White, evangelical, American Christians live in constant tension with the culture around them, and as far as anyone can tell, this has been their default state of existence for generations. Perhaps nowhere is this cultural dissonance more pronounced than with evangelicalism’s distrust of the so-called “mainstream news media.” The media, it is argued, is either unable or unwilling to fairly report on issues important to Christians, and in many cases, holds an outright bias against Christians.
To be clear, when I refer to Christians here, “evangelical” is the category of Christian to whom I am mostly referring. In modern usage, this group of Christians can be classified as attending predominantly-white, American churches and they tend to be politically conservative. Their theological distinctiveness is in their belief in the Bible as the inspired Word of God. They believe—truly believe—in Christ’s teachings (defined by historical Christian creeds and the Scriptures), they believe in his literal and physical death, burial, and resurrection, and they believe that redemption and salvation are found only through faith in Jesus.
And evangelicals believe you ought to believe these things too.
I count myself among the millions of Christians that fit in this category. I am deeply entrenched in evangelical culture and am keenly attuned to the evangelical psyche in American society.
I also love journalism. The promise of journalism can be found in its ability to hold powerful people and institutions accountable to a well-informed and engaged citizenry. And while it can be expected that no single media organization perfectly carries out these ideals, I support public radio and prop up the “liberal” New York Times and Washington Post as strongholds of the best journalism America has to offer.
But it not so with most evangelicals. As a whole, my people are Fox News people, and complaining about the bias of the liberal press is their natural language. And while I typically see this prevailing sentiment as a posture formed from paranoia more than from fact, I nonetheless cannot help but observe that, in many tangible ways, their paranoia is entirely understandable. The interests of my community really are underrepresented and maligned among most major news outlets, the very outlets I prefer.
What follows are 6 reasons why Christians don't trust the press and the press just doesn't get Christians.
1) Christians expect to be persecuted and often find it where it doesn’t actually exist.
Christians expect to be misrepresented and ridiculed by the press. A number of things contribute to this belief, and perhaps chief among them is how, as Alan Noble, the editor-in-chief of the publication Christ And Pop Culture, observes, “believers can come to see victimhood as an essential part of their identity”.
This is because martyrdom and persecution are central tenets of Christ’s teachings and are a common theme in the writings of the apostles and the Book of Revelation. The Scriptures encourage us that persecution is a sign of blessing and a way to test and solidify our faith. So it often plays out that Christians are trained to expect persecution and many times see it where none actually exists.
Many would disagree with Noble’s assessment. No doubt Christian media critics can furnish a detailed record of all the wrongs committed against them by journalists. I am sure many of these instances would be deemed valid by any objective observer. However, Christians seem to overemphasize the standards to which it is possible for anyone to remain wholly objective. Perfect objectivity is impossible, so to a group that is on the prowl for examples of persecution, bias can always be found wherever they are looking for it.
2) The media may get christians wrong, but not as wrong as christians get the media.
Christians (like much of the public) have a fundamental misunderstanding of the demographics of those who actually make up the ranks of American journalists. They often see culture-makers and the news media as out of touch with the “real America” that exists between the coasts.
Eugene Scott, a practicing Christian and reporter with CNN, was interviewed about this topic on the Pass The Mic podcast last summer. He observed that the perception of the “out of touch” media is a caricature which fails to acknowledge that journalists come from across the Heartland, not just the coasts. “Every day I go to work and sit between people who were born and raised in Nebraska and Missouri and Florida and the Carolinas,” he says. According to Scott, the media know more about the lives of people living in real America than people in real America know about the lives of those who work for the media. He also observes that evangelicals assume (wrongly), that publications are devoid of Christians and are full of people who are intolerant of Christians. If anything, he notes it is Christians who are more intolerant of journalists than the other way around: “I find far more rejection as a member of the mainstream media within evangelicalism than I do as an evangelical within the mainstream media."
3) We all see the world very differently.
There is a fundamental divide between the world as journalists see it and the world as it is portrayed by the teachings of Christianity. Journalism focuses on empirical facts: things that reporters can see, feel, and touch, and who said what, when and where. Christians conversely believe the world exists as it is described by the Old and New Testament.
