‘Fake news’ and ‘real news’

Journalism can inform, advocate, and entertain. Yet there is something greater journalism can do: it can enlighten and illumine.

Gustavo Graf/Reuters
A solitary man reads a newspaper on Juárez Avenue in Mexico City on April 19, 2020.

Today, there is a lot of talk about facts in journalism, and understandably so. Without facts, there is no journalism, and at a time when people are increasingly looking to media to confirm their own worldviews, facts can take a back seat.

But there’s something else this moment is asking us about journalism – something that’s equally as important but perhaps a little harder to wrap our minds around. And that is: What is journalism about, really?

The fact is, journalism can do different things. Most obviously, it can inform. But it can also advocate, and it can entertain. All these things are valuable if done honestly and destructive if done selfishly. Yet there is something more journalism can do that, I would argue, is greater than any of these other crucial tasks. It can enlighten and illumine.

Taken simply by the measure of informing or entertaining, for example, Taylor Luck’s cover story does reasonably well. It informs us that Saudi Arabia is opening itself to new expressions of art and culture, and it explores the motivations for Saudi leadership in allowing this. Yet how important is that in the grand scheme of things?

And the anecdotes of new artistic expression taking root might be entertaining to some, but can they really compete with the latest “Avengers” film or LeBron James highlights on “SportsCenter”?

The real value of Taylor’s story is somewhere else – in the idea behind it. You could think of articles like a quantum of light. The ideas behind them are like packages of energy waiting to be released. 

Every article is something larger than just a collection of words and facts. The success of an article is how well it releases that light. When that happens, the result is illumination and enlightenment – a soul-deep influx in understanding that goes beyond just information.

What is that deeper quantum of light in Taylor’s story? The proof of the bedrock human need to express beauty and harmony and how, when freed, that expression spontaneously grows.

There’s a lesson and a law there. Freedom expands and enlarges. The influx of freedom that rippled through the world after World War II was one of the most momentous eras in human history. It expanded wealth, health, and human rights in an explosion of energy never before seen on that scale.

Now Saudi Arabia has consented to let freedom expand, at least in some small measure. Yet even in that small measure, the explosion of energy that has taken place is remarkable, Taylor’s story shows.

The world is always yearning to be larger. Every advance is in some ways just the seed for further change. Monitoring that seed in Saudi Arabia – and everywhere – is something more than informing or advocating or entertaining. It is a pathway to journalism that feeds our best selves as individuals and societies.  

“Fake news” needs to be addressed and rooted out. But perhaps “real news” is more than just getting the facts right.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.