From the earliest days of mass communications, the Church has astutely monitored its potential to both advance the Gospel and serve others, and conversely, to spread evils such as hate, racism and immorality.
Our Church has called upon us to reject the destructive use of media and, instead, fully embrace it to share God’s love. Now that broadcast, digital and social media are such a mainstay in how we communicate and get information, the responsibility that the Church has given us to use it effectively and appropriately becomes even more critical. Here is just some of what our Church has taught through its leaders about media and communications:
The Blessing and Proper Use of Media
Promulgated in 1963, Inter Mirifica, the Decree On the Media of Social Communications penned as part of the Second Vatican Council and promulgated by Pope Paul VI, was in many ways ahead of its time. Already recognizing the benefit of news organizations spreading information to all corners of the earth, the decree sought not only to praise the media’s potential, but also to issue a warning for its potential to be abused.
“The Church welcomes and promotes with special interest those [technological discoveries] which have a most direct relation to men’s minds, and which have uncovered new avenues of communicating most readily news, views and teachings of every sort … The Church recognized, too, that men can employ these media contrary to the plan of the Creator … [and] experiences maternal grief at the harm all too often done to society by their use” .
The power of media to influence consumers’ thoughts, the decree notes, makes it all the more necessary that “all who employ them be acquainted with the norms of morality and conscientiously put them into practice in this area … [Media] must take into consideration the entire circumstances, namely the persons, place, time and other conditions under which communication takes place and which can affect or totally change its propriety … its influence can be so great that men, especially if they are unprepared, can scarcely become aware of it, govern its impact, or, if necessary, reject it” .
The reporting of news, the decree stresses, “should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity” . The council exhorted that “every member of society must fulfill he demands of justice and charity in this area … all must strive, through these media as well, to form and spread public opinion” .
As to those spreading the news – at the time, newsmen, and other members of the arts and entertainment industries – the council declared that the principal moral responsibility for proper use of media falls squarely on their shoulders.
Those in public authority, likewise, bear the responsibility “to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media” .
Media Must Promote Accuracy, Respectful Dialogue
St. John Paul II, addressing those in the communications industry, issued an apostolic letter in January 2005, The Rapid Development of Technology. In it he addressed the timely concern of a change in cultural attitude toward the very existence of truth – and how the media are partially responsible for this shift.
The Pope exhorted that conveying truth must be the centerpiece of any news medium. “The mass media can and must promote justice and solidarity according to an organic and correct vision of human development, by reporting events accurately and truthfully, analyzing situations and problems completely, and providing a forum for different opinions. An authentically ethical approach to using the powerful communication media must be situated within the context of a mature exercise of freedom and responsibility, founded upon the supreme criteria of truth and justice” .
St. John Paul II urged communicators to focus on “formation, participation and dialogue” . Formation would help prevent media running “the risk of manipulating and heavily conditioning, rather than serving people.” The potential for promoting dialogue, he stressed, would allow media to “become a powerful resource for good if used to foster understanding between peoples; a destructive ‘weapon’ if used to foster injustice and conflicts” .
Although modern technologies make rapid and voluminous dissemination of information possible, St. John Paul II reminded communicators that “they do not favor that delicate exchange which takes place between mind and mind, between heart and heart, and which should characterize any communication at the service of solidarity and love.” Citing the apostle Paul, he wrote, “Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth … No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:25, 29).
Social Media’s Potential for Communication, Abuse
In his annual Message for World Communications Day in 2009, 2011 and 2013, Pope Benedict XVI zeroed in on the rapidly growing arena of social media, and the necessity of its users, despite not being journalists, to promote honest communication and respect for all in conversation.
“Dialogue between people from different countries, cultures and regions … require[s] honest and appropriate forms of expression together with attentive and respectful listening,” wrote the Pope. “Life is not just a succession of events or experiences: it is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful” (2009).
“In the digital age, too, everyone is confronted by the need for authenticity and reflection … It follows that there exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others … [which means] to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgments that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically” (2011).
Because anyone in the social media arena can have an instant platform, without oversight, the newsworthiness of what is shared is often debatable. The medium itself, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, presents “challenges to those who want to speak about truth and values.” The significance and effectiveness of the information shared, he said, “appear to be determined more by their popularity than by their intrinsic importance and value … often linked to celebrity or strategies of persuasion rather than to the logic of argumentation.” Often drowned out is the “gentle voice of reason” with more attention afforded to “those who express themselves in a more persuasive manner” (2013).
Bishops Respond to Media Misuse
Renewing the Mind of the Media, an episcopal document issued in June 1998 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, focuses primarily on the rise of inappropriate and damaging material in entertainment media. The news media, however, are also addressed as a potential breeding ground for negative influence.
