Honest mistakes do not undermine reader confidence in a news source, and this is especially true when the mistakes are acknowledged as soon as they are discovered. Even though most people now accept that purely objective reporting is impossible, it is reasonable to think that sincere, researched, commentary-light reporting should count as “real news.”
Fake news, on the other hand, falls short in sincerity, care, or interpretive license. Many definitions of “fake news” have been offered in the weeks since the US elections.[v] Almost all of them agree that the exploitation of the audience’s trust in the real news outlets is an essential part of the definition. Until very recently, the phrase “fake news” was used most often as a friendly description of shows like The Daily Show or “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live![vi] Satire about current events made to look and sound like a mainstream news broadcast was called “fake,” but these programs were not trying to trick anyone into believing the stories were true.
Satirical fake news can be mean, but it is mostly playful. Mimicking the look and feel of a traditional news source is not new. “Tabloid” newspapers like The National Enquirer have been around for decades, selling outrageous, entertaining fictions. No one believes their stories for long, and they do not pose a threat to the credibility of the “real” newspapers. It costs money to produce and then to acquire this kind of fake news, and most people know they are buying fiction. The recent rise of inexpensive digital tools for making news that looks like serious non-fiction has changed the playing field. Maybe even more importantly, ideological agitators, governments, and corporations have learned to use the conventional news formats and sources to advance their agendas.[vii] Until very recently, serious news outlets worked to distinguish careful reporting of the facts from editorial opinions. Advertisements were also clearly marked. Satire was rare. The trustworthiness of the serious reporting was maintained by jealously keeping editorial opinion, advertising, and satire out of the news stories.
Today, trust in the traditional news outlets has been undermined. In part, the traditional outlets squandered their readers’ trust. They exploited reader (or viewer) confidence that front page (or top of the broadcast) stories would be ideologically balanced, putting the editors’ opinions in those spaces labeled as “Analysis” (not “Opinion”) or not labeled at all. The traditional outlets allowed government or business interests to produce news-looking stories and presented them in places where careful reporting was expected, often making the disclosure of the authors’ agenda hard to find.
By blurring the distinctions between reporting, editorial opinion, special interest promotion, and advertising, the traditional news sources contributed to the erosion of public trust. The availability of other sources of news (both real and fake) accelerated this erosion. People my age (56) find it hard to believe that many people today are satisfied to keep up with what is happening by watching the fake news on Comedy Central or through their Facebook feed. Compared to the sources that diligently keep reporting separate from other kinds of stories, satire and quick-take social media posts seem like meager alternatives. But it is hard to argue that the traditional sources deserve the confidence they once worked hard to protect. If all news sources are mostly “spin,” then a preference for comedy or tweets makes some sense.
Getting news only from Comedy Central, Twitter, and Facebook is an expression of despair. It amounts to giving up and accepting news-like entertainment as the best we can do. Over time, this kind of resignation degrades our ability to tell the difference between funny half-truths and malicious falsehoods. Critical discernment is a skill that should protect us from being exploited. When we give up exercising the muscles that we need to separate careful reporting from persuasive lies, others will find it easier to take advantage of us. The need for sharp powers of discernment is only going to grow as information technology gets more sophisticated. Schaeffer warned that the media technology of the 1970s could lead us to mistake seeing on a screen with seeing with our own eyes. If that was a danger just using camera angles and voice-over narratives, the threat will be even greater when digital sampling can produce entirely fabricated video footage of a political leader making a vulgar gesture or announcing that the country is under attack.[viii] We cannot be content with resignation, entertainment, and withdrawal.
First Steps in Thinking about Fake News
Even though the internet and many news outlets have muddied the water, not all news is spin. The place to begin in making a plan for following current events faithfully is with the gospel. The good news is the sober truth. We know the gospel is true because God’s Word is perfectly reliable. People who do not know Christ may be tempted to call the gospel “fake news” because it is outside mainstream opinion but presented as fact.[ix] But we know that God’s Word is true; and our goal in making sense of news stories is to hold everything up to the light of Scripture. When the Bible speaks, we conform our news reading to it. For example, when the “news” says that a sonogram does not show a “baby” in a mother’s womb, we reject the story as incorrect.[x]
The second thing to do is admit that we all have a problem. Even those who have been honing their critical discernment skills for years must acknowledge that information technology makes it possible for ideologues and advertisers to invent tricks faster than we can flag them. We cannot leave the hard work to filters, watchdogs, or even ourselves working in isolation. We need to become more savvy news consumers; we need to be more diligent and patient; and we need to listen to each other more often and more carefully. Every Covenant student is shown how to evaluate news sources in the core class, Global Trends. The course aims to raise awareness and develop basic skills of discernment, but it cannot be the end of a student’s growth. The news landscape is changing too fast.
Christians are not the only ones concerned about whether today’s viewers are equipped to separate trustworthy reporting from spin or exploitation. Researchers at Stanford University recently conducted an eighteen-month study of the ability of “digital natives” (college-aged and younger) to assess the quality of internet news items. The executive summary of the study is not long, and it is well worth reading. The conclusion of the study is that, “Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”[xi] The summary includes a detailed discussion of three of the questions it used to assess media discernment, all of them referring to the screen shot of Slate.com’s homepage.
