What Is “News” and How to Think about It (Postman/Powers)

 I’m one of the few people who mostly avoid the news, whether online, in print, or on TV.  I’ll skim the headlines of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Sundays and Thursdays and I do see a few headlines online every now and then.  And of course, my friends mention current events.  But for the most part, I’ve avoided news media for the last 10 years or so.  To be honest, the only “before” and “after” difference is that now I have far less stress, anxiety, and frustration in life.  And I could be wrong, but I haven’t noticed any negative consequences of me mostly avoiding the news.

One book that I found helpful on this topic is Neil Postman and Steve Powers’ How to Watch TV News.  This book gave me discernment when it comes to thinking about the news and it has helped me not get freaked out about what the newspeople are constantly talking about.  This book is about TV news, of course, but it for sure applies in many ways to online news and print news as well (whether conservative, liberal or somewhere in between).  Here are some quotes worth reading:

“While public service does play a role in deciding what news programs get on the air, the main factor is profit.  …Many decisions about the form and content of news programs are made on the basis of information about the viewer, the purpose of which is to keep viewers watching so that they will be exposed to commercials.”

“…An event becomes news.  And it becomes news because it is selected for notice out of the buzzing, booming confusion around us.  …In fact, the news is more often made than gathered.  And it is made on the basis of what the journalist thinks important or what the journalist thinks the audience things is important or interesting.”

“Studies conducted by Professor George Gerbner and his associates at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that people who are heavy television viewers, including viewers of television news shows, believe their communities are much more dangerous than do light television viewers.  Television news, in other words, tends to frighten people. The question is, ought they to be frightened? which begs the question, Is the news an accurate portrayal of where we are as a society?  Which leads to another question: Is it possible for daily news to give such a picture?”

“Whether you know it or not, we are programmed to watch the news, by programmers.”

“A good anchor is a good actor, and with the lift of an eyebrow or with studied seriousness of visage, he or she can convince you that you are seeing the real thing; that is, a concerned, solid journalist.”

“The competitive drive to get the story on the air quickly, and the technological ability to do so, obviously reduces the ability of journalists to check facts and other information.”

I appreciate this book because it is level-headed.  It’s not a conspiracy theory rant, and it does go on to give good advice on how to watch or take in news with discretion.  It’s not a Christian book, but it is what we might call “common grace” wisdom.  I very much recommend it.  This insight into the news is much needed today in the context of quarantines, the Coronavirus, and online media.  It’s crazy how much people believe that is patently false.  It’s amazing how fear is bred by the news – news that is spun, inaccurate, sensationalized, and dripping with agenda.  As Christians, we’re called to be discerning, to not live in fear, and to redeem the time in a God-glorifying way.  For me, an overload of news was a hindrance to my Christian walk.

In light of this topic, here’s a Proverb to meditate on (14:15 NET):

“A naive person believes everything, but the shrewd person discerns his steps.”

The above quotes are from Neil Postman and Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News, Penguin: New York, 2008).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI