If you haven’t had the chance to work in or with the media much, then it might not be obvious that what you read on those (print or digital pages) are not all the same. Between a lack of media literacy taught in schools and tricky design choices made by layout editors and UX developers, it can be hard to tell if what you’re reading is an ad or a news article or an editorial (i.e., written by the editorial team of the publication) or an opinion piece (often called op-ed, as they historically appeared opposite the editorial page in a print newspaper).
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I mulled over several opinion pieces that people in my life took as fact because they appeared in prestigious, mainstream publications. There was an opinion defending J.K. Rowling in the New York Times that heavily relied on an account of someone who tried to write an article about the Harry Potter author’s transphobia but couldn’t find a single example – a specific account many people I know personally cited to me as ironclad proof J.K. Rowling couldn’t be transphobic. However, the most basic fact-check shows that not only do parts of the story not make sense (like a freelance writer burning months trying to find evidence of something before giving up and meanwhile making no money), but the person cited for that account is herself a publicly documented trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) whose views align closely with Rowling’s anyway. The people I know citing this account aren’t trying to lie; they just accepted a lie as truth because it was presented in the New York Times, a platform they trust.
One of the biggest components of media literacy is teaching people to evaluate information and sources. If people can discern that something is one person’s opinion instead of a fact that the news organization did due diligence on (including confirming with multiple sources, running it past a fact-checker, and receiving multiple layers of editorial approval), then they can weigh its credibility appropriately.
Of course, even this method isn’t foolproof. That’s why it’s essential for us to use our knowledge, wisdom, and access to information to assess things for ourselves. It’s also critical for us to admit when we were wrong and correct the record. I stopped reading theSkimm, a popular news email subscription targeted to millennial women, because I once contacted them to point out two factual errors they made in their daily newsletter and they never noted the corrections in subsequent newsletters. That violated standard journalist ethics and told me they care more about seeming right than telling the truth.
So why am I writing all of this on The Exponent, of all places? I think exactly the same dangers apply to the spiritual accounts and theories we encounter. Religious institutions should consider their ethical role in sharing information with at least as much caution as editors take. If someone is given a platform in Sacrament meeting or Sunday School or Relief Society, it sends a message to the audience that their account is officially sanctioned and many members will take that account as gospel truth. Church leaders should consider this impact carefully when they make decisions about callings and invitations to speak and teach. This is especially true the higher one goes, with active members most trusting messages from the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, and General Conference.
As a new convert, I once confided in a few friends at church my immense struggles with a certain section of restoration scripture that appeared to contradict what we’re taught by missionaries and in Sunday meetings. The footnotes and LDS Church-approved study tools for that scripture actually reinforced the contradiction. I remember one of those friends saying I shouldn’t put any stock in the footnotes as they were “just BYU students’ best guesses as to what other scriptures seemed relevant” and that the other LDS Church-published manuals weren’t doctrinal. I remember leaving the conversation confused. If none of those items were doctrinal, why did the Church issue and share them as if they were? How was I supposed to know when what I encountered was true doctrine and when it was just someone’s “best guess”?
As I’ve grown spiritually, I’ve come to firmly believe that it’s okay to “fact-check” the spiritual “op-eds” in our life – yes, even scriptures, manuals, lessons, and General Conference. For example, if you go through previous generations’ General Conferences you can easily find things that directly contradict what we know is true today. There are many things we hear over the pulpit today that will become even more apparent down the line as unaligned with truth. This makes sense when we take to heart that we will learn line upon line, precept upon precept (Isaiah 28:13; 2 Nephi 28:30). If we already had all the knowledge then this scripture would by definition be false because we’d have nothing to learn. Earnest study and prayer will help us discern for ourselves, with the confirmation of the Spirit as the ultimate fact-checker.
We can learn from Joseph Smith’s example when he followed the scriptures’ exhortations to ask, seek, and knock. We can do that by taking our responsibility seriously when we give someone or some idea a platform, fact-checking spiritual ideas before accepting or rejecting them, and making corrections when we’ve shared or taught false or misleading doctrine. This is part of how we move towards greater truth and light together, as a community.
Amen. Firmly agree with this.
This is superb writing! Thank you!