Could Mainstream Media Get Religion More Wrong?

Coverage of ‘Christian Numerologist’ Highlights a Journalistic Problem

This is one of those articles you’re not sure you ought to write, because there’s a chance you could bring more attention to someone than they deserve and are already getting.

But then I did a Google search on his name and got nearly a million hits, so I figured: Too late to worry about that.

I’m talking about David Meade, who calls himself a “Christian numerologist” and is predicting that the world will come to an end on Sept. 23. I am not going to dwell on the fact that putting the words “Christian” and “numerology” in the same sentence is like putting “gold” and “alchemy” in the same sentence. Others more qualified than I am, including Colson Center colleague Ed Stetzer, have unpacked and debunked the flawed theology behind David Meade’s assertions.

I am more concerned with this question: Why do mainstream media outlets think this guy represents Christianity?

A part of the answer to this question I outlined in a previous article by quoting the research of Virginia Tech’s Jim Kuyper: Most mainstream journalists don’t know thoughtful Christian sources, so they tend to quote the loudest, the most shrill, the ones who make the most outrageous assertions.

Another reason for this sort of coverage is the media’s—and the public’s—penchant for the sensational. We need to face the reality that journalists wouldn’t produce such junk food if we wouldn’t buy it and eat it. For instance, most mainstream outlets won’t show executions, suicides, or other moment-of-death video on-air, but they often come dangerously close, and flirting with that line sometimes produces unintended consequences. On Sept. 28, 2012, five years ago this week, Fox News coverage of a car chase ended in a suicide—all broadcast live.  Fox later apologized for the incident, but given the nature of the 24/7/365 news cycle, such incidents are likely to happen again.

A key moment in journalistic history—a moment that resulted in a major federal policy change—occurred in 2005 when JetBlue Flight 292 with 140 passengers on board approached Los Angeles International Airport. The crew discovered the front landing gear would not lock in the proper position. Repeated attempts to remedy the situation failed, so after flying around Southern California for three hours to burn off fuel, the plane landed in what the Associated Press described as a “stream of sparks and burning tires.”

No one was hurt, but the outcome could have been very different, and the possibility of a spectacular crash was more than journalists could resist. Most Los Angeles stations, and all of the major cable news networks, interrupted regular coverage to broadcast live the video of the JetBlue plane circling Los Angeles. Most surreal of all, because of satellite TV sets on board the plane itself, the passengers of JetBlue 292 watched the coverage live. Pia Varma, a passenger on the flight, later told the Associated Press, “It was very weird.  It would’ve been so much calmer” without the televisions. This episode is one reason the Federal Aviation Agency won’t let passengers use the Internet on flights that are below 10,000 feet.

Such coverage helps explain why journalists are held in such low regard by the American people.  One of the first major surveys on public perception of the media, done in 1986 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, found that 78 percent of Americans believe that news reporters “are just concerned with getting a good story, and they don’t worry much about hurting people.” That perception hasn’t changed much since.

But let me repeat: Journalists wouldn’t produce this junk if we didn’t eat it. So what can we do?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Limit your intake of daily news. Christians need to stay informed, but do you really need to spend the next 20 minutes watching an ad-laden slideshow of Halle Berry’s “Best Red Carpet Moments”? (I am not including a link to this story but—trust me—it’s not only a real story, but it showed up on the front page of Yahoo News on the day I’m writing this piece.)
  • Ask “Why?” and not just “What?” Journalism 101 instructs reporters to ask “who, what, where, when, how, and why?” However, most journalists do a much better job with the first four than the last two. Christians, like all citizens, must be discerning readers if we don’t want to fall victim to the inherent biases of modern technology-driven journalism.
  • Get your news from trusted sources. I make no apologies for asserting that BreakPoint should be a part of your daily information diet. We attempt to do exactly what I am suggesting: We look beyond the “what” to the “why,” and we approach all stories armed with a Christian worldview, which means, among other things, that we have one eye on today, but one eye on eternity.

So the world may or may not end on Sept. 23. We Christians should certainly live with the understanding that Jesus could return at any time. But Jesus also said that “no man knows the hour or the day” of his return. (Matt. 24:36) Attempting to predict the day of His return is a fool’s errand.

But until He returns, we must, as Chuck Colson was fond of saying, “remain at our posts and do our duty.” A part of our duty as Christian citizens is to be wise and discerning in an age in which even journalists, who in a nobler age would behave differently, do not have our best interests at heart.

Image courtesy of Sezeryadigar at iStock by Getty Images.

Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.

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