One of the side effects of our recent economic troubles has been the accelerated death of newspapers and magazines. The Internet has been eating away at the readers, advertising, and content of print media for years, but after the credit crisis hit, print-ad sales in many papers and magazines fell and loans to cover failing newspapers became harder to find. As a result, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is becoming an online-only paper, while other papers close their doors completely or go bankrupt. If most predictions are to be believed, many more papers will shut down before this crisis is over. As Christians, we have a responsibility to understand the times we live in, and as Americans, we have a particular obligation to act as responsible citizens, people who are aware of the state of our country and what is being done by our government on our behalf. If this newspaper crisis continues, and there is no good reason to believe that it won’t, and the quality of news content declines, how will it affect the way we understand our world and our society?
First, we should note that however this crisis pans out, it will not mean the end to news reporting altogether. Between AP and Reuters staff reporters, TV news, radio, and online papers, there will still be plenty of coverage of important events. What is most likely to see a decline is reporting done by professional journalists who are able to go beyond merely restating the facts of an event in grade school English. In contrast to the previous news model where trained journalists (who were subject to an ethics of reporting, however tenuously they held to it) reported and investigated events using both their skill and the unique opportunities afforded them as members of the press, we will probably see news reporting becoming further divided between dry, poorly-written AP pieces primarily written to present the “facts” of an event, and openly biased blogging and commentary on the events. In the extremes that we will be left with (AP “reporting” and blogger “editorials”), we will probably see a lack of professional writing, reporting, and commentary, aside from a few pockets of well-informed journalists/bloggers, most of whom will gain notoriety only because they were previously employed as professional journalists. My point is, however this change in the media transpires, it seems that the move from professional to amateur journalism, which started a few years ago with the growth of blogging, will continue to the point when trustworthy, accurate, and intelligent reporting and editorializing will be significantly harder to find.
What I believe this means for Christians is that we will need to be more determined than ever to think critically about what we read, what it means, and why we can or cannot trust it. This will mean that we will have to be as critical of sources which support our worldview as we are of those who oppose it, and be willing to verify these sources and examine the credentials of those who are writing. At a practical level, this means that one of the most important things we can teach our children and students is how to evaluate a source, how to critically analyze a text, and how to discern truth from half-truths.
It might seem like what I am suggesting is simply common sense, but if it is, it is a common sense that goes against a general tendency in our society to accept the facileness of finding data with the validity of that data. Over the past decade, the task of acquiring information become exponentially easier thanks to finely tuned search engines and community-fueled databases like Wikipedia. But a side effect of this ease of use is that it can give the impression that the truth is just as easily accessible as data. Whatever question we might pose to it, Google seems to be able to offer an answer, and typically on the first page of results. For example, a few weeks ago, I received a phone call from an international number. Instead of answering the phone, I typed the number into Google and discovered that many other people had received a call from the same number and that the caller was selling vacations to Mexico. This is the power of the information technology we have now; quick, easy information at all times, but not necessarily accurate information. In reality, I have no assurance that the information Google gave me on that phone number was valid, but since this call was not an important issue, I did not need to investigate further. My point is that this kind of reliance upon information technology can provide a false sense that the ease of searching somehow corresponds to the value or accuracy of the results, which is simply not the case. It tempts us to disregard the important task of critically evaluating sources by addicting us to the benefits of quick results. Critical thinking takes time, and information technology has taught us that answers do not need time.
If newspapers and magazines, staffed by professional writers and journalists, continue to go out of business, I believe that the task of critically evaluating information will become even more crucial to our witness and flourishing than ever before. This will mean that we will have to go against what has become our (socially constructed) impulse to chose efficiency over truth, even when it leads us to conclusions that we do not like.