Back in the pre-Internet bad old days, big media served as the gatekeeper for much of the news and information most of us received. A small number of broadcast TV networks, as well as a few big-city newspapers and weekly news magazines, set the parameters for public communication. Editors at each outlet (and, ultimately, the owners of the various media) decided what was newsworthy, how important it was, and what spin to give it—usually under the name of “objective” journalism and sometimes even claiming to be fair and balanced in the process.
There were obvious drawbacks from such a controlled information environment, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century as fewer and fewer corporate entities held ownership of most major mainstream media outlets.
But there were also benefits. With today’s deluge of data through the Internet and its corollary digital channels, we don’t lack for information, at least volume-wise. The biggest challenge today is finding wheat amidst the chaff, sorting out what’s important and meaningful and true in the midst of the incessant clamor. And that was exactly the function that editors played (and still play), sometimes better and sometimes worse, in broadcast media.
Without the presence of editors to play a mediating role, the Internet is fertile ground for the spread of lies and half-truths, propagated either intentionally or in ignorance. A recent Washington Post article
by staff writer Paul Farhi looked at what the author called “grass-roots whisper campaigns” filled with “demonstrably false” claims, “a carnival of nonsense” that is “popular on the thriving underground e-mail circuit.” And while this phenomenon obviously predates email, Farhi writes, “in their modern, Internet-driven form, these persistent narratives spread far faster and run deeper than ever.” One reason, of course, is simply the instantaneous nature of the Net, where any missive is a push of the send button away from going viral. But the other explanation is the lack of any mediating force between an individual with an idea, whether truthful or not, and the capacity to communicate to a mass audience.
These aren’t new issues to the church, of course. Who, if anyone, gets to play the editor function when it comes to interpreting the gospel? Who decides what is truth and what is heresy? Who speaks for God? Why, reformations have been undertaken over questions such as these.
The answers are anything but simple. On the one hand, the Holy Spirit “blows where it wills,” as the Pentecostals and Quakers might say, maintaining that God continues to speak in our world, sometimes by inspiring individual hearts and minds. But even Christians that emphasize the outpouring of the Spirit through individuals
are clear that such revelation must be tested for authenticity in the context of Christian community
Some branches of the church have tended to bestow such teaching authority on a magisterial chain of command—for Catholics, it’s the pope and the bishops, communicated through the priests. Other Christian streams, with different polities and ecclesial structures, empower ordained clergy as official spokespeople for the gospel. And still others, with a “priesthood of all believers” theology, emphasize the responsibility of all followers of Christ to spread the good news.
Despite these important differences in approach, no church body gives carte blanche permission for just anyone to say anything they want and claim it to be Christian teaching. Whether the editor function is carried out by a hierarchical institution or a more egalitarian body of believers, discernment of what is gospel truth is never a merely individualistic endeavor.
The digital age has seen a reduction in the role played by mediating agents—editors, fact-checkers, scholars with historical perspective—in the dissemination of what passes for information, and that change has come with consequences. The revelation of God’s Word, of course, is of a different nature than Facebook status updates or celebrity tweets. But people of faith shouldn’t ignore the trends in secular communication, being savvy about what to avoid and what to imitate, as we seek to be sharers of the good news in our world. Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact email@example.com.