Renewing Democracy and News Takes More than “60 Minutes”

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There’s still time to indulge the patriotism one feels during the July 4 weekend—especially if you also care about news content in today’s media world and productive conversation in our polarized public square. Just take several minutes to watch Brian Stelter’s recent interview with the respected CBS journalist Scott Pelley on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”*

Pelley, a “60 Minutes” co-host and former anchor of “The CBS Evening News,” described “the thing that worries me the most about our beloved country”—our society’s entry into what he called the “disinformation age.”

A healthy democracy requires healthy journalism, Pelley cautioned. While he made it clear that news organizations like CBS must take seriously their own adherence to ethical public service, Pelley also imposed an extra responsibility on all news consumers. After all, many of us now use social media to play the dual role of consumer and generator of streams of information.

Those streams can either build or erode our culture’s respect for truth, sense of trust and ability to address life’s challenges through inclusive, respectful communication. Our exchanges of news and commentary must include critical judgments about what we’re being told, as well as a proactive pursuit of others’ perspectives.

Audiences “have to be careful about how they choose their information diet,” Pelley urged: “Triangulate your information,” taking the time to check a variety of sources to verify the credibility of a story. In this digital world, our resources for this broad research are unmatched, and our duty to use those resources with a constructive curiosity “is going to be mandatory.”

Those comments, on-target for those who seek renewal in our democracy, echoed remarks made by Pope Francis in his 2018 World Communications Day message. A growing group of thought-leaders in the secular arena (see my latest “Resources for Renewal” page, an article I’ve updated on LinkedIn) is also making similar remarks with local and global implications.

The Pope’s message, about which I offer reflections in When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?, uses memorable phrases to outline his prescription for the future of the news media. He taps into traditional, Franciscan values, but they will resonate broadly with people focused on the common good. I revisit this prescription often in my blogs at OnWord.net and the McGrath Institute for Church Life blog:

  • Construct a “journalism for peace.” Seek out the truth for the sake of justice, without which there can be no peace. Dig deeper and ask follow-up questions about what you’re hearing. Why and how is this news story happening? What are its implications for people in the mainstream and on the margins of society? Are labels and stereotypes being used rather than an understanding that incorporates the dignity, uniqueness and complexity of people? What should be our response to this information?
  • Journalists must be “protectors of news.” Pope Francis said “the heart of information is people,” not the speed of breaking news or the power of technology. Journalists need to be in touch with people’s real lives—with a notion of subsidiarity grounded in everyday experience and community-building rather than strategically contrived talking points mass-produced by professional advocates.
  • We all should be “educators for truth.” News consumers and purveyors alike need to value truth as conformity with reality. Christians see truth personified in Jesus, but most people can agree that they know certain truths when they see them, and they know that reality ultimately wins. It wins, but it shouldn’t be weaponized.
  • Disinformation is not a victimless crime. Such manipulation is often defamatory, purposely chilling people’s willingness to share their honest thoughts in problem-solving conversations. This can lead to ambient hatred, policy paralysis and the isolation of individuals in their artificial realities.

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* The “Reliable Sources” interview segment can be viewed in the Commentary section of the Dunlop Media website. My old friend, Steve Dunlop–skilled broadcast journalist, insightful commentator and respected media-skills consultant–provides resources including podcasts and blog posts. You’ll want to peruse them regularly to monitor the intersection of social polarization, media challenges and values that address those challenges.

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Come Holy Spirit–as We Plan the Ideal Summer Vocation

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By this point, Catholics listening to Pope Francis’ ongoing messages to the world can feel comfortable that renewing social communication–in all its forms (especially in the digital realm), in the Church and in the secular sphere, among faith-based people and “nones” alike–is one of his priorities. He spoke about it again in his Pentecost homily this past Sunday, connecting to the Holy Spirit’s work of peace-building some key themes he has raised in “Christus Vivit,” his 2019 exhortation to young people, as well as in his 2018 and 2019 messags for World Communications Day.

