How to Break Up with Your Anxious Life
Breaking Our Media Addiction, Part Two
In 2008, my grandmother-in-law sent me an alarmed email. “This is our president!” said the subject line. It seemed that Barack Obama was petitioning Congress to change the National Anthem to the 1971 popular song, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” Grandma was, understandably, extremely upset about this. My husband ignored the email. I sent Grandma this link to snopes.com: (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/national-anthem-stance/)
Jeff’s grandmother in not a crazy person. So how in the world did she believe that a sitting president would want to change the national anthem to a Coke ad?
My theory: She had allowed her heart to be shepherded by such biased media that she had been willing to believe something ridiculous. She got emails like this regularly from trusted friends around the country. She didn’t know to fact check it. She didn’t even think to fact check it. And getting worked up about this kind of stuff had become entertaining.
And this all happened before she got on Facebook.
It’s an extreme example, and easy to chalk it up to old age and poor technology usage. But it’s not that unusual. We consume a lot of media, and are increasingly likely to consume media in an echo chamber. Trevin Wax, in his book This Is Our Time, calls this “curating our conscience,” where we choose to follow people who are only concerned about the things we are concerned about, until we become disproportionally worried about some societal ills and completely blind to others. We also become easy to convince that the “other side” has done something outrageous and evil.*
Even if you think you don’t follow the news, I promise you, the news gets in. You are being fed a perspective and you are aware of current events – on your social media feed, on the radio, or just in conversation with the person at church next to you. In the absence of conscious decision-making on your part, your heart is likely being shepherded by half-truths and misinformation. In this era, to break up with our anxious lives, and even more importantly, to be true disciples of Christ, we absolutely to have to address how, where and why we consume media.
I want to be very honest here: I think solid journalism is the bedrock of democracy and a powerful agency for social change. I took journalism in college and my daughter is a double major in journalism and sociology at a highly ranked university, and is, as we speak, working on a three-month-long investigative story on racism in the Greek system. Her program is all about verifiable facts and ethical reporting. God lives in reality and celebrates truth-telling, which often results in justice, the over-turning of corrupt power systems and the checking of authoritarianism. So, there are good journalists out there, and when they act as fact-finders, they are doing the Lord’s work.
Unless we are going to unplug completely, our work as Christians who care about people is to find those journalists. ** Our work is to learn about things we wish weren’t happening. Our work is to care about our neighbors and the world. Our work is to seek out accurate statistics and know the real definitions for terms.
And then our task is to ask God what is my part in bringing his kingdom to earth. That is the lens through which I need to consume news media: God, what is it that you would have me do? By asking this question, I can engage with the world in a way that brings appropriate concern and lament, but not anxiety. Not hatred. Not panic. But love and concern.
It's a tall order. But it matters. It matters to our mental health. It matters to our spiritual health. And it changes the way we relate to the people around us. In the last two years, when I speak on friendship, I ask who has lots friends in the last year over politics. Almost everyone raises their hand. If we are going to break relationship over our opinions on news and politics, let’s be very, very sure we are getting our facts right. Right?
I’ve heard Christians furious about illegal immigration who, when asked, don’t know the difference between immigrants living and working here illegally, and those who cross the border and are legally seeking asylum. These are important things to understand if we want to engage in this crisis, whether through our vote or through giving money, time, or sharing information. I know many people who are passionate about reducing abortions in America and horrified by the idea of teenage girls using abortion as birth control, but who don’t know any of the verifiable statistics about who and why women get abortions. These are important statistics if we want to care for women and their children – born and unborn. ***
Have I exhausted you with my soapbox speech? I’m sorry. Chalk it up to passion and my own desire for freedom in this area. I have some action step ideas to close:
Notice your own attitude toward “the news.” Are you someone who says you don’t follow it, but actually has a strong opinion on issues of the day?
Evaluate the reliability and bias of your news sources. This non-partisan, respected, Sharon McMahon-recommended site evaluates news sources based on those two criteria. They’ll help you understand the important difference between accuracy and bias (you can be telling the truth accurately, but still have a perspective in the way you report it). https://adfontesmedia.com/
See your news source as a shepherd, especially if you watch a cable show or the same person’s regular commentary. Are they qualified to shape your heart? Are they mean-spirited? Do they call people names? Do they generalize one racial, age or geographic group? Will they report wrongdoing on both sides or the political aisle? Are they trying to make you angry? I will not watch either Tucker Carlson (who calls himself an entertainer, not a journalist) nor Seth Meyers (a comedian who does deep evaluations of the news) because they are both too mean and too biased, in opposite directions.
Consider how you might be being manipulated and for what purpose. In his beautiful book Good and Beautiful and Kind, pastor Rich Villodas, discusses the powers that seek to corrupt the gospel, not only "spiritual forces" but systems of injustice and untruth that derail us in our mission to love. He says, "one of the daily tasks of Christians and church leaders, denominations and diocesses is to ask if and how we might be being used by the powers and consider how we might better overcome them in the name of Jesus. ... [ask ourselves] What or who am I really serving with my time, belief, money, passion and opinion?"
I want to know the good I ought to do in the world. I want to have peace, not anxiety. And I want to pursue truth. How about you? I hope this helps you achieve all three of these illusive goals. *This is not only because of our human/sin nature, which makes it more comfortable to read about things we already believe than read things that will challenge us to change belief. It’s also because of the addictive nature of technology, and the way that social media and news cycles are currently structured, as I wrote about last week. Studies show that media that carries judgmental (biased) language and triggers strong negative feelings get more likes; and in an industry that measures success by clicks and time of engagement, the algorithms will steer us to get us angry and keep us angry in order to keep us engaged. **Studies show that we are not, by and large, seeking those verifiable sources. Cable news, which is consistently ranked very high on bias, is the number one source for most Americans, and a huge percentage of those watch commentary rather than reporting, which does not carry the same accountability legally to tell the truth. See some stats on news media here: https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2022/04/05/trust-media-2022-where-americans-get-news-poll ***Fifty-seven percent of women getting abortions are in their 20s and 61% of them are also parents. Ninety-three percent are performed at or before 13 weeks, 80% before nine weeks according to the CDC.