Long ago, when I worked on The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette copy desk, the news editor quickly discovered there was one unpleasant newsroom task for which I was uniquely qualified, as a Southern Baptist preacher's kid and would-be religion-beat professional.
Every now and then an angry reader would call and accuse the newspaper of being prejudiced against all religious people or of deliberately screwing up facts in a story about religion. You might say that some readers were convinced that the editors simply did not "get religion."
However, there was a problem. Even when these readers had a valid point to make -- especially concerning errors -- they tended to go completely over the top in their criticism of the staff at the newspaper. In voices that would get more and more enraged, they seemed determined to accuse the editors of sins against God, as opposed to sins against the standards of journalism.
The news editor would bite his tongue and try to listen, as people accused him of taking orders directly from Satan. But after awhile he would roll his eyes, place his hand over the telephone mouthpiece and stage whisper across the news desk, "Mattingly, there's another GREEN FROG on line one. You take this call."
"Green frogs," you see, were religious folks who basically hated journalism.
Now, this unique newsroom term came up this week in the GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast, which focused on my recent "On Religion" column about why religious believers seemed determined to fall for every piece of fake news, or "fish story," that rockets across cyberspace. Click here to listen to my latest chat with host Todd Wilken.
There is a connection, you see, between that "green frog" phenomenon and the tendency for believers to fall for what the online Evangelical maven Ed Stetzer calls "faux news." Yes, paranoia does play a role in this. However, as the poster on my bedroom wall proclaimed when I was a teen-ager, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."
Folks in pulpits and pews are much more likely to get angry at the press if they see mainstream newsrooms consistently making mistakes, when dealing with religion news, or serving up horribly unbalanced stories that function as press releases for causes that orthodox religious believers find offensive. The fact that many journalists truly struggle with religion news, or ignore religion news altogether, only feeds the anger of "green frogs."
One more thing: It also doesn't help that quite a few religious believers truly hate traditional journalism. They want to see an endless stream of PR stories for their cause in the press, a variation on what one communications scholar friend of mine likes to call "happy little Jesus stories."
Thus, these believers tend to fall for "faux news," convinced that mainstream journalists are conspiring to hide the truth about what is going on in America. Like what? Evangelical activist John Stonestreet, in a BreakPoint commentary called "Christian Fish Stories: Dare not to Share," noted:
Hey, did you hear? Costco moved the Bible to its fiction section; a pastor was arrested for refusing to perform a same-sex “wedding"; a gay group is suing Bible publishers to remove verses that condemn homosexuality, and the New York Times is rooting for pedophilia! Oh! And a woman is marrying her cat!
Maybe you’ve seen all of these or some of these stories on your Facebook feed the last few days. And maybe you’ve even shared them yourself. But here is what they all have in common? They’re false -- and when I say “false,” I mean serious exaggerations and outdated information.
Yes, in my column I mentioned the fact that I was one of many who fell -- in a GetReligion post found here, in corrected form -- for that story about the gay man suing the Bible publishers, who went viral soon after the 5-4 Obergefell decision.
Alas, the version of the story I was sent didn't mention that this lawsuit was filed, and tossed aside, back in 2008. I didn't spot the date in the tiny print of the URL. Guilty!
Stonestreet pointed readers back to an impassioned Stetzer essay on the Christianity Today website with this double-decker headline:
An Embarrassing Week for Christians Sharing Fake News
Don't believe everything you read on the Internet. You embarrass us all when you do.
When I talked to Stetzer for my column, he said he finds it rather depressing that -- at the time we talked -- this essay had more than 400,000 page views and is almost sure to hit the half-million mark. "Look," he told me, on the telephone, looking at the live metrics for the piece, "there are 87 people reading it right now."
Many of these "faux news" stories are just fake. Others are built on stories that are accurate, but when taken out of context seem much worse. As I told Wilken, "There is an old saying that anything you want to claim about religion in China is probably true somewhere in China. But that doesn't mean that it's true for all of China." There are a lot of church-state stories in America that are like that, these days.
The bottom line: It's time for religious leaders to be more careful and to hone some digital-era skills in media literacy. Stetzer's essay has some fine tips, go read his essay (and thus add to his agony about all of those page views). And as he told me, for the column:
Religious leaders who have been hoaxed will also need to learn how to repent and print corrections. Their credibility is at stake, stressed Stetzer.
"Christians do believe a lot of stuff that, to people on the outside, seems pretty strange -- from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection. ... But we believe that these things are real and they're at the center of our faith," he said. "We don't need to keep believing lots of strange stuff that's fake. ... It's not in our interest to fall for faux news and to spread it around."
Be careful out there, and enjoy the podcast.