I believe he’s saying we need to help bring Christian values back into our understanding of what constitutes fruitful journalistic communication. So many people are playing the journalist, not only consuming news but generating news through their social media, sometimes without a sense of accountability for toxic thoughts they’re soaking in and emotions they’re promulgating. Pope Francis offers pastoral advice regarding the lively cyberspace exchanges of information, our dual roles as news consumers and news generators, the spirit of purpose and pleasure we must bring to community conversations, and the respect for complex human dignity and the sense of receptivity we should bring to encounters in the public square. Defaming others without accountability, short attention spans that jump to conclusions, oversimplified labels dismissing people, and the manipulation of truth are reducing our mutual trust and our hope that democracy can exercise its ability to solve problems for the common good.

In his Pentecost homily, Pope Francis cautioned that, “in the age of the computer,” we feel more distanced and isolated from each other, and “the more we use the social media, the less social we are becoming.” We are at risk of spreading “a culture of lies.” You can see his full homily here.

He also spoke in recent weeks about the dangers (as well as the benefits) of our digitzed culture as a home where so many young people reside. In “Christus Vivit,” his exhortation drew from the Synod on Youth that took place in Rome in 2019. He sounded cautionary notes that should make parents carefully consider how to keep our kids learning and growing (as participants in civil society and Church life) during the “summer break.”

Catholics of all ages need to understand their faith and their values better in a world where popular culture no longer affirms these things. As politics join the summer weather in heating up, policy issues may accentuate bitter local debates that many previously ignored, and local expressions of free speech and exercise of religious values may confront reduced tolerance. Summer is a great time to journey in explorations of truth among different people who can be met in charity and peaceful, relaxed solidarity.

We parents are tempted to become lax about the school year disciplines encouraging young people to learn and foster community life in the context of Christian values We invite kids to have vacation fun while forgetting that the digital culture is one where they might be sidetracked into artificial realities and self-created identities. A value-started life may be captured by the entertainment offered by corporate interests, or by the extremist energies of activists who place enragement over engagement, income over instruction, sensation over common sense.

The Holy Father said this in his exhortation:

“Today’s media culture creates a deep sense of orphanood. We need to build fraternial environments” in our parishes, as well as in our communities and families, where young people can rise above isolation and experience a sense of belonging and shared purpose.” Rather than being distracted by video games, they deserve to be in places of multigenerational dialogue, memory, aspirations and action attuned to the the things that matter most in life.” (Christus Vivit, paragraph 216)

These messages align with Pope Francis’ 2018 and 2019 messages for World Communications Day (an annual pause for reflection, initiated by the Second Vatican Council and its document Inter Mirifica), In the 2019 message, he cautioned that the “community” model practiced in social media is too often one of excluding people and ideas with which you differ. The Church idea of community, he said, is based on communion–something higher that brings us together in humility with similar beliefs and motivations. The Eucharist and other sacraments make us more aware of our shared identity as a Body of Christ that is one although we comprise many parts, all of which have uniquely beautiful, God-given gifts to be shared.

The pope’s 2018 message called for a “journalism of peace” that proactively asks deeper questions in order to help us find areas of common ground, plus “education for truth” that springs from journalists valuing the truth and inspiring others to seek conformity with reality. A relativism that allows us to define our own truths on the basis of emotion and individually-defined primacy can otherwise combine with an urgent moralism–a sense of right and wrong that should be maintained–but one that unilaterally judges who is wrong–who is an evil force by dint of strongly held beliefs and therefore not someone we can learn from or engage with because they recognize a higher power.

A growing body of work by the Pope is telling us we have a kind of additional curriculum for teaching and practicing an evangelization that heals the culture and brings us together at the societal and individual level. It’s got to be based on a personal, receptive relationship with the Lord–through the Holy Spirit’s everyday influence on our lives, as stated in the new Pentecost homily. That gives us the love and forgiveness by which we can communicate with others as merciful fellow sinners, fellow seekers of truth who can find great joy and encouragement in local avenues of discovery. We’re not denying the truth, the way and the life, but we’re following Him rather than sitting on the beach in judgment of others or marching off in war against them.

