Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

The fake news sniff test

“FAKE NEWS” HAS become such a thing that they’ve created a tool to help you sniff it out, like a K9 agent going through piles of luggage at the airport.

Trusted News is a Chrome browser extension that helps you decide whether a website is trustworthy or not by running it through several existing fact-checker sites and seeing how they rate it. There are different grades, depending on whether a site is deemed to be fair, biased, or cheap click-bait.

This kind of tool may prove helpful. But I think we also need to be aware that the term “fake news” is a bit of a vague one. Like a bar of soap, it’s hard to get a firm grasp on it. I see at least four kinds of “fake news” being talked about—three legitimate and deserving our diligence. A fourth is equally concerning, but for very different reasons.

It’s fake news when it’s untrue

This should be pretty self-evident, you might think. However, don’t forget the old saying that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth. Case in point, this statement is often attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. But he didn’t actually say that—just something similar. That should encourage us all to think twice before accepting something just because lots of people repeat it. We need to weigh what we are told.

It’s fake news when it’s unimportant

The facts of a situation or circumstance may be true. Yet, when that event is constantly highlighted as a clever attempt to divert attention away from something that really matters, it’s fair to dismiss it as fake. We should consider intent as well as content.

It’s fake news when it’s unbalanced

Facts can be slippery things. Did you hear Yanni or Laurel? Was that dress that set the internet on fire a couple of years ago blue or gold? And even when they are not in dispute, the facts can be presented in such a way that they give a false impression, as that old story about the Archbishop of Canterbury and the New York press corps reminds us. If a report is shaped to push an agenda, it can be fairly dismissed as fake.

We should be vigilant about all three of these kinds of fake news. But it’s the fourth use of the term that most concerns me.

It’s NOT fake news when it’s unpopular

Too often I hear “fake news” used as a way to dismiss uncomfortable truths. This is typically accompanied by the explanation that the report comes from such-and-such an outlet, so of course it can’t be trusted because they’re all liars there.

Now, I’m not pretending that some news organizations don’t have a particular worldview that shapes and may even color their work. But Christians in particular should be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t forget: God has spoken through a donkey before (Numbers 22).

If Balaam’s example isn’t warning enough, consider Nathanael.

Remember how when this early disciple was told by his friends that they had just discovered the living embodiment of the Good News, on hearing of the source he wondered, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Their classic answer, in essence: “Umm, how about Jesus?” Awkward!

Substitute the news organization you most like to loathe for Nazareth. Are you so sure you can trash everything it has to say?

As I look at the spectrum of news outlets, I see examples of all the first kinds of fake news. Still, I also see some fearless reporting that should not be lumped in with the fake category because people don’t want to hear it. And Christians, of all people, should be willing to face the uncomfortable head-on, knowing God exposes things to bring redemption and restoration.


Photo by throgers on Foter.com/CC BY-NC-ND

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