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.

About Bill Schmitt

OnWord.net is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at facebook.com/wgschmitt, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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