If you enjoy Fixer-Upper as we do, you know that there is a formula for the popular TV show. A family-friendly couple is looking for an all-American home in Waco, Texas. They view three houses Chip & Jo have selected for them. Joanna wants to open the floor plan and remodel the kitchen, add crown molding, and of course, shiplap. Chip cuts up for Joanna’s entertainment. Demo Day! Half-way there and, oh no, there’s a problem! Last day and Joanna has to work late. Chip drops by with the kids. The big reveal!
It is enjoyable if you like that sort of thing, but it is not real. It’s scripted. It follows a specific narrative arc or storyline every time. Viewers know what is going to happen; we just enjoy watching it unfold. Entertainment is the mission.
Entertainment is not, or should not be, the mission of a news organization. Still less propaganda: information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc. Reliable reporting follows the facts wherever they lead. Propaganda follows a predetermined narrative.
Discerning the difference between infotainment (entertainment masquerading as news), propaganda, and reliable reporting is a critical skill for every citizen, but especially Christians. God is the God of truth. His children are responsible for discerning it as well as spreading it, for making decisions based on it in the marketplace, on social media, and especially in the voting booth.
Here’s a brief how-to.
Watch for predictable storylines. All reporters begin with a theme, a unifying idea that guides their questions and structures their stories. But when facts fail to support it, the theme must change. Truth-telling reporters will do that. But dishonest reporters force the facts to fit the theme, magnifying those that do and minimizing or else ignoring those that do not.
Example: When every weather story somehow supports man-made Climate Change theory, you may be seeing propaganda. When every review of a press conference makes your favorite politician out to be a genius, you may be hearing propaganda. When every story you see about unwanted pregnancy centers on women’s health, ignoring the rights of the child, you are watching a narrative as predictable as Fixer Upper, but with reliably deadly consequences.
Watch for generalities, the glossing over of inconvenient facts. Reliable reporting uses concrete detail, specific examples, and defining quotations from qualified experts willing to go on the record. When you read, “some experts say,” or “studies show,” you are reading generalities. If the topic interests you, dig deeper before you share it online.
Watch for something for sale. Most magazine reporting, especially in special interest mags and online sites, is just long-form advertising. Much Christian magazine reporting does the same thing, except that instead of selling a product, it is selling a ministry. Ministry Watch Magazine and World Magazine are exceptions. Search their archives on a ministry before you buy-in.
Watch for alternate worldviews. Journalists striving for objectivity should cite several different sources to support a theme. But if those experts share the same worldview, they are only “balancing subjectivities.” Reliable reporting seeks out several perspectives.
Watch for commentary masquerading as journalism. Conservative commentator Cal Thomas got it right in his January 24, 2019 analysis of media coverage of women newly elected to Congress:
“Especially in the Trump era, media have displayed increasingly naked ideological cheerleading. Any fair examination of major newspapers—from the front page, to the editorial and op-ed pages—proves the point.
If there’s any hope of getting out of the political mess we’re in, journalism must return to a focus on facts, not fanfare.”
And Christians must learn how to discern the difference.
 Marvin Olasky’s term.