Fake news. Political bias. Relative truth. The media landscape is more confusing than ever.
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“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked this question to Jesus Christ hours before His crucifixion. The gospel of John records that the Roman governor, who ruled Judea from AD 26 to 37, walked away immediately after he stated this.
Pilate’s hasty exit meant either he did not want to hear the answer or that he did not think there was one.
Sounds like today, doesn’t it? Having gone through two contentious presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, many are skeptical of news authenticity altogether.
A report from the “Edelman 2021 Trust Barometer” stated that public confidence in mainstream media is at an all-time low. More than half of Americans now believe that “Journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.”
Nearly 60 percent believe “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.” The CEO of Edelman, the company that produced the report, said this “is the era of information bankruptcy.”
The term “fake news” is still bandied about constantly—both by the left and right sides of the political spectrum—to point out perceived or actual media bias. Genuine news watchers must navigate a mess of obstacles to get the whole story.
Reputable, long-standing newspapers and magazines have been caught reporting partially or wholly false information. Objectively, a news reader can know these organizations work hard to fact check and vet their articles. But seeing them oblivious to their biases and twisting facts to support their own agendas—seemingly more and more—makes it difficult to know who and what to believe.
“At a time when Americans are relying heavily on the media for information about the coronavirus pandemic, the presidential election and other momentous events, the public remains largely distrustful of the mass media,” Gallup reported. “Four in 10 U.S. adults say they have ‘a great deal’ (9%) or ‘a fair amount’ (31%) of trust and confidence in the media to report the news ‘fully, accurately, and fairly,’ while six in 10 have ‘not very much’ trust (27%) or ‘none at all’ (33%).”
The report concluded: “Americans’ confidence in the media to report the news fairly, accurately and fully has been persistently low for over a decade and shows no signs of improving…The political polarization that grips the country is reflected in partisans’ views of the media, which are now the most divergent in Gallup’s history.”
Avoiding fake news can seem cut-and-dried. Yet this becomes difficult when outlets present what appears to be conflicting information. Consider the following headlines encountered through a simple Google search:
“Americans’ trust in COVID-19 information is waning, poll finds”
“Trust in quality news outlets strong during coronavirus pandemic”
The discrepancy between these two headlines could be for a variety of reasons. Yet many news organizations tend to zero in on the latest isolated statistic that proves their point—often sidestepping contrary studies. This means readers get a skewed version of the truth.
Cherry-picking facts is just one symptom of the post-truth world in which we live. There is also sloppy reporting, demonizing contrary viewpoints, and outright fake news stories.
Pilate’s question is more relevant today than ever: “What is truth?”
Take another look at fake news, this time in its purest sense: articles that are completely fabricated. These are posted to websites that appear legitimate and saturate Google, Twitter and Facebook.
Such stories are always dramatic and often heinous. A BBC article described a number of conspiracy theories that sprang up surrounding a coronavirus vaccine prior to its release. These included: it alters a person’s DNA, it involves the use of lung tissue from aborted fetuses, it is a cover for implanting trackable microchips. Even though this last claim lacked evidence, “a YouGov poll of 1,640 people suggested 28% of Americans believed [Microsoft co-founder Bill] Gates wanted to use vaccines to implant microchips in people,” BBC reported.
The rise of fake news has led to varying approaches by social media networks to address the problem. Efforts to suppress conspiracies have been interpreted by some as political bias. There is a difficult balance between allowing certain stories to remain posted, which can look like tacit acceptance, versus a more active approach to removing this content, which leads to accusations of suppressing free speech.
Many buy into false stories completely. One fake-news author, when told by a 60 Minutes host during an interview that his stories were false, replied, “They’re definitely not fake.”
“They’re not lies at all. 100-percent true.”
The interviewer asked, “Do you believe that, or do you say that because it’s important for marketing your website?”
He answered: “Oh, I believe it. I don’t say anything that I don’t believe.”