Pentecost has helped to bring us to a summer break where we can some the time to be more reflective and receptive about the best ways to work together. The Paraclete will help us to speak in ways that others understand. Our faith in Christ and our communion through the sacraments and the “Amen” we say together at every liturgy will help to focus on things we can do, especially as a mix of old and young, rich and poor, robust Catholic and open-minded “none,” so long as we stay in motion–not leaving a vacuum of laziness or elitism-in-a-bubble. Into such vacuums can be injected popular culture’s tendencies toward narcissim, isolation and escape from painful realities.

Pope Franics reminded us in the 2018 World Communications Day message, about which I wrote a book of reflections and research, that we must be instruments of peace and stewards of the news, including the “Good News” and the bad news, sharing a sense of sacrifice, wonder and duty that brings us together, rather than driving us apart. Note that the pontiff’s 2018 message ends with a version of the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis in which fully engaged communicators (“love always commuicates,” the pope has said) have to put our lives where our words are.

I’m committed to encouraging fellow Catholics about the power of inclusive conversation, embracing both faith and reason, that our use of digital media can produce great fruits if we understand that it entails both rights and responsibilities, faith and reason,  minds and hearts, smiles and tears, the use of remarkable communication tools and an impulse toward flesh-and-blood community where “many parts” all enjoy freedom and authenticity in recognition of the really real.

As Francis said on Pentecost Sunday, ” the Spirit is far from being an abstract reality; he is the Person who is the most concrete and close.” He is the one who changes our lives by immersing us in the love and grace of God if we allow him to–in between the latest video games and summertime distractions. Self-satisfied temptations to lounge around, ignorant while others are defamed, excluded, and orphaned, make our summer vocations unsustainable. We must accompany all persons of infinite worth, whom the pontiff describes as “the heart of the news.” These are the stories that should be trending.

(Summer may be a good time to plan parish-based, group-based or school-based programs for discussion of alternative approaches to changing times and the risk of greater polarization. A sense of purpose and opportunities to make a difference, knowing truth and emrbacing charity, may be exactly what young people–and people of all ages–are looking for. Conversations for neighbors of all faiths, from all backgrounds, based on values-informed principles rather than conflict-oriented politics, may be just the thing to focus and energize people of good will to consider a new evangelization that addresses everybody’s growing concerns about news and social polarization, as discussed in my book, Headlines That Hurt, and my blogs at http://OnWord.net. Please consider inviting Bill Schmitt to speak to your group and to facilitate conversations built around the strong series of insights in place and in progress from Pope Francis, Saint Francis and the time-tested wisdom of the Church–contact him at bschmitt@alumni.princeton.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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White House Correspondents Dinner Gets a Taste of Hope

Pope Francis would have been interested in the keynote speech at this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, which took place at the Washington Hilton on Saturday, April 27.

This year’s event was lacking two elements of previous traditions—remarks by the President of the United States and introductory entertainment by a comedian. Instead, the 2019 keynoter was historian Ron Chernow, whose book Alexander Hamilton served as the basis for the blockbuster Broadway musical.

Speaking to luminaries of the journalism profession and their guests, Chernow offered glimpses of past eras of tense relationships between American presidents and the press. President Trump has refused to attend the annual dinner, symbolizing the current rift between the White House and the news media and also symbolizing the broader outbreak of polarization that has disrupted communication and conversation among Americans.

Chernow’s entire speech is worth watching. Videos of his comments, which included criticisms of President Trump as an instigator of threats to the freedom of the press, abound online. I watched for those parts of Chernow’s historical analysis that echoed journalism- and media-related analyses from Pope Francis about which I have been writing since early 2018.

