Can We Trust the News?

Bias in news media is not new. “When popular newspapers began to be published… most of them were pretty clearly slanted and were there to promote a particular political view.”

Layton Friesen interviews John G. Stackhouse, Christian scholar and journalist, about the news – its trustworthiness in the face of bias, Stackhouse’s personal habits and sources as he reads the news, and how Christians can both influence the way news is reported and be a witness in the midst of a cynical and skeptical culture.

Resources mentioned in the interview are linked after the transcript.

Transcript  

Layton Friesen: Hello everyone, I am Layton Friesen, the Conference Pastor of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, and today I have with me Doctor John Stackhouse. Welcome, Doctor Stackhouse.

John Stackhouse: Good to see you Dr. Friesen.

LF: John is a professor of religious studies at Crandall University in Moncton, NB. I got to know him back when I was a student at Regent College, taking his theology of culture class back in 1999. John has spent a fair bit of time working with the media in Canada and that is why we are excited to have him today with us. Doctor Stackhouse has written a lot and as we speak I believe your book “Can I Believe: An Invitation to the Hesitant” is hitting the bookshelves. So, here’s a little free advertising spot: tell us a little bit about the book and who it’s for.

JS: Well, thank you Layton. I just happen to have a copy of the book right here. This book came out about a year ago from the Oxford University Press, and it’s my attempt to write a book for our smart friends who are not Christians but are thinking about Christianity, and in particular they’re trying to understand why would another smart person be a Christian.

Christianity is such a strange religion and it has such a checkered career in Canada and around the world, why would anybody believe this to be true? Why would 2 billion people believe it to be true? So, this is my attempt to put in the hands of our inquiring friends who have some education who have looked at the world with a serious eye and ask themselves, can I believe? And so, it’s Christianity for the hesitant. I’ve been happy to visit with you about it. CBC Tapestry’s program interviewed me about it last week. I hope, well, that’ll be up on their broadcast site pretty soon. And I’ve been glad that people who aren’t even themselves Christians have endorsed the book. A few smart Christians have, a philosopher from Princeton, a scientist from Oxford but also Irshad Manji, who’s well known here in Canada as well as around the world for her work as a Muslim activist on behalf of moral thinking, and responsible conversation across the religious divides, and Irshad also blurbed the book as a book that she found respectful of her, even as it doesn’t pull really any punches when it comes to putting forward a Christian message. So, I hope you and your smart auditors will give it a look. And if you just simply go to canibelieve.com, we offer a free download of the first chapter and you can check it out and see if that’s for you, thanks.

LF: Wow, well, thank you very much we will do that, and I look forward to reading the book in its entirety too.

JS: Thanks Layton.

LF: So, thank you very much for putting the work into that. That’s a really important topic and I would love to chat with you about that sometime.

So, today we’re talking about the news. I heard it said that the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge said about Mother Teresa that she never listened to the radio, watched TV or read the newspapers and so she had a pretty good idea of what was happening in the world. Well, the saints may have had some divine insight into the world, but the rest of us still kind of need to rely on this thing we call the news in order to know what’s going on in the world, and we have more of it than we’ve ever had before. We now have a 24-hour news cycle and we get it in so many more places than we have ever had a place to do it before.

And yet it seems to me, and this is what I want to talk about with you today, many people are asking: Who can I trust anymore? Who can I really trust to tell me the news? To tell me the truth about what’s going on in the world, because every news source seems to have a bias and agenda and the news sort of fits that agenda.

So, my first question to you John is, how new is this? You’ve been watching the news for decades now I imagine. Is there something new happening in the last number of years that gives new reason for skepticism about the news media? What are your thoughts on that?

JS: Well, let’s talk about something old and talk about something new. What’s not new, what’s actually quite old in news media, is bias; is having a particular point of view and particularly a political slant. When popular newspapers began to be published, really a couple of centuries ago and especially in the 19th, early 20th centuries, most of them were pretty clearly slanted and were there to promote a particular political view. You know, The Globe in Toronto was clearly produced to push a particular agenda, so they were left wing, right wing papers, in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, around the world that had a pretty identifiable stance the way, in fact, British newspapers do to this day,  where you can sit on a subway, you know on the tube in London and you can tell somebody’s politics by the newspaper they’re reading, at least you usually can.

What was unusual was the period, probably from the 1950s through the 1980s of having news media that purported to be neutral. These were the days of the great news magazines MacLeans here in Canada, Time and News Week, U.S. News and World Report in the States and while they did have political leanings that you could discern if you know what to look for, they purported to be neutral. So did the great newspapers of record. You know whether it’s the Globe and Mail, here in Canada or the New York Times, or the Times of London.