While fake news is often ridiculous, it has a lot of traction in society. Reputable news agencies even mistakenly post fake stories to the web, only to be forced to issue retractions later—or simply change their stories online without anyone knowing.
The reason fake news or half-fake news is not going anywhere is that it usually gets clicked, shared and retweeted more often than your average story—and much faster too. Also, in the internet age, the ability to “scoop” a story is more difficult than ever. To beat other outlets to the punch, news agencies will sometimes post a sentence on social media about the “news” or even just the headline. No further context is given.
News releases strive for emotional impact over factual content, and thus are often inflammatory or controversial. Yet when looking deeper into the content “above the fold”—the term used to describe the eye-catching material placed in the upper half of a newspaper—factual information is often lacking.
But not all news is completely false.
Another common tactic, and what The Observer considers “the biggest problem the media currently faces,” is to select certain statements or information and take them out of context to fit a narrative.
Usually these narratives involve commonly heard, dramatic themes that elicit emotional responses. In a post-truth world, when feelings matter more than facts, this is a powerful tool.
An example is when one of America’s top 10 newspapers reported that Russia cyber-hacked an electricity grid in Vermont. While it was based on an event that did happen, any involvement by the Russians was disproved, including by the power facility in question. Yet some continued to report and believe the story.
The Observer reported that this is “an example of extremely sloppy reporting that appeared to support…much of the mainstream media’s narrative about Russia.”
A problem for news watchers is that there is good reporting out there. Yet interlaced in some of the best reporting is also bias—everywhere. Even newspapers that claim to be unbiased or purveyors of truth employ many of the same methods of fake news writers: omitting the full story, painting the other side in a negative light, refusing to admit their own deficiencies, and only using examples that make their side look right and the other wrong.
Political bias is nothing new—it has long been a facet of the news. But outlets used to be upfront about their political and moral beliefs. In fact, “In the nineteenth century, most newspapers were explicitly linked to a particular political party and the economic interests of the publisher,” the Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank based in Stanford University in California, reported.
Traditionally, newspapers overtly ascribed to a politician or party. Yet competition between newspapers of equal standing and credentials ensured both viewpoints were represented.
Today, we have moved back to this old model of bias in reporting, with one major difference: few want to admit it.
The Hoover Institution noted another change to the industry that began in the 1960s. At that time, most journalists began attending universities where they were almost exclusively spoon-fed progressive political ideology. From this birthed the idea that journalists were there to shape public thinking and push agendas rather than simply report the facts.
As a result, there is decreasing value placed on presenting news with clearly stated bias. In other words, news media will not admit their biases and instead try to pass themselves off as neutral, objective and politically centered.
The Hoover Institution stated: “The end result is the mainstream media today: for-profit businesses that think of themselves as morally and intellectually superior not just to other businesses, but to the organs of government and the mass of gullible voters who put politicians in office.”
While this plain-spoken language makes a valid point, most journalists are not malicious. They sincerely feel what they believe is right and want to help others to see it their way too—often in an attempt to fix problems in the world. Both liberal and conservative writers fall into this trap.
The problem is that debate never ends up being noble or courteous. Instead, it caricaturizes and villainizes the other side. This “stab in the back,” “how could anyone believe them” kind of reporting can seem like fun and games—were it not for the consequences that have befallen society because of it.
The cut-throat partisanship that fills news media drives a wedge among the people it is supposed to inform.
According to “the National Election Study, a long-running survey that tracks Americans’ political opinions and behavior…until a few decades ago, people’s feelings about their party and the opposing party were not too different,” The New York Times reported. “But starting in the 1980s, Americans began to report increasingly negative opinions of their opposing party.”
“Since then, that polarization has grown even stronger. The reasons for that are unclear. ‘I suspect that part of it has to do with the rise of constant 24-hour news,’ [Sean Westwood, a Dartmouth professor,] said.”
Dr. Westwood also found that “in the modern era we view party identity as something akin to gender, ethnicity or race—the core traits that we use to describe ourselves to others.” He said this extends to the point of selecting relationships with people who are in the same political party.
