Ever hear a word or phrase so much it begins to lose all meaning?
After a decade in journalism, “media bias” stops sounding like a collection of syllables and more like the feedback squall from a stack of guitar amplifiers. Sifting and owning up to biases ranks among journalist's most worthy pursuits, yet conversations about bias in the media so often lack depth and dimension. They mostly just make noise.
Audiences invoke the word almost without thinking—assuming bias, attributing it at will. Bias, as the masses talk about it, is relegated only to the realm of politics. The mainstream media, conventional wisdom goes, pulls so hard to the left it risks crossing four lanes of traffic. Maybe, if the time and temperature are right, the critic reserves a few harsh words for Fox News.
Perhaps most troubling, the bias we spy only travels one way, never crossing the street. To engender authentic, abiding trust between journalists and people of faith, we must recover a more theological understanding of bias and have eyes to see how it assumes many shapes.
The hard reset we need comes when we admit bias is impossible to live without. All of us walk around wearing the sum of our experiences. With or without media credentials. We make meaning of the world through lenses we prescribe for ourselves and lenses prescribed for us by parents, pastors, teachers, and friends, even people we only meet once.
To deliver an unbiased report—or receive information with an unbiased heart—surpasses even the best angels of our nature. The best we can do—and we must do this—is to question bias, and let it question us.
Journalists do a notoriously poor job letting the public into their internal conversations. True transparency would clarify that questions of liberal-conservative bias aren’t the only ones on our minds.
Thoughtful journalists and scholars acknowledge the potential of bias in favor of institutions and officials—bias which sanctions the interests of business and capitalism more broadly, and the recency bias which often wins the hour on cable news.
Some argue the existence of bias toward conservatism through an upholding of the status quo and a tendency to cast fiercely progressive policies as outliers. Sometimes journalists introduce bias by trying to balance an unbalanced story, giving equal weight to two voices when one possesses more understanding and authority.
Knowing this, attentive media consumers—especially Christians, who profess a desire to grow in their understanding of all manner of truth—face an awesome opportunity. Christians engaged with journalism, yet outside its camp, may ask better questions, begin to account for the presence of unexpected biases, and place news reports in the greater, more complicated context we all could use.
But Christian, know thyself. Before you can watch the watchdogs, you must reckon with what God says about your own heart. Through the prophet Jeremiah, he tells us our hearts are both deceitful—and not just a little, but first and foremost—and inscrutable. In one of the Bible’s most-quoted yet least-followed verses, we remember to set apart for God all the trust our hearts can muster, leaning not on our own understanding.
Christian fingers often point at the media and cry “bias.” And yet the Bible holds up a mirror so we might see all the evidence pointed back at us. Resting on the rock of absolute truth, unfortunately, hasn’t prevented us from bending other elements of reality.
Christians I encounter on social media, and in real life, pass along reporting without pausing to verify its assertions. Journalists who fail to keep the facts straight eventually get fired; people of faith simply draft their next Facebook post. I see very few brothers and sisters asking crucial questions about sourcing, fact-checking, or other aspects of the reporting process. At times, articles without so much as a byline make the rounds because they appear to line up with the reader’s view of the world.
Here lies the true temptation: to believe our bias is the right bias, and any piece of commentary, pseudo-journalism or satire boosting that bias lives above the line of reproach. At times, these dispatches might stumble toward truth, but how they get there matters. Truth sets us free—in a spiritual sense primarily. But it also sets us free of the need to obfuscate, demean, or lower our standards; it sets us free from flying by the seats of our pants or working in anything less than excellence.
This sort of writing or broadcasting might account for overarching spiritual truths, but fails to account for us. It fails to account for the ways our hands bend God into our own image, how our vision often assigns experiences beyond our own to the periphery, how we interpret and misinterpret and flat-out get things wrong. Honest Christians might make the best, most engaged media consumers—but honesty must begin within the chambers of our own hearts.
For the foreseeable future, let’s table our circular, well-worn conversations about bias and pick up a better mantle. With that mindset, we might scour reporting for bias against our neighbor, not for or against us. We might invest time and energy in loving journalists as our neighbors, learning how the sum of their experiences opens or closes their eyes. Knowing them, we might recognize and even celebrate biases which work toward the causes of truth and open dialogue, not against them.
Certain biases must be uprooted both in the news and in our churches—biases which, left unchecked, end in erasure of the experiences and wisdom of people of color, for example. Other biases might actually be leaned into and harnessed. God’s preference for the poor and marginalized, revealed in the pages of scripture, might be described as a bias. We might find ourselves praying that we, and the news outlets in our cities, begin to adopt a bias like that.
We shed our problematic biases as we renew our minds. Scripture provides the ultimate home for this pursuit, but we also find our minds renewed by reporting that takes a clear look at the world and challenges long-held notions about issues and communities.
When people contend that all journalists are biased, I respond like I do when people say all churches are full of hypocrites. True enough. The measure of a growing journalist, and a growing Christian, lies in what they do next. Where do they go, to whom do they turn, as they stare down their inconsistencies?
A journalist worth trusting admits his or her lack of objectivity, and invites you into the processes driving their reporting. A Christian worth walking alongside turns to a God who gave away his son to overcome our bias against him.
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