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The fog of war and “seeing through” the news

It’s important to be skeptical of sensational claims without being cynical

Bodies of Israelis are gathered for identification at a military base in Ramla, Israel. Associated Press/Photo by Francisco Seco

The fog of war and “seeing through” the news
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Hamas murdered children with a brutalism that’s too much to bear. That was the most grotesque storyline from Hamas’s recent heinous and tragic attack on Israel. And yet, no sooner than it was reported, the news was doubted. It was too gross, too specific—a perfect case of incitement. So, in the face of doubts, the Israeli government did something extraordinary. They published pictures of dead babies. This story adds to the horrific nature of this latest round of terrorism.

It also raises an important point about the role of skepticism and the news. Who do we trust? How should Christians see through the fog of war?

In times of turmoil, we must not have a gullible disposition. But neither can we tolerate a cynical spirit. Instead, Christians must make sure that our caution is always combined with a sincere desire for the truth.

There have, of course, been many false stories in the reporting about Hamas and Israel. Fake news is real. On Oct. 9, several X (formerly known as Twitter) accounts claimed that “Israel just blew up the third oldest church in the world.” But this wasn’t true. In fact, no actual news outlet broke the story. “Reports” on the internet, which appeared to be news outlets (but weren’t), all merely pointed back to X for their proof. Within a few hours, representatives of the church in question corrected the record. There had been no attack. The church was unharmed. It was fake news.

The story about the murdered children has some similarities to this. It is an extremely emotional claim. Children are weak and vulnerable. Beheading them goes above and beyond any normal notion of collateral damage. It shows barbarism and should predictably elicit a dramatic response.

But the differences are important, too. This story doesn’t rest on a tweet. It was first reported by an official news outlet. And after questioning, that reporter stood by her claims. There have also been several other witnesses. CBS News found a source who claimed to have seen beheaded babies. Similarly, a CNN reporter on the ground said that men, women, and children were bound, executed, and had their heads cut off, though he doesn’t specify which people suffered which fate. The BBC was also able to find a source who claimed firsthand testimony of the beheadings. This is the distinction between truth and fake news. Multiple sources went into print with names attached, citing firsthand testimony.

We must question but question rightly. And we must never give up believing that the truth is there and can be found.

At the same time, there are still a lot of questions. It’s important to notice that the original story does not say, as many claimed, that 40 babies were beheaded. It says that at least 40 bodies were carried away, some of whom were infants, and that some of these had been beheaded.

A recent article from Sky News confirms the reports of brutal murder and torture, and it states that at least one victim was found beheaded. It does not state that a large group of babies were beheaded. And so our conclusion should be that an enormous war crime was committed. Innocent men, women, children, and even babies were murdered, some of whom were tortured and some of whom were beheaded. The claim that “40 babies were beheaded” was a misunderstanding of the original reporting, but the attack was nonetheless barbaric and cruel beyond measure.

The reality is that in a world of 24-hour news and nonstop social media there will always be both outright fake stories and true stories that are mixed with misperceptions and errors. We must learn to tell the difference, and, with some work, we can. The only solution to disinformation is our own consumption habits and the filters in our heads and hearts. Christians have to remember how to ask questions and how to find answers. No one is going to do it for us. Still, we also have to believe that those answers can be found. There actually are less trustworthy sources and more trustworthy ones. We can ask reasonable questions to decide if a story is likely. We can decide how much challenge it deserves.

Behind all of this lies the danger of cynicism. Having been let down in the past, we can adopt a permanently critical posture towards all news. It’s all fake, we might say. “They” are lying.

Christians have to keep looking for the truth. We must remember the standard for truth, God’s word, as well as those natural measures of intelligibility and reason He gives to all. We must question but question rightly. And we must never give up believing that the truth is there and can be found.

We also need to keep the right perspective. What is the goal of our doubting? In the case of the story of the murdered children, the reality is a nightmare. Let’s guard our hearts. We must never let debates about the news take away our basic capacity for revulsion. And we must call out evil. The alternative is sheer madness.

Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Ind. He has written for Desiring God Ministries, the Gospel Coalition, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and Mere Orthodoxy and served as a founding board member of the Davenant Institute. Steven is married and has three children.

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