In 2019, Pew Research Center conducted a poll of Democrat and Republican party members and found that “the level of division and animosity—including negative sentiments among partisans toward the members of the opposing party—has only deepened,” compared to their previous survey in 2016.
“Overall, 73% of the public—including 77% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats—say that voters in both parties ‘not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on the basic facts.’”
Pew further stated: “Majorities in both parties say that, aside from political differences, people in the other party do not share many of their other values and goals. About six-in-ten Republicans (61%) say, thinking about more than just politics, Democrats do not share many of their other values and goals; 54% of Democrats say the same about Republicans.”
Pew also observed that as “Republicans and Democrats take an increasingly positive view of members of their own parties, they have become more negative toward members of the opposing party.”
The tangible result in society has been that each side cannot work with—or even develop relationships with—the other. In fact, most will not even accept that the other side’s viewpoint is legitimate.
This is reflected by the fact that even many romantic relationships run along party lines. The Institute for Family Studies observed that “only 21% of marriages are politically mixed, and nearly 4% (3.6%) are between Democrats and Republicans, according to…analysis of the new American Family Survey.”
One of the greatest reasons the world is more divided than ever before is the internet, which allows something called “confirmation bias” to run amuck.
“It is a universal element of the human condition that we seek out individuals who are similar to ourselves,” Financial Post explained. “People who share our values, traditions, culture, religious beliefs, political leanings, and even entertainment preferences.
“The upside of this type of behaviour is that we tend to lead more enjoyable lives and feel more fulfilled because we are surrounded by others who validate our existence.
“The downside is that we lead more sheltered lives with little adventure since we don’t feel the need to broaden our horizons or seek better alternatives to common challenges.”
This confirmation bias—the tendency to seek and accept information that supports pre-established beliefs and to avoid anything that counters them—comes in many forms. The notion, I am right, and people agree with me, triggers a feel-good response.
Psychology Today reported that “people are prone to believe what they want to believe. Seeking to confirm our beliefs comes naturally, while it feels strong and counterintuitive to look for evidence that contradicts our beliefs. This explains why opinions survive and spread.”
Confirmation bias also determines each person’s political identity and how they watch news. Naturally, people are driven to hear stories reflecting their own pre-established political viewpoints.
Tom Nichols, an author and professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, described this process in an article for MarketWatch: “Take, for example, a fairly common American kitchen-table debate: the causes of unemployment. Bring up the problem of joblessness with almost any group of ordinary American voters, and every possible intellectual problem will rear its head.”
In this scenario, he said, one person would ascribe to the belief that unemployment is purely the result of laziness encouraged by providing benefits. Another would firmly believe it is the result of a corrupt system and economic inequality that could only be fixed through wealth redistribution.
Each person’s viewpoint would be backed by personal experiences confirming what he believes.
“There’s no way to win this argument because in the end, there are no answers that will satisfy everyone,” Mr. Nichols stated. “It’s true that unemployment benefits suppress the urge to work in at least some people; it’s also true that some corporations have a history of ruthlessness at the expense of their workers, whose reliance on benefits is reluctant and temporary. Unable to cope with this level of nuance and unwilling to see their own biases, most people will simply drive each other crazy arguing rather than accept answers that contradict what they already think about the subject.”
Confirmation bias is why fake news and media bias is so dangerous.
Jeff Green, a CEO for an advertising firm that helps companies stay away from fraudulent sites, has examined several fake news claims. 60 Minutes reported that Mr. Green’s analysis “showed fake news consumers tend to stay in, what he calls, Internet echo chambers, reading similar articles rather than reaching for legitimate news.”
Even if there are hundreds of reports written that prove otherwise, a person who already believes in something will latch on to one website, article or even just a headline or out-of-context quote that goes along with what he already feels.
And with mediums such as Facebook, which gives users control over what they can access, people are being driven deeper into their biases.
“Unlike…real life—where interaction with those who disagree with you on political matters is an inevitability,” The Guardian reported. “Facebook users can block, mute and unfriend any outlet or person that will not further bolster their current worldview.
“Even Facebook itself sees the segmentation of users along political lines on its site—and synchronizes it not only with the posts users see, but with the advertisements they’re shown.”
In addition, since social media sites base their news posts on algorithms—the number of people who click—others are more easily galvanized into stories that seem popular. When a piece has lots of clicks, it seems much more likely to be legitimate.
All of this traffic is a major bonus for news writers as it generates revenue as well as a following. It also validates fake news writers’ and biased reporters’ jobs since they feel as though they are doing society a noble service by delivering information people feel they need to receive.
But lingering too long in a “bias bubble” has a lasting detrimental effect. As one opinion writer put it in an article published by The Guardian, “…factual accuracy can no longer be taken for granted. Untethered from journalistic ethics, some outlets thrive by telling their audience precisely what they want to hear.”
Confirmation bias is natural, and necessary to prevent us from having to constantly question and requestion everything. Yet it is difficult to work against this tendency when we must face facts that go against our preconceived notions.
How can you know whether you have the truth when the authenticity of the information out there is so questionable?
Go back to Pontius Pilate speaking to Jesus. The governor was interrogating Christ regarding charges of plotting against Rome, which were falsely brought against Him by the Jewish elite.
Just before Pilate’s sarcastic questioning of truth, he had asked Jesus if He was really a king.
Christ’s response is found in John 18: “You say that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth hears My voice” (vs. 37).
The first half of this verse is Jesus saying that He would one day be a king. In fact, He spoke constantly during His ministry about the “gospel of the Kingdom”—His soon-coming Kingdom. But He was also saying that He came to teach the truth and that people can be “of the truth.”
One chapter earlier, Jesus had already given the answer to Pilate’s question in a prayer to the Father: “Your word”—the Bible—“is truth” (17:17).
These are all bold statements! If true, they would mean God’s Word is the definitive source of truth.
Yet Jesus Christ does not want people to blindly follow Him, or the beliefs of those who claim to represent Him, without proving His Word is truth.
Notice the command in I Thessalonians 5:21: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
Millions claim they believe the Bible, but do not base their religious beliefs and traditions on a sound understanding of God’s Word. Yet this verse is a challenge to prove it for yourself.
One of the greatest ways to verify the Bible’s validity is through fulfilled prophecy, which requires placing the record of history next to Scripture. Over and over, God has said He would do something ahead of time—and then has brought it to pass.
Prove this for yourself! The booklet Bible Authority...Can It Be Proven? will walk you through this process so you can have bedrock certainty that God’s Word contains the truth.
Not all of prophecy is about specific events. Much of it is about trends that will occur at different time periods. Numerous verses even speak to our time now!
Many prophetic conditions ultimately culminate after ratcheting up. This is happening with the “post-truth” trend.
Isaiah wrote of a time when “judgment is turned away backward, and justice stands afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter” (59:14).
Truth has fallen! Few even yearn for truth in news reporting anymore—let alone God’s truth.
Read verse 4: “None calls for justice, nor any pleads for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity.”
As we plunge deeper into the mire of the post-truth age, honesty will disappear until, as verse 15 states, “truth fails.”
Ask yourself, how much longer until this occurs? We already live in a time when people use “their tongue like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows, even bitter words” (Psa. 64:3).
Think of the hateful sound bites, scathing headlines, and vicious social media posts you see every day. These are all meant to gut their victims or pierce them through with bitter words.
But there is one place you can get the news filtered through the lens of the Bible: The Real Truth.
As this age grows darker, we will continue to produce articles that rise above political debates and personal opinions. We will bring you God’s mind on subjects to better help you understand the world today.
In addition, The Restored Church of God, which publishes this magazine, has the largest biblically based website on Earth—designed to help you live God’s Way. Visit rcg.org to delve deeply into His mind on almost any subject.
You can know the truth!