Marvin Olasky, the editor-in-chief of World Magazine and author of the one of the seminal books of journalism through the eyes of evangelicalism, Prodigal Press, outlines that Christians and Christian journalists interpret world events through four foundational truths:
- God is sovereign and in control of the universe.
- Satan is real and active in the world.
- Humanity is sinful and prone to rebellion.
- World events can be influenced through prayer.
These are not just conjecture or spiritual concepts to Christians. As silly as it may seem to those on the outside, this is the real world to evangelicals like me.
With that in mind, is it any surprise that Christians would pick up a newspaper and feel underrepresented? From a Christian perspective, the news media always misses the full story.
4) The media routinely underestimates the importance of religion.
This belief in the spiritual reality of events in the world is not unique to evangelicals. Most religious people believe similar things. And yet modern journalism operates under a philosophy of empirical materialism and secularism, even though it is not consistent with most Americans’ values. Eric Alterman writes in his book, What Liberal Media?, that secularism is so entrenched within journalism that no one even thinks to question it.
Secularism is considered normal, even though it is not the dominant belief system of Americans.
This means the perspectives of spiritual and religious people are largely ignored and the full story of what motivates people to act the ways they do is not told accurately. Because journalists have no “eyes” for the religious components of stories, they are frequently missing the story itself.
In other words, their journalism simply is not as good as it should be.
As Judith Buddenbaum writes in Reporting News About Religion, “[Religion] is the greatest story never told—or at least, the greatest story that’s rarely told very well.”
5) Religion is ridiculously complex.
In fairness, part of this disparity can be ascribed to the sheer complexity of religion. We are a nation with a widely diverse set of religious beliefs. Even within a single religion, like Christianity, there are countless denominational differences, and even within those denominations, theological and cultural distinctions can differ along geographical, political, and historical lines. Compared to sports, which have fairly easy-to-follow rules, or politics, which can be framed as a fight between two major parties, accurately reporting on religion is hard.
From this perspective, what many evangelicals and other religious people see as a bias or underrepresentation of their beliefs can be attributed to the complexity of the subject matter and the nearly-impossible task of any journalist to accurately depict it. Thousands of varying religious beliefs mean that most journalists are simply ignorant of what it is exactly that people believe.
6) The press is made up of liberals trying really hard to not sound liberal.
A clear majority of journalists are liberals. This is the consistent conclusion of multiple studies and is treated as common knowledge by those working in the media.
A few years ago, WNYC’s On The Media aired an episode devoted to this topic: “Does NPR have a liberal bias?” An essential premise of the episode was that most journalists are indeed liberal, and this premise remained unchallenged by every expert throughout the episode.
Instead, they concluded that while, yes, the people who make up our newsrooms are mostly liberal, reporters are still generally able to remain objective in their reporting in spite of their personal views.
It is no surprise that conservatives scoff at this conclusion. Tim Groseclose, an economics professor and media critic at the University of Missouri, argues in his book, Left Turn, that rather than the media intentionally promoting a liberal agenda, they are simply are unaware that their reporting is askew. Places like WNYC no longer know what it means to represent truly objective, centrist views.
Earlier this year David Kestenbaum summarized the conservative sentiment in some recent reporting on This American Life: “[Conservatives] feel like it’s put together by liberals who are trying not to be biased.”
All hope is not lost! There are some tangible ways to improve media literacy and charity from a Christian perspective, and for the media to begin taking evangelicals more seriously. But that'll have to wait for another post.
For more on this topic, check out these resources to which I am indebted in compiling this list:
- What Liberal Media? by Eric Alterman
- Religion And The Media by Chris Arthur
- Reporting News About Religion by Judith M. Buddenbaum
- Bridging The Gap: Religion And The News Media by John Dart and Jimmy Allen
- Bias by Bernard Goldberg
- Left Turn: How Liberal Media Distorts The American Mind by Tim Groseclose
- The Evangelical Persecution Complex by Alan Noble
- Prodigal Press by Marvin Olasky and Warren Cole Smith
- Media Bias: Finding It, Fixing It edited by Wm. David Sloan and Jenn Burleson Mackay
- Unsecular Media: Making News Of Religion In America by Mark Silk
What did I miss? Let me know in the comments.