Test takers were asked to consider each of the three marked sections of the page and explain whether or not each was an advertisement. The summary explains the rubric that evaluators used to assess responses, and on the whole the study seems to be carefully designed and implemented. It is worth taking a moment and imagining what the right answers are supposed to be for each of the marked sections of the page. I answered these questions and others before looking at the assessment rubrics and examples of mastery. My own answer would not have qualified as demonstrating “mastery” on every question. The questions about social media information were especially challenging for me. So my first takeaway from the study is that I have work to do.
A second takeaway is the extent to which advertisers have embedded their appeals in the midst of more traditional reporting. The “Gotham Writers” box at the top of the page is clearly an advertisement, and most young people pointed to the “Save $20” claim and the “little blue x” as reasons for thinking it is an ad. That’s encouraging. Responses to the section marked at the bottom of the page are not. The Stanford researchers were rightly concerned that “more than 80% of students believed that the native advertisement, identified by the words ‘sponsored content,’ was a real news story.”[xii] “Sponsored content” is an advertisement dressed up like a new story. An advertiser paid to have this news-like ad appear on Slate.com’s homepage alongside other news items. It is alarming that so many of the young test takers couldn’t tell that it was an advertisement.
The most curious feature of this set of questions in the study is the assumption that an opinion piece is a “traditional news story.” The box marked in the middle of the page links to a piece by Eric Holthaus entitled, “Should California Stop Growing Almonds? The nut has been vilified for drinking up the state’s water supply. It doesn’t deserve such a bad rap.” The report finds that “more than three-quarters of the students correctly identified the traditional advertisement and the news story [by Eric Holthaus].”[xiii] The rubric for evaluating whether this is an advertisement credits a response with “mastery” if the response notes that the box does not include the words “Sponsored content,” it has an author, and it has no little blue x.
Sponsored content is not serious news, but having an author is not enough to make a story news reporting. Reporting and editorial “analysis” are not the same thing, but the Stanford testers treat them as the same when it comes to Slate.com. The piece that names Holthaus as the author may be filled with corroborated claims and valuable insight; but it is opinion/analysis and not news reporting.[xiv]
Conflating news reporting with editorial opinion is so widespread now that the authors of the Stanford study should be treated with charity. In evaluating responses to questions about social media claims later in the test they look for answers that seek information about the author of tweets and Instagram posts. Their findings bring to light the need for more attention to information literacy and give helpful suggestions about how different internet platforms call for different skills of attention and caution. People who think they are immune to internet news tricks are in more danger than those who are wary and seeking to become more discerning.
Habits for Faithful News Consumption Today
Crafty attempts to pass off ideology or advertising as news reporting are only going to get more sophisticated, and even the most conscientious journalists will make mistakes and allow their biases to shape their stories. Finding a handful of reporters that are working to see events through the lens of Scripture is a good beginning for a faithful approach to the news, but it can’t be the whole of it. For example, I trust Mindy Belz’s reporting about the Middle East, both because I know of her faith in Christ and because she publishes corrections long before I discover her mistakes. She insists she is fallible and that I should seek out other accounts, so I follow her instructions and hold even her version somewhat loosely as I read more widely. I have come to trust other authors on other topics in a similar way, but I don’t accept their versions with unquestioning confidence.
Resisting the urge to depend on one good source isn’t all that hard for me. I have the time to seek out other accounts, and I have Christian colleagues at Covenant with expertise in a wide range of fields. It is easy for me to find reliable sources to fill out the picture. What is much more difficult is taking the time and doing the work necessary to grow in my ability to read with discernment. The list of things to do is daunting:
- Come to terms with my own prejudices. Some news stories are exciting precisely because they confirm what I already believe. If I haven’t identified my own prejudices, I will focus on stories that feel right. I will then wrongly believe that the news is objectively on my side. Covenant’s Cultural Heritage of the West courses push both professors and students to explore the history of their prejudices. These courses are a good start, but taking responsibility for my prejudices is a lifelong task.
- Become less lazy. I will usually take the time to investigate the background of a reporter who writes a story I don’t like. But when I like the story, I don’t chase down the writer’s training and convictions. Claims that confirm my prejudices don’t move me to look for corroboration from independent sources. Questions occur to me, so my problem is not a lack of suspicion. My problem is often just laziness.
- Become more patient, waiting for more information before deciding what to believe. Our culture thinks patient people are pathetic. Suspending judgment is thought to be a sign of weakness or stupidity. I need to tune out the message that I must decide now. If I cannot confirm the story through other reliable sources, I should wait before taking any action based on its truth. Also, it is simply prudent to wait for the dust to settle before passing a story as fact. A story that rests on bogus sources, is mere propaganda, or is simply a lie, is likely to be exposed eventually.
