What is Fake News?

“Fake News!” has been the shrill accusation of both political wings for a couple of years now. The term has come to mean too many things, but consider what might be fake about the headlines you see every day. 

Some version of the “fake” accusation has been around for a long time—usually referring to a news story a person finds unwelcome, without regard for its truth or falsity. A newspaper I edited was accused of publishing fake news for writing of an event in 1990 that happened in the presence of two writers, 20 or so seminary students and maybe 20 other people standing around. We were so accused by two SBC entities and several state Baptist papers whose personnel were not in the room. They didn’t like the facts. This is most commonly what someone means when he hollers, “Fake!”

But in our day there are a couple of other challenges as we see snippets of a hundred news items a day. First is the pressure on online marketers of magazines or blogs or even men’s clothing to get people to click on their ads. That’s why I see, every day, on my Yahoo “news” page, a headline about Joel Osteen’s church closing. I haven’t clicked on it, but I did Google “Osteen church closing” and got nothing. This headline is the equivalent of a rotten chicken liver on a fish hook—we called it “stink bait” when I fished for catfish. 

The second, and related, challenge to sorting nonsense from truth is lurid, misleading headlines once-legitimate news organizations will use to get clicks. Newsweek recently posted a headline about Melania Trump destroying a 200-year-old tree on the White House lawn. The actual story was that the ancient magnolia was rotten and threatening to fall. Groundskeepers recommended taking it down. The headline, all that most people read, implied Mrs. Trump (only because she was Mrs. Trump) was on a campaign against stately old trees. I suspect this was a two-fer, a magazine that hates the president and all his family and one that will sacrifice its integrity to get clicks. 

There are other examples of this very thing, but let this one suffice. My warning to you is to not let politics overwhelm everything. There are trained, earnest, hardworking journalists trying to get important stories right, and with whom I disagree about worldview. That disagreement is not pertinent to everything they do. Some news outlets are little more than agenda-driven. But your local weekly or daily paper, famous national newspapers (the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal come to mind) and some well-known reporters are usually trying to tell the truth. If our culture indiscriminately drags down every news outlet and reporter because of political disagreements, we will be much poorer as a society. We’ll be crippled and prey to corruption on the part of our leaders. 

Like a free nation with a crippled news trade, the SBC will work just fine without reporters independent of its institutions … until it doesn’t.

Now, what about our own Southern Baptist Convention? It is observable that trends in our broader culture are reflected in our fellowship and our churches. Suspicion of those who nose into the business of elected leaders will transfer to those who nose into the business of your SBC seminary or mission board. “It’s a profession of troublemakers, whether they are Baptist or atheist,” you might think. I’ve seen that attitude arise in the years since I edited my first Baptist paper. The papers had more readers, more influence and thus more respect from our leaders in that day. There are a lot of reasons for this decline, some of them morally neutral, but the results have been far-reaching. The smaller and fewer papers publishing today have fewer reporters and almost no journalists who investigate anything. Coincidentally perhaps, even Baptist reporters are less welcome and accommodated by our entities than they once were (when the largest had 400,000 subscribers). 

Should it be like this? Our world hunger offering goes up if pop musicians have a telethon; our behavior toward women we work alongside is amended because #metoo is in the news; reporters are respected, or not, according to the same business and political trends that govern the broader culture. 

Like a free nation with a crippled news trade, the SBC will work just fine without reporters independent of its institutions … until it doesn’t. Respect those to whom respect is due. Subscribe to a Baptist newspaper; subscribe your whole Sunday School class while you’re at it. Listen to honest reporters with a discerning ear and open mind. Think of the reporters as kindly as you might of a firefighter or school teacher. If it’s a little work to figure out who’s respectable, call it the price of citizenship in the United States, and stewardship within a fellowship of autonomous churches that own an amazing missionary apparatus.  

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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