“Even people who do not consume a great deal of media are well aware that they live in a society whose environment and values are affected by media influence for good or ill, and they can be affected themselves, even indirectly,” the bishops wrote.
Although the Internet was not yet rife with social media 22 years ago, the USCCB foresaw the potential for its abuse among the ill-formed and impressionable. “Other forms of media, new and old, also influence young people and adults to engage in morally and socially destructive forms of behavior. The utility of the Internet has already been compromised … to transmit messages of hate.”
Broadcast news, too, did not go unnoticed in its potential for fomenting conflict. “Talk radio often assaults its listeners with angry or indecent remarks… [and] those involved in the news media need to ask themselves whether the emphasis placed on the coverage of violent crime and the often-graphic nature of this coverage is warranted. If it is not, they must take responsibility for causing undue anxiety and alarm among their consumers and for their contribution to a climate in which violence becomes commonplace.”
The Role of Fake News in Obscuring Truth
Pope Francis, in his January 2018 Message for World Communications Day, addressed the growing trend of “fake news,” and how its increasing prevalence has not only made actual news more difficult to discover, but has spread “false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader” .
Fake news’ effectiveness, Pope Francis explained, “is primarily due to its ability to mimic real news, to seem plausible. Secondly, this false but believable news is ‘captious,’ inasmuch as it grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration” .
The difficulty, he continued, of thwarting fake news is the echo chamber – the tendency of many people to “interact in homogeneous digital environments impervious to differing perspectives and opinions.” That lack of variety in point of view creates a breeding ground for disinformation to grow. “It risks turning people into unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless ideas. The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict” .
Recognizing fake news means fighting “deliberately evasive and subtly misleading rhetoric and at times the use of sophisticated psychological mechanisms,” Pope Francis wrote. “Praiseworthy efforts are being made to create educational programs aimed at helping people to interpret and assess information provided by the media and teaching them to take an active part in unmasking falsehoods, rather than unwittingly contributing to the spread of disinformation” .
Pope Francis also praised the efforts of institutional and legal initiatives designed to help curb fake news, “to say nothing of the work being done by tech and media companies in coming up with new criteria for verifying personal identities … we need to unmask what could be called the ‘snake-tactics’ used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place” . He compared such tactics to those of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, “who, at the dawn of Creation, created the first fake news (cf. Gen 3:1-15) …” .
Defending ourselves, Pope Francis wrote, must be with the antidote of truth. “To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose” .
People who are ready to listen, the Pope wrote, who take responsibility for their language, are the best antidotes to falsehoods – and journalists bear the greatest weight of that responsibility. “They must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons … ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace” .
How Consumers, Parents Can Fight the Agenda
The USCCB’s Committee for Communications released in April its “Family Guide for Using Media,” which can help not only parents, but also consumers at large effectively regulate their consumption of digital and broadcast information, and dialogue about its accuracy and value.
“An intelligent use of media can prevent our being dominated by them and enable us instead to measure them by our standards,” the committee wrote. “Reflect on what ethical standards the media are using. What is portrayed and why? What is it saying about human existence … is anything of value also being conveyed?
To get the entire picture, finding a variety of sources is especially important, the committee wrote. “Be aware of the potential for receiving partial information or biased views. No communication medium can supply all details about anything. The Internet, in particular, offers a vast amount of unevaluated information. … be ready to ask what aspects of life are being neglected, what issues are being ignored, and whether bias or manipulation is involved.”
The guide suggests that instead of experiencing media as “one-way communication,” consumers need to use it to start a conversation. “Where media are interactive, you can engage in an actual dialogue. Where they aren’t, you can contact networks, local stations, and newspapers to compliment or complain ...”
Take the Pledge: Civilize It
The call to discuss ideas with civility, especially in a presidential election year, has been taken up by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in their pledge project “Civilize It: Dignity Beyond the Debate.”
The program asks participants to be a part of rejecting the acrimony surrounding differing viewpoints, with its “non-partisan call to focus on the dignity of all people, even those with whom we disagree, and to put faith in action.”
“When personal attacks replace honest debate, no one wins,” the pledge website states. “This kind of attack, no matter the reason, only serves to further divide our communities. As Catholics, we must model a better way.”
The Civilize It! pledge focuses on three aspects: civility, clarity and compassion, including “to treat others with respect, and rise above attacks when directed at me … to root my political viewpoints in the Gospel and a well formed conscience, which involves prayer, conversation, study and listening … [and] to encounter others with a tone and posture which affirms that I honor the dignity of others and invites others to do the same.”
Pledges can be made as an individual, family or community.
The full text of the pledge can be made at wearesaltandlight.org/civilize-it.