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17 October 2013

Who elected the media?

Who elected the media?

"All I know is just what I read in the papers, and that's an alibi for my ignorance."  - Will Rogers

When was the last time you considered the sheer number of streams of information feeding into your subconsciousness?

More than ever we are expected to process information from many different sources, simultaneously. Television, radio, social media, emails, headlines and blogs demand our attention all at once. The 'age of information' has permanently changed the way we read news. No longer does it come from either our trusted 6pm news anchor or the morning papers. We look at our phones and scan through the relevant feed to find a story we want to read. Yet, we still perhaps will read a paragraph to get the gist, then move on to the next one.

We are connected to expansive streams of communication that flood our lives with typhoons of information. Do we even realise what messages are being transmitted to us over a normal day? Becoming used to the continual onslaught of news and updates is driving us into a state of passivity; where we no longer critically engage with what we are hearing. The result can be seen when a topic of controversy appears/reappears, as we unknowingly slip into a river of passive disengagement.

The media holds tremendous power in shaping what we think about it and when indeed we think about it.

Last week for example, the Northern Irish public were brought back into the debate surrounding abortion. The BBC's Nolan Show brought to our attention the story of two different couples who had both been given the news that their unborn children had the most severe case of spina bifida meaning that the babies would not live much longer than a few days after birth. Both women had to make a choice whether to continue with the pregnancy, or travel to Britain to have an abortion. Media attention surrounded the two families as television and radio presenters engaged with senior ministers on the matter. Without wanting to wade further into the debate, I am trying to make the point that abortion became the hot topic of the week because of its discussion on a popular current affairs show.

If it weren't for the Nolan Show, or any closely related, interchangeable current affairs/news programme, we may not have been engaged in the same conversations over the last week. Just as easily, the discussion could have been around any other contentious issue for that matter, and it would still dominate the headlines.

The ability of the media to dictate our conversations is one we should be profoundly aware of. The ownership of media organisations is as varied as the reasons they publish certain stories and omit others. Very rarely are they agenda-free. "The real problem with journalism of every kind, and television more than any other, is its selectivity. We separate out the interesting from the dull, and the most interesting from the merely averagely interesting, until every item on every news bulletin, every column inch of every newspaper, is filled with exceptional cases."[1]

As followers of Christ we are called to speak hope and life into our cities, including into the difficult conversations, where the hurt and loneliness is most prevalent. We must be careful to not be caught off guard and speechless when any given issue of the day arises. Instead we should be "always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; in gentleness and respect" as it says in 1 Peter 3:15. This is not a call to ignore the issues, or to shirk the conversations. Being blind and deaf to the needs of our cities will severely hinder us from bringing life to them. Instead, we need to be a people who are diligent and active in understanding the issues of day.

More than this, we are called not to give any old account – but a gospel account. Therefore we must have a gospel fluency that is robust enough to withstand criticism. This means being aware of not only the sheer quantity of information being thrown our way, and actively processing it as opposed to passively letting it saturate our thinking, but also the agendas which are subtly set for us. We cannot simply read the headline. It requires a level of integrity and patience in uncovering the whole story. It means knowing that it is not wise to engage with every single issue the media raises. Furthermore we need to be aware of the issues that the media is not raising. A robust gospel understanding combined with a robust understanding of the issues at hand will make us far more effective when we are asked those questions.

This deep understanding of the gospel which comes through pursuing Jesus Christ makes us far more effective in raising our voice in the public square. We speak His eternal wisdom into a transient culture. Let us be aware of the debates of the day, and aware of the appropriate responses. Let us not be swayed by the ephemeral opinions of those around us as the debates come and go – like that of abortion in Northern Ireland - but let us hold on to God's truth and wisdom so that we may consciously and confidently enter into the conversations of the present.

Thomas McConaghie is an intern with the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland

[1] John Simpson – News From No Man's Land: Reporting the Word, 2009