It's a new day for news.
Newspapers face declining circulation; old guard magazines, such as Newsweek, teeter on the brink of extinction; and icons of the traditional press, such as Howard Fineman of Newsweek, Peter Goodman of The New York Times, and most recently Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, are jumping to such digital media upstarts as The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.
But this is only the surface of the seismic change afoot.
"More and more, media outlets are becoming a federation of individual brands" writes David Carr of The New York Times. In this way, "Journalism is starting to look like sports, where a cast of role players serves as a platform and context for highly paid, high-impact players."
To carry the sports motif forward, each of these teams has its own identity. Any attempt at neutrality is, at best, thinly veiled. You can't watch the Today Show on NBC and not experience the liberal bias of the hosts in maddening ways. The same could be said of the conservative tilt at Fox News.
There is much to be applauded in the new world. News can "land hard no matter the platform," writes Carr, and with astonishing immediacy. "The speed with which a media brand can be built out - see Huffington Post for the most breathtaking example - means that the barriers to entry that made the media business the province of titans are gone."
But Carr also reveals some dangerous trends in our embrace of the new news. While on a journalistic level the playing field is more even, many people see the news "in aggregated form on the Web, and when they notice a link that interests them, they click on it with nary a thought about the news organization behind it. Information stands or falls on its magnetism, with brand pedigree becoming secondary."
Further, open Gawker, CNN, NPR and The Wall Street Journal on your iPad and see if you can tell without looking at the name which is a blog, a television brand, a radio network or a newspaper. As Carr notes, they all have text, links, video and pictures.
News, it would seem, is wherever the public finds it.
Also, the immediacy of news means that there is less feedback, fact-checking, copy-checking and double-checking. In other words, all news now stands at a higher risk of being not only misleading, but wrong.
As a result, gaining discernment in regard to the news has never been more pressing. Howard K. Smith, a news icon in a previous era, once quipped that the media may not tell you what to think, but they most certainly tell you what to think about.
Now even that distinction is extinct.
Through the bias of the author, the choice of interviewees, the selection of questions, the camera angle and the power of editing, we are told what to think, what to think about and how to feel - all with little sense of knowing how to determine what is actually true.
So what is a thinking Christian to do?
*Be aware of the source of your news. Know its biases and emphases. Some networks and sites are open about their predispositions; some feign neutrality that is revealed in short order. Often it is the individual personality that must be explored. In a day when we will Google almost anyone or anything to get some basic background information, throw in your news source. And then make sure you check out that source.
*With our new twenty-four hour news cycle, give "news" some time to mature. Get the final "end" of the story before conclusions are drawn. In other words, remember "balloon boy" or the girl we thought was attacked with acid; or on a more serious note, the report of memos critical of George W. Bush's Texas Air National Guard service record, made public by Dan Rather, which were later found to be forgeries.
*Think critically about the agenda of the report. There is one, and usually it is not hard to identify. I have been interviewed enough times to know that the article or feature has been conceived before I was ever interviewed. They know the angle they are trying to develop and are just looking for the sound bites and money shots to present it.
*Become more eclectic in where your news comes from. Don't rely on just one source or portal. And on particularly critical issues, read multiple sources on the same story. I take three newspapers, multiple newsmagazines and journals, and regularly visit the site of over a dozen other news outlets - both national and international.
*Become sensitized to unfair associations. For example, consider the recent stories of a homosexual man at Rutgers who hanged himself when a videotape of him having sex with another man was broadcast on the internet and the beating of a gay man in the Bronx because he was gay. These were both sad and horrific. But they were quickly associated with anyone who condemned homosexuality, as if taking any such moral stand was akin to inciting further hate crimes. This was, of course, a ridiculous connection and seemed intent on taking advantage of a sensational news cycle to silence anyone speaking out against homosexuality as a morally acceptable lifestyle.
*Broaden your scope of what actually is news by taking advantage of uniquely Christian sites that present stories that mainstream media may not cover. For example, churchandculture.org has a "Latest News" section that is updated several times a day with stories related to not only the interplay of church and culture, but also stories related to culture that are important for the church to take note of.
*Finally, learn to think "Christianly" about what you hear in terms of its truth and worldview. This is the most significant dynamic of all (for more on this, see A Mind for God published by InterVarsity Press).
All to say, it's a new day for news.
Which means it needs to be a new day for news readers.
James Emery White
"A Vanishing Journalistic Divide" by David Carr, New York Times, posted October 10, 2010. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/11/business/media/11carr.html?_r=2&hp
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