News in a post-truth culture

Fake news. Information bubbles. Malicious distortions of facts. Inherent bias in reporting. Corporate control of media. Algorithms deciding what stories we receive. All these themes run through the public discourse about media in a post-truth culture. The term “post-truth” itself is contested. It is used to describe a context where facts have less influence than emotional appeals, but some argue that the term itself legitimizes deliberate distortion, which we should name for what it is – lies. How we describe reality and how we frame facts to tell a story can make a big difference to our response.

The current debate about the role of public media is important for us as Christians. Our ability to rely on information we read, the speed and impact of global news, and the role of social media affect everything from our daily lives to our sense of well-being. At a deeper level, a post-truth culture also affects how we come to understand the spirits of our age, which is one of our tasks, says the Bible, in order to bring good news to our society.

How the daily news is framed affects our understanding and response. Consider the news that Russia interfered in the recent U.S. election. Through a partisan lens, Democrats call it a crime and Republicans see it as sour grapes by Democrats. As an issue of national security, there is indignation and righteous anger in the U.S. Pause a moment, and recall that U.S. spy agencies have often interfered in elections in other countries, such as Chile in the 1970s and Guatemala in the 1980s. Is the same action ethically different if Russia or the U.S. does it?

That raises questions of U.S. exceptionalism, with different rules than others. Should we accept that the U.S. plays the role of global policeman and therefore its interventions are good while interventions by Russia are evil? Framed as a global power struggle between the West and Russia, this news creates fear and division in a renewed cold war. Or, should we defend normative rules for every nation?

At an ethical level, I value the insight of a Chilean novelist, Ariel Dorfman, now living in the U.S. “I savour the irony,” he wrote, “but I feel no glee” (New York Times, Dec. 16, 2016). Along with a full investigation of Russia’s actions, he proposes that the U.S. repent of what it did to citizens of other countries and resolve never to engage in such activities again. That would be a powerful example of what it means to be an agent of reconciliation in a conflict-ridden world, but it is unlikely to happen. How we read the continuing saga into 2017 will likely raise more ethical questions.

Discern together

Economic news may appear to be just facts, but it also comes within a frame. Some stories on economic inequality convey blame and pit different interests, such as the well-educated and working poor, against each other. The same facts in a different frame convey empathy or solidarity across income gaps. One feeds survival-of-the-fittest responses and the other is more likely to feed a grace-filled search for common good solutions. At its core, the difference is being alert to the worth of every person apart from their resume or bank account.

In a time when the status quo is being disrupted on all fronts, one important step is reading alternative sources of news. We can avoid the growing polarization that develops when everyone listens to messages that reinforce their own pre-conceptions.

For Christians, the practice of communal ethical discernment is an important discipline to nurture – as important as prayer and praise. In another time, I recall leading a study group that held the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Every person brought questions and together we probed for deeper meanings – not to campaign for a cause or quick action, but to leave with deeper understanding. Today it might be news feeds and multiple versions of the Bible all on one smart phone, perhaps linked across the country in a virtual network. 

In 2017, Canada will reflect on 150 years and its future path. Christians and churches would serve well by hosting opportunities for communal discernment about the times we live in, to build our capacity to discern the spirits behind the barrage of messages we receive in a post-truth culture. 

Author

  • Kathy Vandergrift

    Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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