The Common Good

Brian McLaren: Correcting Media Myopia

Many people are happily conservative in their religion and politics.

For them, the dangers of what could happen for the worse are greater than the injustices of what currently is, so their bias is generally against change and toward preserving (conserving) or returning to the way we were, or the way we are.

Many people are happily liberal in their religion and politics. For them, the injustices of what has been and what currently is are so great that it's worth risking the dangers of what could happen in order to seek a better and freer (liberal) world.

Both sides, it seems to me, have a point. Things could easily get worse, so change shouldn't be entered into unadvisedly or lightly. But the past and status quo both have a lot needing improvement, so change shouldn't be resisted unadvisedly or lightly either.

Most of us, whatever we are labelled, try to live within this dynamic tension. But according to the recent Media Matters study, the news media give more air time to the religiously conservative voices, with the probable result being that when people hear "religious," they think "religious conservative."

The consequences of this association are, no doubt, complex. One of them would be that when young (or older) people question and perhaps move away from the conservative political ideology of their family and church, they may assume their only alternative is to become secular and abandon their faith as well. I meet people like this by the scores every month, and I have a special concern for them.

There are a number of possible reasons for this bias in the media. Among the most plausible to me are these four:

  1. Some news editors and reporters have a conservative bias and so give their heroes more air time. They may do this thinking they're correcting a perceived "liberal bias" in the media.
  2. Some news editors and reporters have a liberal bias and so want to encourage outrage at the latest statements by conservative spokespeople. They don't realize that they may be discrediting religion in general, not just these spokespeople, by their disproportionate reporting.
  3. All media are prone to "Jerry-Springerization" - meaning that at heart, we never outgrow junior high school and so gather around whenever it looks like a fight is going to break out. In the media, this means that outrageous and pugilistic people will naturally get more air time because they go from fight to fight.
  4. Conservative organizations have learned how to get air time more effectively than others, so they're working the system with greater skill.

The Media Matters report invites three responses, in my opinion:

  1. Media professionals should monitor themselves in this regard, whatever their bias (or professed "objectivity").
  2. Media professionals who are bucking the trend deserve to be appreciated - programs such as "Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly," for example, or the "On Faith" initiative launched by Newsweek and The Washington Post.
  3. Moderate and progressive faith-based groups such as Red Letter Christians (of which I am a part) need to improve our MSQ - or media-savvy quotient. When faced with "Jerry-Springerization," we don't have to either walk away from the media entirely on the one hand, or jump in the fray armed with a folding chair on the other. We can follow the lead of the prophets - from Jeremiah and Amos to Jesus and Paul - finding ways to be heard in the marketplace, ways that are in sync with the values we hold and the message we stand for.

Brian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) serves as board chair for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. His next book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, will be released in October. Watch his comments on the Media Matters report at a recent press conference sponsored by Faith in Public Life.

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