Even though they were generally identifiable as center right or center left, they purported to be the newspapers of record, the fair place to get your news no matter what your particular political slant might be.

What’s new is the reversion, I think to the older pattern, where media now are much more obviously slanted one way or the other, and few of them even try anymore. I think the CBC in Canada tries to affect a neutral stance because it’s of course government funded. I don’t think too many people in Canada think it’s neutral, but it does again purport to do that.

What’s really, really new though Layton, is that almost all of us get almost all of our news through the Internet now. We increasingly focus on our computers and our phones, less and less on our televisions to get our news, and less and less on the main networks, although I think Canadians are still doing a lot of that, but it’s mostly older Canadians who do that. What’s particularly troubling to me is that at the same time, we have so much more information than we’ve ever had, as you said, and it’s so accessible through the Internet, and yet this single source from which we get almost all the information we receive is also a source that any sensible person knows is suspect. You can always get a wry smile from someone by simply saying, “well I read it on the Internet” and we all kind of go, you know. But this this is a serious problem as well as a mild joke, when your main source of information is also notoriously unreliable, this puts us in an extremely unusual situation. I think it’s unprecedented in human history, frankly, where our main source of reliable information is also notoriously unreliable. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the bottom of this yet.

LF: So, before we get into just sort of some practical habits of reading the news, do you personally feel confident that you have a reasonably good idea of what’s going on in the world? Like, how confident do you feel that you know what’s happening in Ottawa or in Washington or in the Ukraine or wherever the news is happening now? What’s your personal sense of that in your own life?

JS: Well, two questions occur to me: Is what I think is the case true? and is what I think is the case an adequate understanding of what’s happening?

I would say a cautious yes to the first answer. I think I read enough different sources and I really just look for the highlights that I think probably most of what I think is happening is happening, so I don’t seriously doubt that Russia has invaded Ukraine. I don’t seriously doubt that there are terrible skirmishes between Muslims and Christians in the northern reaches of Nigeria, I don’t seriously doubt that there were a whole bunch of trucks in Ottawa recently, and now they’re mostly gone. So, in that sense, I don’t have any reason, I think, to doubt that, and the broad outlines of what’s happening that as they come today are probably true.

At the same time, do I think that I understand what’s going on? Do I think I know why it’s happening? Do I think I understand, for instance, what Putin is really up to? Is he really a calculating chess master, or is he in fact a checkist thug? Well, I’m not so sure I’m confident about that.

Do I really know why those people are fighting each other in Nigeria? Is this tribal? Is this religious? Is this about money? I’m not sure I really do understand that.

I know that the big trucks came to Ottawa and paralyzed the capital for a few weeks, and then they went away. Do I think I really understand who is in charge of that? Who was really pushing what agenda there? How well did the government of the country, the province and the municipality respond to that? What should the police have done? I’m not so confident.

LF: So let’s just talk then given this environment that you’ve just described here, let’s just talk about some personal habits for consuming the news or reading the news that can help us get a better grasp of how the world is working and what’s going on, and I’d like to just hear a little bit about from you personally in terms of how you get your news when you really want to know what’s happening in the world. What are some of the personal habits that you developed over the years that have worked for you and that you would recommend to others?

JS: I’ll have a couple that I’d be happy to recommend. The first was a habit that I changed when I read Neil Postman books several decades ago, his famous book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” and this professor of communications at New York University and a disciple of Marshall Mcluhan warned us against getting our news primarily from television, and he persuaded me that news media, on TV in particular, were becoming more and more entertainment and less and less focused on hard reporting.

I also found that I resented the fact that TV news comes at me in a very constraining way. I can’t speed it up, unless I record it and then literally speed it up, but that’s a crazy way to watch TV news, so I can’t speed it up the way I can speed up my reading of text, I have to take it in the order that the producers give it to me. I can only look at what they show me, and I find it really inefficient to get my news that way, so I do my news gathering online with print media and then I will occasionally stop to look at video if I want to look at something interesting.

So mostly I use my Google News aggregator and I’ve told it which news media I prefer to hear from. In my case, that’s the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Globe and Mail, the National Post and BBC, I also get Al Jazeera because they are often quite helpful in getting a developing world perspective on the news. So, I try to look at several media from several points of view on anything other than the highlights of the news media.

The second thing I do is to subscribe to magazines, which I read fairly carefully, that give me perspective on the larger trends in the world. So, I’m a pretty devoted reader of The New Yorker and of The Atlantic, coming from the US. I’m a pretty critical reader of The Walrus, which I find to be almost always a disappointing magazine, but it’s what we’ve got in Canada that gives us some perspective on that; it usually frustrates me more than helps me, but sometimes it’s helpful. It frustrates me because of the anti-Christian bias and also the general superficiality and smugness of it, but it is what we’ve got.