The pontiff’s writing in his consecutive World Communications Day messages for 2018 and 2019, plus sections of Christus Vivithis recent Apostolic Exhortation on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, offer thought-provoking insights about the social and moral impacts of the current state of news, communication and social conversation. The pope’s reflections strike me as cogent diagnoses of, and prescriptions for, the problems in today’s turbulent information world that polarize society and harm the minds and hearts of individuals.

Chernow made galvanizing observations along these same lines. He wasn’t trying to emulate the pontiff’s references to Catholic values that can help heal our culture’s truth deficit and refocus our conversations on human dignity, fruitful personal encounters and selfless inclinations toward accompaniment of others. But I can imagine Pope Francis nodding his head in agreement with several points the smart, secular historian made.

I can also imagine Francis wanting to draw everyone’s attention to some of Chernow’s points because, nowadays, we all seem to be journalists in a sense—generators and publishers of news and opinion, as well as consumers of torrents of information, especially via social media.

Here are several parts of Chernow’s speech where I think I heard a resonance with Rome, pointing toward lessons we can learn and common ground we can cultivate.

 

  • There is “a rising tide of misinformation masquerading as news,” Chernow told his audience. “There are so many journalistic fakes and forgeries out there that the genuine article [of fact-based reporting] can become devalued and debased. You must also deal with the pervasive world of social media, rife with self-appointed pundits who search out news outlets that only strengthen their pre-conceived views. Still this is as good a time as any to take stock and re-dedicate yourselves to the highest standards of journalistic integrity and accuracy.”
  • Chernow continued his advice to those immersed in the contentious world of polarized political news: “Be humble, be skeptical, and beware of being infected by the very thing you’re fighting against. The press is a powerful weapon that must always be fired with reluctance and aimed with precision. Warren Buffet has a very handy saying: Always take the high road; it’s far less crowded there.”
  • The current trend that troubles Chernow most is “the sustained assault on truth, or at least a cavalier disregard of it.” He quoted John Adams in pointing out a similarity between his life as a historian and the lives of journalists: “Facts are the foot soldiers of our respective professions. They do the hard marching and should wear no ideological coloring.” He added, “Without the facts, we cannot have an honest disagreement.”
  • In the face of a “relentless campaign” against the credibility of the news media, those media can best preserve their credibility through “solid, fair-minded, accurate and energetic reporting.”
  • Chernow also offered words of hope and inspiration which, like the advice he gave to the journalists in attendance, can be applied to all of us who seek renewal in conversations–communication that embodies hope and engages with diverse perspectives and wide-ranging questions for the sake of justice and freedon. He said these were urgent times in the generation and consumption of news, but he added: “We’ve always been fighting for the soul of America…. America has always been a work in progress…. It falls to each new generation to renew and rediscover our country’s lofty promise.”
  • Our society feels fragile today, but Chernow said he thinks decency will prevail. He said Abraham Lincoln had once cited this quote: “There is always just enough virtue in this republic to save it—sometimes none to spare, but still enough to meet the emergency.”
  • He suggested a context of respect and a sense of common cause for our flows of information through the media. “Civility has been an essential lubricant in our democratic culture.” Furthermore, “whether Republicans or Democrats, we are all bona fide members of Team USA and not members of enemy camps.”
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Pope Francis on Real Community: “Christus Vivit”

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A look at lesser-known sections of the Apostolic Exhortation released recently by Pope Francis. This is the conclusion of a two-part report by Bill Schmitt, posted on the McGrath Institute for Church Life blog, published at the University of Notre Dame, on April 12, 2019.

A blog post yesterday looked at media-related insights in Pope Francis’ recently issued Christus Vivit, his Apostolic Exhortation on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.

You’ll find below a second batch of quotations from the March 25, 2019, document. They acknowledge but transcend digital-world challenges, focusing on robust community life in general. The pope wrote largely about young people called to be missionary disciples—evangelizing even as they navigate the distorted culture of social media. They can’t heal a polarized society alone.

As Francis wrote in his 2019 World Communications Day message, “God is not solitude, but communion.” The communion we experience in the Eucharist, in liturgy and in our parish activities, surrounded by people of different ages, backgrounds and gifts, but still affirming our unified mission with one “Amen,” remains our best model and motivation for communication that builds community, online or offline.

On the importance of grandparents and elders

“What do I ask of the elders among whom I count myself? I call us to be memory keepers. We grandfathers and grandmothers need to form a choir. I envision elders as a permanent choir of a great spiritual sanctuary, where prayers of supplication and songs of praise support the larger community that works and struggles in the field of life” (CV, 196).

This cross-generational invitation counters our digital culture’s obsession with spontaneous, emotive, knee-jerk reactions that leave little room for historical, contextual understanding. “We have to realize that the wisdom needed for life bursts the confines of our present-day media resources,” Pope Francis says (CV, 195).

On the centrality of witnesses

“Young people need to be approached with the grammar of love, not by being preached at. The language that young people understand is spoken by those who radiate life, by those who are there for them and with them” (CV, 211).

With this blueprint for evangelization, Pope Francis joins his two immediate predecessors in reaffirming the words of Pope Paul VI: “Contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, or if he listens to teachers, he does so because they are witnesses.” Information and formation go together, incarnated in flesh-and-blood experiences of truth and accompaniment over time.

On providing purpose and vision

“The experience of discontinuity, uprootedness and the collapse of fundamental certainties, fostered by today’s media culture, creates a deep sense of orphanhood to which we must respond by creating an attractive and fraternal environment where others can live with a sense of purpose” (CV, 216).

Many young people feel they have inherited “dreams betrayed by injustice, social violence, selfishness and lack of concern for others,” Pope Francis comments.

On community as family

“We need to make all our institutions better equipped to be more welcoming to young people, since so many have a real sense of being orphaned. Here I am not referring to family problems, but to something experienced by boys and girls, young people and adults, parents and children alike. To all these orphans—including perhaps ourselves—communities like a parish or school should offer possibilities for experiencing openness and love, affirmation and growth” (CV, 216).

Pastors, teachers, liturgists, catechists and all who advance Catholic values might determine to make their parish the world’s best orphanage, as well as the world’s best field hospital. Let’s cultivate environments of joy (abounding in good times and bad) along with beauty in art and music.

The communion we desire is incarnational

A recent Magis Center blog post asks: “Is God part of your social network? If not, did you know that laughter, singing and religious practices can lead you to him? Science is now confirming that religion—far from being an opiate of the people—is one of three keys to our ability to develop elaborate social networks.” These three habits of the heart lift us highest when we exercise them with others, reports author Maggie Ciskanik.

She’s talking not about mere “friending” or “liking,” but about flesh-and-blood community where God’s unique people come together for purposeful fellowship—sharing hopes, dreams, strengths and weaknesses, asking questions and solving problems. This is accompaniment that’s headed somewhere. If it is filled with Christ’s love and integrity, a vibrant parish can bring familial stability to us orphans.

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation settles neither for comfortable, non-challenging proximity nor the technological illusions of disembodied, digital groupings. The pontiff, in his 2018 message for World Communications Day points us toward the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. This outline of interactive, fully engaged communion makes us instruments of peace and communicators of hope.

The McGrath Institute Blog congratulates author Bill Schmitt whose book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?, last month received the Seal of Approval of the Catholic Writers Guild.

Photo credit: Catholic Church England and Wales, Flickr, some rights reserved

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“Christus Vivit” Includes Pope’s Digital Media Diagnosis

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A look at lesser-known sections of the Apostolic Exhortation released recently by Pope Francis. This is the start of a two-part report by Bill Schmitt, posted on the McGrath Institute for Church Life blog, published at the University of Notre Dame, on April 11, 2019.

Pope Francis has once again expressed a set of prayer-provoking insights about our use of contemporary media and Catholic stewardship of the “Good News” amid a changing information culture that distorts human community. His sweeping new reflections expand on a crucial theme, echoing the World Communications Day message for 2019 and other documents: pastoral concern about online networks’ pitfalls, alongside their potential—and their need—for evangelization.