- Say no to rumor-mongering. It is fun to be the first to pass along a juicy story. Retweeting or emailing links as news without determining the reliability of the source runs an unacceptable risk of broadcasting gossip. An editorial in the Jesuit magazine, America, puts it well: “Remember your Facebook account is not exempt from the Eighth Commandment, even when you are only bearing false witness by hitting the share button.”[xv]
- Seek out stories from other perspectives, and in particular accounts from Christians who live in other contexts. The risk of living in an echo chamber is enormous. Social media platforms are designed to limit the “world” to voices like our own.[xvi] It takes effort to get news from outside our comfortable bubbles, but love for our neighbors and a concern for God’s truth should push us past the discomfort. We need others to keep us from living in tiny worlds that are often as much our own fantasy as fact. What the world looks like to fellow believers in other circumstances should be especially interesting to us. They are reading the same infallible Bible we are reading and praying to the same Holy Spirit to open their eyes to the truth. Fighting fake news on our own is foolish when we have the body of Christ as a comfort and resource.
The same technology that is multiplying the sources of misinformation and disinformation is also making it easier to investigate authors’ backgrounds, find out when frauds are exposed, and hear from believers in other places. Faithful information consumption does not mean withdrawal from the internet; it means using it more carefully and listening more than we speak. But we’ve known that since at least the writing of Proverbs.
[i] Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1976), pp. 240-243.
[ii] Schaeffer did warn about the threat the “high speed computers” would be used as tools of manipulation, however. See Schaeffer, op. cit, pp. 243ff.
[iii] I am grateful to Prof. Kate Belz and her Journalism class at Covenant for helpful feedback on an early draft of this article.
[iv] Margaret Sullivan called for “retiring” the term “fake news” in an early January 2017 column. See Margaret Sullivan, “It’s time to retire the tainted term ‘fake news’”, The Washington Post, January 8, 2017, accessed February 4, 2017 .
[v] Amanda Carpenter’s “What is ‘Fake News’ Anyway?” (Conservative Review, December 9, 2016), defines it as “malicious, false information made credible in some manner. David Pogue in “How to Stamp Out Fake News” (Scientific American, February 2017, p. 24) uses “fakes news” to refer to stories that are “bogus” and untrue. He calls for more cynicism and skepticism about news sources. Wynne Davis in “Fake or Real? How to Self-Check the News And Get the Facts” (NPR, “All Tech Considered,” December 5, 2016) uses “fakes news” to refer to stories that “baseless…[and] not true in any way.”
[vi] Robert Love, “Before Jon Stewart,” Columbia Journalism Review, Mar/Apr 2007, vol. 45, no. 6, pp. 33. When Tine Fey left SNL, she said, “I’m out of the fake news business now.” See James Klatell, “That’s the News for Tina Fey,” CBS/AP, July 22, 2006, accessed February 4, 2017.
[vii] Scholarly commentary about “fake news” begins during the Bush administration and focuses on the ways that the government exploited the credibility of the mainstream news organizations to advance Bush’s narrative about the need to go to war in Iraq. Scholarly concerns about the government using the news to push a narrative all but vanish between 2009 and the 2016 presidential election. See Robert Love in 2007, pp. 37 on the Bush administration. No articles about fake news generated by President Obama’s administration appear in the Columbia Journalism Review during his presidency. Other articles on journalism refer to “fake news,” but always by looking back at the Bush years (Ian Riley, “Satirical Fake News and/as American Political Discourse,” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 35, no. 3, September 2012, pp. 258-275) or in connection with ability of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart to use their brand of fake news to shape mainstream news coverage. See Amarnath Amarasingam (ed.), The Stewart/Colbert effect: essays on the real impacts of fake news (McFarland, 2011).
[viii] Bilton, Nick, “Fake News is about to Get Even Scarier That You Ever Dreamed,” Vanity Fair, Jan. 26, 2017, accessed January 30, 2017. Bilton’s plausible projections justify the use of “scarier” in his title.
[ix] If “mainstream opinion” were easy to define, “outside mainstream opinion but presented as fact” would be a useful definition of “fake news.” But “mainstream” is in the eye of the beholder. When the “mainstream” was progressive, “fake news” targeted conservatives. That may be changing. See Robinson Meyer, “The Rise of Progressive ‘Fake News’: The disempowered left now faces its own kinds of hoaxes and fables,” The Atlantic on line, February 3, 2017, accessed Feb. 4, 2017.
[xi] Stanford History Education Group, Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning,“ Executive Summary, p. 4, accessed January 30, 2017.
[xii] Stanford History Education Group, p. 10.
[xiii] Ibid. Text in bold in the original.
[xiv] Eric Holthaus has an undergraduate degree in Meteorology from St. Louis University and a masters in Climate and Society from Columbia University; see his bio online. All over the internet he is referred to as a “meteorologist,” and his internet footprint is enormous. While it is a stretch to treat him as an expert on climate science, he is certainly a climate advocate. Counting his article as a traditional news story is difficult to justify.
[xvi] Nick Bilton’s “Fake News is about to Get Even Scarier…” (cited above) includes a clear explanation of how easily we fall into echo chambers. For a brief take on ways out of an echo chamber, see Alex Pentland, "Beyond the Echo Chamber: When making decisions, seek ideas from diverse sources and test them with a wide network of contacts," Harvard Business Review 91, no. 11 (2013, pp. 80-86.)