By Katie Heid
Every generation has one collective catastrophic event where all members can recall in detail where they were when a certain tragedy struck. My grandparents remember where they were when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. My parents and mother-in-law recall moment they found out President Kennedy had been shot. I remember
sitting in a third-grade classroom, hearing about the Challenger shuttle that exploded with a beloved teacher on board. As a college junior, I gathered in my dorm’s common room and viewed Princess Diana’s funeral with all the girls on my floor. Unfortunately, September 11th terrorist attacks eclipsed all those tragedies.
Among other things, I’ll remember September 11, 2001 as the day I almost called in sick to work. That day found me as a burned out general assignment reporter for a Lansing, Michigan television station. The previous year had given me many “firsts:” my first year of reporting, my first year of marriage, and our endless search to buy our first home. All those stressors perched themselves on my shoulders and continued to get heavier with each passing day. I felt overworked, overtired, underpaid, and underappreciated. I rationalized that I deserved a day of hooky to sit in a coffee shop and read People magazine.
As good as that sounded, something prodded me to lace up my big girl shoes and report for duty anyway. I was an adult, and adults go to their jobs whether they feel like it or not. I settled in at my desk and begin phoning sources. “What’s going on in your office today?” “Has the court date been pushed back?” “Is the state senator available for an interview?” Our individual “beat” phone calls, the police scanner chatter, and our general nosiness kept our newsroom “in the know.” The half a dozen televisions that lined the managing editor’s assignment desk in the center of the room filled in the gaps, alerting us to what other networks around the country decided to broadcast.
Those televisions took center stage around 8:45 that morning. The images slowly drew reporters from their seats to examine the poof of smoke that billowed from the first Twin Tower. We speculated aloud while sipping coffee and getting our assignments ready for the day. I kept glancing back and forth at the screen all while making my routine phone calls. A loud, “Oh my God!” rang out from one of my co-workers as we all watched the second plane crash into the tower. I sputtered to my source, “I’m sorry. We won’t be covering you today” and hung up.
What followed was a month of bedlam. The stories we’d normally cover got dumped in favor of local angles stemming from the national story. Were Michigan passengers aboard those planes? We dug into the state capitol’s security measures. We picked apart every angle of the 9/11 aftermath, such as airport security, the forces behind the attack, and whether we would go to war. For our newsroom nook, it also saw a fellow reporter ~ the friend who sat directly behind me ~ experience 9/11 firsthand when he heard his aunt perished in the plane that hit the Pentagon.
All of us have a story to tell from that day. What I remember most is the unity and friendship that spread throughout our tiny newsroom. Not only did we mourn a terrible loss for our country, but for our station family. The bickering subsided. We eased up on each other’s mistakes. Politicking took a backseat to empathy. There was one clear enemy, and that enemy had hijacked the planes. No one in that room was responsible. Their political leanings did not contribute to the attacks. Their voting record did not lead to this. We were all on the same team. While the nation grieved, we huddled in our own corners and mourned as a news family.
I eventually did take a break from journalism one year later and planted myself firmly in the trenches of college teaching. There I taught writing for 14 years. During that time, I adopted a baby, birthed another, started speaking at churches and conferences, and settled into a life I loved. As my kids got older, I found myself back in journalism, returning to my first love, radio. When I rejoined the ranks as a radio anchor in 2015, I noticed something had drastically changed. Whereas the September 11th terrorist attacks ushered in national grieving and subsequent healing, our current culture has decided to shove it aside in favor of knee-jerk emotional reactions and blame games. When tragedy splashes across our screens today, the much-needed national grieving period is ignored. Within minutes, we assign blame, run to our designated corners, and fling arrows.
Journalism is a profession anchored in the telling of truths, but a major shift has occurred which now defines truth in more relative terms. What makes truth-telling a challenge in everyday conversation and within the media we consume is that America has officially entered a post-truth era. As apologist Ravi Zacharias explains, we are living in an age where feelings and personal experiences are elevated over facts. Emotions outweigh evidence. Scientific studies are forbidden from trumping individual reality. Even thousands of years of Biblical tradition gets thrown under the bus for a more progressive Jesus since some don’t want to be “on the wrong side of history.” As this becomes the new lens through which culture sees truth, it starts to cloud judgment. A search for facts gets pushed to the side in favor of advocacy. Asking tough questions is replaced with commenting. Reporters, who used to strive to be objective observers are now part of the story, making it virtually impossible to separate the who, what, when, where, why, and how from someone’s own personal interpretation of those facts.