Christus Vivit (“Christ is Alive!”)the pope’s Apostolic Exhortation on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, includes a section analyzing “the digital environment” that endangers society in ways we need to take more seriously. This wake-up call about today’s news-sharing tools intensifies the responsibility Catholics and all advocates of the common good should feel toward the hearts and minds of so-called digital natives.

The diagnosis of high-tech toxicity is one of many topics in the Exhortation, released on March 25, 2019, the Feast of the Annunciation. That day honors the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement of news to bless Mary and change the future of the world.

Here are several of the memorable quotes and terms punctuating the document with guidance for renewing communication to help heal social polarization through a charitable embrace of truthfulness.

  • “It is no longer merely a question of ‘using’ instruments of communication, but of living in a highly digitalized culture that has had a profound impact on ideas of time and space, on our self-understanding, our understanding of others and the world, and our ability to communicate, learn, be informed and enter into relationship with others.” 

Pope Francis warns the short-attention-span approach that “privileges images over listening and reading” can damage our “critical sense.” (paragraph 86)

  • “The web and social networks … provide an extraordinary opportunity for dialogue, encounter and exchange between persons, as well as access to information and knowledge.” 

Here, the pontiff is upbeat, appreciating technological incentives for “social and political engagement and active citizenship”; these encourage young people to stand up for the rights of the vulnerable. But he cautions that this new “public square” is not open equally to all citizens around the world. (87)

  • “It is not healthy to confuse communication with mere virtual contact. Indeed, the digital environment is also one of loneliness, manipulation, exploitation and violence, even to the extreme case of the ‘dark web.’” 

Cyberbullying, pornography and various avenues for exploiting people reflect the non-incarnational character of online connections, “blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships.” This adds to risks of addictions, isolation and “a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality.” (88)

An environment of remoteness “creates a delusional parallel reality that ignores human dignity” and invites a “digital migration” into a lonely world of rootlessness and “self-invention.” Young people “must find ways to pass from virtual contact to good and healthy communication.” (90)

  • “It should not be forgotten that there are huge economic interests operating in the digital world, capable of exercising forms of control as subtle as they are invasive, creating mechanisms for the manipulation of consciences and of the democratic process.” 

Various social media tend to favor conversations only among those who think alike, discouraging debate and creating “closed circuits” that can incubate prejudice and hate. “Fake news,” about which Pope Francis has written before, reveals “a culture that has lost its sense of truth and bends the facts to suit particular interests.” Individuals’ reputations are subjected to “summary trials” online—a phenomenon from which “the Church and her pastors are not exempt.” (89)

Rushes to judgment in general, fed by our cultural impatience as avid-yet-unquestioning news consumers and conveyors, do not serve the causes of mercy, justice and accompaniment Pope Francis consistently highlights.

A follow-up post about the Exhortation tomorrow will explore accompaniment as we can implement it in our parishes and communities. “The heart of information is people,” Pope Francis said in his 2018 message for World Communications Day.

Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation settles neither for comfortable, non-challenging proximity nor the technological illusions of disembodied, digital groupings. The pontiff, in his 2018 message for World Communications Day  points us toward the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. This outline of interactive, fully engaged communion makes us instruments of peace and communicators of hope.

 (Bill Schmitt’s book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?, last month received the Seal of Approval of the Catholic Writers Guild. See this blog post for more information about purchasing the book and inviting Bill to lead a discussion with your organization.)

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Pope’s Digital Media Diagnosis: Making All Links New Again

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This is the original version of Bill Schmitt’s report on sections of Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation dealing with digital media culture as it affects young people.

Pope Francis has once again expressed a set of prayer-provoking insights about our use of contemporary media and Catholic stewardship of the “Good News” amid a changing information culture that distorts human community. He is expanding on a crucial theme, echoed in his World Communications Day messages and elsewhere: pastoral concern about online networks’ pitfalls, alongside their potential—and their need—for evangelization.