I will look at also a website called Arts and Letters Daily, which is an aggregator of really interesting opinion pieces from pretty smart media from around the world and so Arts and Letters Daily is something I’ll probably look at once or twice a week, grab a few articles that seem important to me.

As an educator, I subscribe to the Chronicle of Higher Education, so I look at that for my own world as well as University Affairs in Canada. So, each of us may well want to have a particular medium that helps us with particular interests of ours. And I’m a subscriber to Faith Today magazine, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s magazine. I’m a longtime columnist for them, but I would subscribe to it anyway because it is what we have as part of a national Christian conversation about what’s going on in the church.

So, I read a lot of media. I don’t read all of what’s in every magazine. I don’t read everything that Google News serves me. I look at the headlines, I pick what I want to read.

And I pray and this is the last thing I’d say, Layton, is that I pray, usually the beginning in the middle and the end of my reading. That I ask God to show me what I need to know in order to fulfill my vocation in the world, which I think is a crucial principle in the consumption of news media.

LF: So your comment about prayer kind of points to a certain kind of inner attitude or inner awareness of what you’re doing when you’re reading the news. I’d like to ask you just about the practice of reading a news article then. When you’re reading a piece of news, no matter where it’s coming from, what are some red flags that cause you to question a report? That alert you that there’s something fishy going on here, that there’s a bias that I need to be aware of, or that I need to be skeptical of. Can a person develop those kinds of filters or is that just unhelpful?

JS: I think we do have to be wise in our reading of the media.

One of the main questions I ask as I read is what’s not here that should be here. Who is not being interviewed? Who should be part of this conversation? How selective has the reporter been in who she is asking for opinion, and who she’s leaving out of the conversation, so that would be literally in terms of sources who’s not being asked. Are there really good experts being asked to comment on the comments of the protagonists and antagonists in this story, or is it only a ‘he says, she says’ back and forth, which isn’t usually very helpful.

How much room is being given to one side versus the other? Is there only lip service being paid to one and extensive attention being given to the other?

I also want to notice when the reporter doesn’t follow up with critical questions, what I call the second and third question. If she’s letting people away with propaganda. I want to know if she’s noticing what I’m noticing, which is “That was a pretty bad answer. That’s not a very true or likely response.” Does the reporter then bore in and get some kind of response to that? If she just leaves it there, then I’m doubting her competence as well as her fidelity to what’s going on.

And then finally I notice, if I can, who or what is not even being talked about that should be talked about.

So, I’ve talked about three kinds of omissions, right?

The first omission, who’s not being asked for comment who should be. Secondly, is the reporter pushing that second or third question to make sure things are clear. And then thirdly, what’s not being talked about?

Recently in The New Yorker, there was an opening story on the likely overturning of Roe versus Wade in the United States by a conservative Supreme Court, and the journalist whose work I’ve recognized and appreciate went on at some length about the implications for women that would happen in the rash of new legislation that’s likely to arise at the state level in the United States if Roe versus Wade is in fact overturned. And as I read, I noticed that the one important subject that is never talked about is the fate of the unborn child, and this is quite common in pro-abortion writing, that baby in mummy’s tummy is just never addressed. It’s always about the women. It’s as if there is no one else to talk about. Well, that to me is a is a pretty strong sign of bias to the point of blindness, and if we watch for it, we will often see it.

LF: So, do you think that we as Christians in Canada can influence the news? Can we shape the way news is brought to us, and are we just kind of sentenced to be consumers of this or are there things that we can do in our country here to help newsmakers bring us the news in a trustworthy way?

JS: Journalists over the years in TV, radio and print have talked to me about this from time to time. I’ve written occasionally for the mainstream media; I was a columnist for a couple of years for the Winnipeg Free Press back when it was actually a pretty important medium in Manitoba. It would have had a circulation of half a million, maybe an over the shoulder readership of over a million. I’ve done a number of commentaries as you know, for CBC Radio. Sometime in the last several years I went over my thousandth interview with one medium or another. So I’ve had a chance to talk to people whose living is made in journalism and they say on this hand, on the other hand, on this hand, journalists develop a pretty thick skin because nobody likes the way they’re covered.

Christians don’t like the way Christianity is covered, but businesspeople don’t tend to like the way business is covered and sports fans get mad about how their hockey team is covered, so almost everybody has a beef with journalists and the only way they survive is to develop a thick carapace of indifference to all the criticism. And yet on the other hand they do, if they’re smart, listen to the criticism because these are their customers talking. And editors, once they calmed down from whatever bitter smacking we want to give them, they will listen to criticism. They prefer to have us suggest better ways of doing things instead of just saying “I don’t like what you’re doing, fix it.”

It’s even more powerful if we can say, “here’s a story you’re missing.” “Here’s a source you should consult.” “Here’s an angle on this that perhaps in your busyness you haven’t been able to consult or to consider.” Those kinds of things journalists say they welcome, and I’ve got to believe that they do, but it doesn’t mean they don’t listen to criticism because they do. They want to sell newspapers, they want people to watch and read what they put up on the net, so I do think that we Canadians can be too polite and too passive, and we put up with stuff that we shouldn’t and if we can, fairly clearly and pretty directly, criticize, as well as suggest, we can make a difference.

In fact, Layton, I’m a little weary of Canadian Christians complaining about the bad coverage we get in the news media. I mean there are millions of us in Canada. If we all took some time to write to our media and complain, that’s a pretty big tidal wave of response and we just don’t, we just complain to ourselves.

LF: So, my last question for you is a bit more general, because we’re talking here about skepticism toward the news media, but we know that people are skeptical about a lot of things. I mean, they’re skeptical about pastors like myself, they’re skeptical about professors, scholars like yourself, about politicians, about doctors, whatever. I mean that that just seems to be one of the basic postures of our culture. What is the Christian witness in a cynical, skeptical culture where there’s just so much distrust towards all kinds of things, what are your thoughts on that?

JS: I think we really are in a postmodern situation now. Postmodernity was kind of a groovy thing to talk about 30 or 40 years ago when it was kind of new and exciting in the English literature seminar room, and then 20 years ago, lots of people were talking about it, and then ten years ago we all got sick of hearing about it. But now it’s really become, I think, a social fact. I think what you say is true.

What I mean by postmodern in this case is this pervasive attitude of doubt toward anybody who purports to tell me the big story about something. If we mean by a postmodern mood, this resistance to anybody who shows up at our front door and says “Hi, I’m here from the government and I’m here to help you.” Maybe you know. Or somebody with a clipboard is trying to sell us something. I mean we don’t generally respond to that ring on our phone or that knock on our front door saying “Oh, isn’t it great we have company.” Nobody thinks that way anymore. I mean, that’s gone with the wind, we’re resistant to anybody who’s trying to sell us something we think.

Our culture now longs for authenticity, and it’s not just hipsters in Brooklyn. I think that everybody longs for authenticity and the first thing we want to look at is, does somebody’s behavior link up with their profession? In particular, do churches in fact produce what they say they’re producing? Are they conspicuous communities of mutual care? Do these Christians clearly care for each other? That’s what we mean by love each other, not whether Christians have fond affections for each other. There’s lots of people at church I don’t like, and lots of people at church don’t like me. That’s too bad, but it’s not really the point.

The point is, do we care for each other? Are we babysitting each other’s kids? Are we helping each other with expenses? Are we giving each other help on our taxes? Like are we actually conspicuously saying, “You matter to me, I value you and in Jesus’ name I want to care for you.” And do churches reach outside their communities to care for people in their neighborhoods? Or do Christians make the news only when we’re campaigning for our rights, our privileges, our freedoms, and we become simply another whiny group of self-interested persons? So that’s a serious problem that Christians can do a lot about.

It’s up to us to decide how we’re going to treat each other and how we’re going to behave in the community, and news media are in fact looking for good news stories, not just the bad ones. So, I think there’s a lot that we can still do to help our own profile and the gospel to be higher, and I think better, in the eyes of our fellow Canadians.

Meanwhile, I think we need to be as wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves and read the media carefully. Talk about it together. It would be really helpful, for instance if churches had regular discussion groups about what’s happening in the media. If churches had conversations about the Ottawa convoy. What’s going on? What do we think about that? If churches had conversations about, how do we feel about religious freedoms being challenged during the COVID pandemic?

What I see instead is Christians simply forming alliances with likeminded other Christians and then campaigning against each other and against everybody else who disagrees with us. That’s not conversation. That’s not mutual love. That’s just good old battle politics and party spirit and the New Testament has some pretty harsh things to say about that, so we have some lessons we can learn if we will, over how we’ve been behaving over the last few years. And I hope we will learn.

John G. Stackhouse Jr. PhD

LF: Well, that’s very rich. Thank you so much, Doctor Stackhouse, for being with us today, and I’d also like to thank you for the work that you do in Canada in the Christian community and in the community beyond that. We really value your contribution as an evangelical historian, teacher of theology, commentator on culture. So, thank you very much for the work that you are doing in our country, we really appreciate that.

JS: Thanks so much Layton and God bless you, thanks.

LF: Thank you.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr. is an award-winning scholar, teacher, and public communicator. He is currently a professor of religious studies at Crandall University in Moncton, NB. 

 

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