My efforts in research and reflection on Catholic values as an aid to renewal in today’s practice of journalism are pointing me toward a few areas of focus. One of those areas has the virtue of prompting a catchy name for the thinking I invite all people of good will—Christians and those affiliated with other faiths or no particular faith—to share in.
Shall we ponder the idea of “a journalism of abundance”? This is a call for bigger-picture perspectives helpful not only to professionals in the established institutions of journalism, but to the millions of news-consumers who have become de facto journalists. These are the people actively influencing the flow of news, information and ideas by dint of their creation of online messages in our digitized culture, especially via social media posts.
A Journalism of Peace
The first force behind my suggesting this name is a phrase Pope Francis used in the commentary on journalism he presented in his message for World Communications Day in 2018. He prescribed for all of us the embrace of a “journalism of peace.” This idea incorporated a genuine respect for the dignity and impact of journalists. Recall that his message last year concluded with a prayer for journalism that riffed on the well-known Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, in which we seek to become instruments of the Lord’s peace.
It’s a challenging, contrarian prayer because we’re committing ourselves to respond in personal ways to a spectrum of problems that plague individuals and societies. In everyday encounters, we take on the goals of healing hatred by sowing love, despair by bringing hope, darkness by shedding light, and more.
Neither Pope Francis nor Saint Francis (scholars say the prayer, while Franciscan in spirit, was not written by the saint) are calling us to generate “peace” by pretending the bad news about this earthly life doesn’t exist. There’s nothing Polyannaish in this view of a journalist’s role.
Rather than asking news-consumers and news-producers to ignore or downplay unfavorable, depressing stories, the pontiff urges using these stories as launching pads for a stream of more stories and tougher questions that increase our understanding. He recommends delving deeper into the media content that too often propagates hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness and sadness in people’s lives.
How to Read the News
As I read Francis’ remarks, I think he would recommend greeting any particular story with inquiries like these:
- Is this the whole story? Are we hearing the multiple sides of the story? Are we interpreting and simplifying it only according to our pre-existing assumptions, the dominant narratives?
- Is it indeed a true story? Or is it largely a piece of manipulated disinformation that distorts the facts to serve a cause, an interest group or instincts toward power, greed and self-centeredness?
- What is the context of the story? If it’s based on “breaking news,” can we learn some of its history? Can we think about the background of the protagonists and the circumstances? Can we consider how it fits into bigger stories—like enduring themes of justice, human dignity, the complexities/flaws/virtues of people and social relationships?
- What are the implications of the story? Is it proper to respond immediately with laughter or tears or prayers or plans for constructive collaborations? Should we react with hatred for an individual as well as anger about a behavior or underlying condition? What lessons can we learn for the short-term or long-term future? Is this hardening or softening our hearts? Is this distracting us toward an obsession or knee-jerk reaction? Is it confirming a prejudice that might lead us astray? Or are we too easily steered toward indifference and forgetfulness as a news anchor completes the report and then says, “Now, here’s the weather forecast”?
There’s an abundance of factors for the consumers and generators of this news to consider. Almost every story is more complicated than its media presentation can convey, especially if we receive it in the form of a tweet or a headline or a 10-second video.
No media presentation about a person or event can hope to tell the whole story in one fell swoop, just as no “objective” story that gives us merely the “5 Ws” plus a soundbite from “both sides” can capture the whole truth. If the information is substantive, it deserves ongoing coverage over time. An objective approach must emerge from a diligent, impartial process of seeking the whole truth always.
Curiosity Brings Us Back
In some sense, it’s healthy to question the story and how it’s being reported. Even better, it’s wise to let the story raise fresh questions in our own minds that will lead to further research, consideration and caring. The best response is a basic curiosity about the world that drives us toward fuller understanding so we can grow as responsible moral agents who fit a story properly into our world view and into our to-do list for future action. Ironically, our natural instinct of curiosity is often deadened by the tsunami of information and promotional messages that hits us each day, encouraging us to engage in a mental triage. This abandons some important knowledge to die along the roadside of the information superhighway.
The news we share must be in a framework of abundance, not limitation or lazy selectivity. There’s so much to know! There are so many sides to a story and so many factors that deserve to influence our response! I remember that this sense of the world as a cornucopia of things to learn was at the core of my desire to become a journalist. This view intensified as I came to realize that every human being involved in, or influenced by, a story has unlimited dignity to which we owe respect and responsibility, even fascination.
Journalism is indeed a community activity—a widely shared process of producing, consuming, sharing and reacting to news, not as isolated individuals seeking entertainment but as members of various communities that should make the world better for the common good.
Pope Francis and the whole body of Catholic wisdom and values (along with many treasures of secular wisdom and common-sense, common-good thought) convey these callings in countless ways. But they’re too easily forgotten in our sensation-immersed, self-focused lives. We can get too busy, too prone to narrow down the fire-hose flow of information to maximize convenience rather than grow our relationships with each other and with the God who created us as a human family.
We’re especially prone to seek the convenience of ignorance or hard-heartedness when we feel trapped by constraints upon our luxury and well-being, when we’re “looking out for number one,” when we see life as a zero-sum game or when we see people through a judgmental lens of “our overriding truth.”
We need to guard against journalism becoming an instrument for reinforcing these limiting points of view. Pope Francis has wisely warned that our digitized culture makes it easy to isolate ourselves into “my bubble” of prioritized information, my artificial reality.
Use of the news in this way deprives us of the great joy of curiosity. Remember those curious cats with nine lives. There’s immense satisfaction (even entertainment in the best sense!) available from learning, listening encounters with people whose qualities, purposes and crosses are made uniquely by God. We discover differences we can make in their lives, as the Peace Prayer tells us!
Let’s also remember, a bit more somberly, that the limitations, manipulations and isolations we might impose on people, reaffirmed by improper uses of news, are causes of hatred, injury, doubt and despair. This robs us of peace as individuals and as a society.
Francis’ call for a “journalism of peace” can be seen as a “journalism of abundance.” A sense of abundance—as God accompanies all of creation through every day’s trials with His healing mercy and transcendent love—is not just a source of great stories and essential news. It puts us in touch with the story and the Good News.