Christus Vivit (“Christ is Alive!”), the pope’s Apostolic Exhortation on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, includes a section analyzing “the digital environment” that endangers society in ways we need to take more seriously. This wake-up call about today’s news-sharing tools intensifies the responsibility Catholics and all advocates of the common good should feel toward the hearts and minds of so-called digital natives.

Memorable quotes and terms punctuate the comprehensive diagnosis of high-tech toxicity which is one of the topics in the new document:

  • “It is no longer merely a question of ‘using’ instruments of communication, but of living in a highly digitalized culture that has had a profound impact on ideas of time and space, on our self-understanding, our understanding of others and the world, and our ability to communicate, learn, be informed and enter into relationship with others.” Pope Francis suggests the short-attention-span approach that “privileges images over listening and reading” has damaged our “critical sense.” (paragraph 86)
  • “The web and social networks … provide an extraordinary opportunity for dialogue, encounter and exchange between persons, as well as access to information and knowledge.” Here, the pontiff is upbeat, appreciating technological incentives for “social and political engagement and active citizenship”; these encourage young people to stand up for the rights of the vulnerable. But he cautions that this new “public square” is not open equally to all citizens around the world. (87)
  • “It is not healthy to confuse communication with mere virtual contact. Indeed, the digital environment is also one of loneliness, manipulation, exploitation and violence, even to the extreme case of the ‘dark web.’” Cyberbullying, pornography and various channels for exploiting people reflect the non-incarnational character of online connections “blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships.” This adds to risks of addictions, isolation and “a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality.” (88) An environment of remoteness “creates a delusional parallel reality that ignores human dignity” and invites a “digital migration” into a lonely world of rootlessness and “self-invention.” Young people “must find ways to pass from virtual contact to good and healthy communication.” (90)
  • “It should not be forgotten that there are huge economic interests operating in the digital world, capable of exercising forms of control as subtle as they are invasive, creating mechanisms for the manipulation of consciences and of the democratic process.” Various social media tend to favor encounters only among those who think alike, discouraging debate and creating “closed circuits” that incubate prejudice and hate. “Fake news,” about which Pope Francis has written before, reveals “a culture that has lost its sense of truth and bends the facts to suit particular interests.” Individuals’ reputations are subjected to “summary trials” online—a phenomenon from which “the Church and her pastors are not exempt.” (89)
  • “What do I ask of the elders among whom I count myself? I call us to be memory keepers. We grandfathers and grandmothers need to form a choir. I envision elders as a permanent choir of a great spiritual sanctuary, where prayers of supplication and songs of praise support the larger community that works and struggles in the field of life.” While this inspiring summons is not found within the digital-media section of the Apostolic Exhortation, it critiques our online culture’s obsession with spontaneous, emotive, knee-jerk reactions that leave little room for historical, contextual understanding. (196) “We have to realize that the wisdom needed for life bursts the confines of our present-day media resources,” Pope Francis says. (195) Implicitly challenging the technology’s ability to divide generations, he says older persons “can remind today’s young people … that a life without love is an arid life.” (197)
  • “Young people need to be approached with the grammar of love, not by being preached at. The language that young people understand is spoken by those who radiate life, by those who are there for them and with them. And those who, for all their limitations and weaknesses, try to live their faith with integrity.” (211) With this instruction, Pope Francis joins his two immediate predecessors in reaffirming the words of Pope Paul VI: “Contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, or if he listens to teachers, he does so because they are witnesses.” Information and formation must go together, just like catechesis and evangelization, and they must be incarnated in flesh-and-blood experiences of accompaniment over time.
  • “If the young grow up in a world in ashes, it will be hard for them to keep alive the flame of great dreams and projects…. The experience of discontinuity, uprootedness and the collapse of fundamental certainties, fostered by today’s media culture, creates a deep sense of orphanhood to which we must respond by creating an attractive and fraternal environment where others can live with a sense of purpose.” Many young people feel they have inherited “dreams betrayed by injustice, social violence, selfishness and lack of concern for others,” Pope Francis comments. (216)

This recalls the pontiff’s 2018 message for World Communications Day (about which I offered reflections in a book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?). There, the pontiff directed us to the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. Noting the necessity of a “journalism for peace” practiced by all of us as news consumers (and as news generators or publishers), Pope Francis admonished Christians to stop the betrayal, cultivate a humble sense of self-donation to others and bridge the chasms of online orphanhood: Where there is hatred, we must bring love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light.