Jesus is the ultimate example of non-negotiable truth. In John 14:6 He declared “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” Jesus is speaking about a personal relationship with Him and subsequent eternal residence in Heaven, but that statement is the foundation from which we move forward in our post-truth society. Balancing politics, policy, and people is incomplete unless we first understand the primary reason why we’re called to follow the truth, then pass it on to others. It can’t just be about winning a political argument. Discerning truth and researching facts to bolster a case can never be about shutting up an outspoken coworker or eviscerating a troll on social media. It’s also not about destroying the political party on the other side of the aisle. Once we anchor in The Truth, we’re then able to approach people in a constructive manner, keeping our eye on the real reason we’ve hunkered down in this debate.
Jesus may not have had much to say about mainstream media and social media conversations, but He did preach on the importance of truth. In John 8:32 He said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” To represent God’s truth in a post-truth post-9/11 era, we must be willing to examine our own bias and our own hearts before moving forward. From there, how can we gently, firmly, and rationally engage in these cultural conversations? Part of the answer lies in refusing to let the media tell us what to think and how to act toward our fellow man. Instead we must become reporters in our own right. Here’s a starting point:
Identify bias in your current media consumption. You probably already know which direction you lean politically. However, no one should get a free pass from us simply because we like them or their political views align with ours. That’s where critical thinking comes into play. Am I willing to ask hard questions about that issue, policy, or candidate?
Consume a variety of sources. Do you only get your news from one network? One commentator? One show? Expand your thinking. How could studying the issue from another angle increase your knowledge? Strengthen your argument? Give you another way to look at the issue? If you’re just getting started, I’d recommend two sources with opposite bias. For instance, listen to Dennis Prager’s show (a conservative with a deep Jewish faith) and NPR’s Morning Edition (this show has liberal leanings). What’s the difference between the two? What did you notice about what was covered and how much time they devoted to it? Listening to an opposite view might be uncomfortable, but those moments grow us.
Look for two to three sides of a story. Journalists are taught to report a variety of angles. Is the story you’re reading/watching only presenting one angle? Does it only interview guests from one political party? How long do they spend on one side of the story verses the other? Bias can also be seen in the stage set up, or how the interviewer treats the guests. Is one interview poorly lit while the other resembles Giselle Bundchen? Bias comes in a variety of packages.
Does the piece address the 5 W’s? The who, what, when, where, why, and how are crucial elements of every story. Are these addressed? What about follow up questions? If a report leaves you scratching your head, don’t feel dumb. There’s probably something missing in the report.
Ask questions, but don’t assume you have all the answers. It’s possible to get it wrong from time to time. I’ve done that in my job and in my personal life. It’s what you do next that matters. If you’re wrong or have falsely accused someone, go the Biblical route by apologizing. Delete the tweet. Rephrase what you meant to say. Also, we can learn quite a bit from simply listening, no matter how off base or ridiculous it sounds.
Think, then think again. Then respond. Knee-jerk reactions feel good for about 10 seconds, but fallout isn’t fun to wade through. Does this issue need your personal thought on it right this second? What can come from sitting on your opinion for a day or two? 24/7 news cycles often report the incomplete version of the story first, with more details to come out later. Is it best to weigh in then?
Develop a list of fact-checking sources. Fact-checking is like going to the vortex of the universe; it’s weird and will play with your mind. Still, we can do the best we can by starting with reputable fact checking sources: Factcheck.org, and Politifact are good places to start. However, dive into it more. Who is funding these sites? What political allegiances do they have? Follow the money and find out who has the most to gain or lose depending on how a story is reported. It’s also never beneath you to talk to someone who knows more than you!
Pray for discernment. We aren’t called to sink to the world’s level; Jesus commanded us to be salt in a flavorless world, and light in a room of darkness. Ask God to help you sift through what you’re reading, hearing, and seeing. Our venture into political conversations should never simply be about educating or engaging, but about elevating the conversation. Allow God to lead you in those areas. After all, we are God’s ambassadors and the only representative of Jesus to others.
May the memories and sacrifices of the September 11th victims, first responders, and grieving family members never be forgotten; let us be slow to dismiss the camaraderie that stemmed from it. That’s the spirit that must live on in us as Americans. For those of us in the Body of Christ, our love for each other is what binds us. May His love allow us to represent His truth, then report the truth, love our neighbor as ourselves, and hold each other accountable.
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