If you’re a journalist, I get it. I know how frustrating it can be to have your profession “democratized” (read: cheapened). We’ve all heard of people hopping on the internet and becoming an ordained minister overnight. After three years of seminary, internships, mentoring relationships, etc., it stinks to hear those stories. So yes, I get it. You go to school, take creative writing courses, learn the ins and outs of grammar, investigative reporting, and media ethics. Then some shlub writes a grammatically aberrant, factually questionable, off-the-cuff blog that goes viral; or you have to walk by rack after rack of trying-to-pass-for-reporting tabloids at the grocery store; or you write a well-crafted, insightful piece that gets sent back because it isn’t sexy enough to sell newspapers.
So journalists, this one’s for you.
Christians are followers of one who calls himself “The Truth.” In Revelation, Jesus is called “Faithful and True.” In fact, one thing our all-powerful God cannot do is lie. So we are called to truth, faithfulness, and honesty. Problem is, deception, lies, and half-truths are powerful and pervasive enemies. From the beginning, it is deceit that ushers sin into the world. A “crafty” serpent makes a twisted promise that Adam and Eve fall for hook, line, and sinker. The Enemy of God and God’s creatures, sometimes known as Satan or the Devil, is given the catchy nickname, “Father of Lies” and is described as the “deceiver of the whole world.” And we mustn’t forget, lies and deception become a convenient resort even for God’s “faithful”: Abraham tells half-truths to protect his own skin, Jacob conspires with his mother to deceive his dying father Isaac; David lures and then has a man killed to protect his adulterous deception; Peter denies even knowing Jesus in his hour of testing. In every age, falsehood and deception are dangerous temptations for all people, even God’s people.
Certainly lies and deceptions* are woven into the fabric of our society in many ways. But I’ve noticed a disturbing trend recently (certainly the problem isn’t recent, but I’m not always the most observant person) that I want to focus on in this blog.: headlines. At their best, headlines help a reader determine which articles are of interest and worth reading. And who doesn’t love a clever headline every so often. But when money trumps ethical reporting, internet headlines are often twisted and sensationalized to bait skimming eyes to click, like, or share.
Here’s what I’ve noticed recently:
- First and foremost, the coverage of Pope Francis has been a travesty, from the Pope’s words regarding atheists and good deeds to his conversation about gay priests, and probably more. These headlines have tended to 1) illegitimately jump to conclusions, 2) show little understanding of the theological and rhetorical context of the words, and 3) use words that glancing scrollers will likely interpret in a way other than how they were used. For instance, “judge” is a biblical word that means something quite different to most ears in our culture.
- Fact-checking? Fuggedaboutit! Here’s an extreme example: I’ve seen multiple posts on Facebook that have taken an article from a satirical source like The Onion, and posted them as fact. The most egregious was this article, joking at Sarah Palin’s expense. Worse, when someone noted that it was a joke, the response was, “Well, knowing Palin, it could have been true.” In other words, even though the poster was in the wrong, the object of the satire is the one who loses out…again. Most people will not fact-check an article as they scroll through. Most will assume that the headline is true. We can’t control most people, but we can break the cycle by 1) not assuming the headline is accurate and 2) taking the extra time to fact-check an article before posting it and leading others astray.
- Sensationalism sells. A colleague of mine who writes some articles for an online publication has expressed some frustration because the editor chose a headline for his article that undercut the point. So even an article that is thoughtful and balanced might end up being published with a crass, controversial, and one-sided headline. Again, most people won’t read the article, but will keep the headline in mind.
*These are different, but related and equally sinful: Lying is flat-out speaking something that is false while deception is finding ways to keep the truth from being known, whether by silence, half-truths, or other diversions.