Note: As covered in a previous blog post, Pope Francis wrote more about the responsible use of social media in his 2019 message for World Communications Day. A blog dedicated to insights for a faith-filled renewal of journalism, media and communities of conversation continues here. The book, When Headlines Hurtlast month was awarded the Seal of Approval of the Catholic Writers Guild.

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Post-Truth? Both Terms Mean We Have a Lot to Talk About

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In a culture where relativism, moralism, divisiveness and desperation about urgent global challenges are all taking a toll, and many of us turn to social media for repair or respite, we all need to talk more about the real cures. We have a healthy instinct that a renewed sense of community is part of the answer. But Pope Francis has been pointing out, in messages which seem like a best-kept secret, that the Catholic imagination can help us move closer to solutions (and inner peace) if we add a deeper reality to the “news” we’re posting.

That’s the point of my little book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer … The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism. I wrote it last year because I felt moved to help bring the “good news” found in faith and reason–and in the Pope’s insights from the internationally beloved Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi–to discussion groups everywhere. I have just been notified that my Kindle edition was awarded a Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval. This more affordable updated version, containing valuable links to research and resources, carries the assurance of Catholic beliefs and values but is especially suited to groups representing diverse backgrounds and religious experiences–people seeking common ground with concern for the common good.

Pope Francis offered several wise suggestions for healing our polarized culture when he issued his 2018 message for World Communications Day. He focused largely on journalism and its purposeful search for truth, and he addressed everyone because, these days, you might say millions of us are in the journalism business. We consume news and create news, we’re “gatekeepers” and publishers of things we call truth. Often, our “professional” handling of this serious vocation slides toward distorting and oversimplifying facts, even weaponizing details or at least distracting ourselves from the need to put people’s needs, human dignity and shared values at the heart of today’s torrents of information. (See my collection of blog posts here.)

Now, Pope Francis has released his 2019 World Communications Day message, “We Are Members One of Another: From Social Network Communities to the Human Community.” He uses Bible passages and images of communion in Christ to take us beyond the noblest-sounding visions of social media, which may have started out idealistic but too often have proven materialistic and narcissistic. He urges us to ponder the need to recapture the humility that must accompany truth-seeking and the compassionate curiosity that must accompany trust-building.

Today is an ideal time to be discussing this because the Catholic liturgical calendar marks this as the Solemnity of the Annunciation, an event where God was the presenter of glad tidings about a savior, the angel Gabriel was the messenger acting to bring the news to and through a human person,  and a faithful, strong woman named Mary was ready to listen, pursue a dialogue to clarify this great mystery and say a simple “yes” that had world-shaking ramifications. I thank Matt Swaim, who co-anchors “The Son-Rise Morning Show” on national Catholic radio, for suggesting this date to remind us all of the Pope’s reflections and our potential as communicators.

If you would like to do more pondering about news, truth and community, just as the Bible says Mary did, please consider reading my past and future blog posts, plus other resources I’m compiling and the book I wrote. More importantly, read the World Communications Day messages of Pope Francis and of the pontiffs who preceded him. Consider how the Church’s thoughts might change our thoughts about the fruitful sharing of information in our social media communities and our flesh-and-blood communities–in parishes, towns, groups of shared interests and groups of unique people whose differences mean we need to hear them and love them. Please engage me (bschmitt@alumni.princeton.edu) as a local discussion-leader if I can contribute my passion and experience. Wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever our communities may be, here’s to a happy, healing Annunciation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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