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Opinion Evangelicals, your attacks on ‘the media’ are getting dangerous

Edgar Maddison Welch, 28, of Salisbury, N.C., surrenders to police Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Washington. (Sathi Soma via AP)

Dear evangelicals,

You tease about the mainstream media being “Satan’s newspaper.” When I tell you I’m a journalist, I hear your cynicism.

Listen, I was raised in an evangelical home. I know the media is supposed to be the butt of many jokes and the source of many of our problems.

For many conservatives, the phrase “fake news” is now being used to describe “liberal bias,” but fake news has real consequences. A man who was investigating a conspiracy theory about a secret child sex ring showed up at a Washington pizza place on Sunday with a rifle and fired at least one shot. Gunman Edgar Welch says he has been influenced by the book “Wild at Heart,” by John Eldredge about faith and masculinity, a popular one for some evangelicals.

The jokes aren’t funny anymore. We are living in a post-truth time of fake news and misinformation, something that should be deeply troubling to people of faith who claim to seek truth in their everyday lives.

I was raised in both a religious home and a newspaper home. My parents would pull out books for Bible study in the morning and plop them next to the local newspaper. The Bible and newspaper went together like cereal and milk. I grew up believing journalism was a noble profession because the best journalism is based on the relentless pursuit of truth.

Your quick dismissal of the entire “mainstream media” feels deeply inaccurate to me as a Christian and a journalist — at least the kind of Christianity I was raised on, where the newspaper informed how we understood the world. The act of doing journalism is a way to live out my faith, a way to search for and then reveal truth in the world around me.

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I sympathize with some frustrations you have, including a lack of ideological diversity within some media outlets. Some reporters have unfortunately stepped into more advocacy-oriented journalism and we’ve seen a blurring of opinion with reporting. And yes, sometimes editors must issue corrections. But it does not make sense to replace unwise mainstream media outlets you believe you can’t trust with websites and other sources that lack any accountability.

Gallup recently reported that “trust and confidence” in media have fallen to record lows. “News has become akin to religion; it’s accepted or rejected as a matter of faith, depending on the source,” Robert Samuelson, a right-of-center columnist, recently wrote for The Washington Post. The Post’s Erik Wemple wrote that one of the biggest media trends this year was an anti-Semitic backlash against journalists, a trend that should be incredibly troubling for people of faith.

A post-truth era seems to threaten something we have historically agreed on: We trust journalists to act as information gatherers and truth tellers who hold leaders and institutions responsible to the public for their actions, including religious leaders. 

When the Catholic Church faced media attention over sex abuse, Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times who is Catholic, wrote that religious leaders should not focus on the media as the culprit. He urged them to welcome scrutiny “as a spur to virtue and as a sign that their faith still matters, that their church still looms large over the affairs of men, and that the world still cares enough about Christianity to demand that Catholics live up to their own exacting standards.”

It’s no secret the country is growing less and less tied to institutional religion. The rise of our post-truth culture has in some ways brought the media to a similar place as religion, seen as subjective and viewed with skepticism by many people. Americans trust scientists and those in the military, but they are least confident in clergy, the news media, business leaders and elected officials to act in the best interests of the public, according to the Pew Research Center. This lack of trust does not bode well for the institutions of media or religion.

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As a reporter who also happens to be a Christian, I believe that truth exists and can be ascertained, even if imperfectly and the fact that we understand it imperfectly heightens our duty to pursue it diligently. And I believe journalism is the one of the best practical pursuits of truth in earthly life, one that allows us to reveal and explain the truth to others. Many religions seek a truth that is beyond the scope of journalism, yet if people of faith no longer accept the veracity of factual truth, then they threaten to undermine their own pursuit of ultimate questions.

Fake news has taken hold in religious circles. Ahead of the election, a widely circulated website insinuated that famed evangelist Billy Graham endorsed Donald Trump. As how we receive our news has evolved with the growth of social media, we need to be extra vigilant to consider how that information is gathered. We need trusted people (we call them reporters) who are held accountable by others (we call them editors) who are committed to telling the truth.

What separates journalists from someone else posting information on the Internet? As journalists, we are guided by certain standards and ethics, taking issues of fairness and bias seriously, including avoiding conflicts of interest. With few exceptions, we are careful to attribute information we report to named sources. We conduct original research, and we fact-check what we write.

Eugene Meyer, who owned The Washington Post for several decades, said the newspaper’s duty is to the public, not to the private interests of its owner. “In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good,” Meyer said. “The newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.”

At its best, the media provides citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives. Journalists help shed light on what’s happening around us, from the latest city council meeting to the newest stock market changes to shifts in larger political, cultural, religious ideas and attitudes. When we do not have journalists who are held to ethical standards, we are left to whatever is most popular or highly shared within our networks.

Abandoning mainstream media sites for opinion sites you already agree with is not the answer. The “mainstream media” is collectively valuable because it presents a range of information and viewpoints, while the Breitbarts of the world present a singular voice to a targeted group of people.

Could the media do a better job of covering various topics — including religion — with nuance? Absolutely. We need more media outlets committed to covering how faith influences politics, business, culture, education and so many areas of our lives. But for that to happen, we need you to be committed to reading and engaging with the media.

To demean a journalist’s profession of “truth-telling” and to suggest that reporters are uniformly dishonest in their search for the truth threaten to undercut the idea that truth exists and that it can and should be pursued. We know this is true: Firing a gun in a pizza parlor over fake news is no laughing matter.

Facebook Live host Libby Casey talks to Washington Post religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey about how Donald Trump appealed to white, evangelical voters. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Chip Somodevilla/The Washington Post)