Headlines That Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?
The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism
by Bill Schmitt
Preview edition of a forthcoming book: A sampling of chapters, revisions pending.
© 2018 William G. Schmitt
Presented on World Communications Day 2018 — May 13.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Communications
- Old and new versions of the Peace Prayer
Resources affirming the prayer, line-by-line
- Communication to build communion
- Venom in our judgments
- Not mere consumers, but brothers and sisters / Solidarity, not exclusion / Respect, not hostility
- Words as seeds of goodness / Harmony, not confusion
- Listening, not shouting / Sobriety, not sensationalism
About the author:
Bill Schmitt is an independent journalist and multimedia consultant with experience in academia, public affairs, business, science, and faith-based education and evangelization. He served on the University of Notre Dame communications staff for 13 years after a career in the secular, specialized press. His ventures now include writing in various formats, podcasting and radio, news reporting and commentary, outreach on behalf of service initiatives, and growth in Catholic spirituality, as well as musical instruction and performance. Bill, a lifetime-professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order who is active in the Knights of Columbus, presented a talk in April outlining the Pope’s Communications Day message. In May, Notre Dame Magazine published his blog post incorporating the Pope’s insights.
See links to his stories in many publications. Check out his blog and other biographical information at OnWord.net. Connect on LinkedIn at billschmitt-onword to see his recent accomplishments. Friend him on Facebook. Follow and retweet him on Twitter.
My sincere thanks go to Jeff Dunn and Laree Lindburg for help in planning and management for this mini-book. Special thanks also go to all those who assisted in text review and copy-editing.
This e-book is © 2018 William G. Schmitt. Some rights reserved. You may copy it, quote it and share it, with two caveats: Do not change or re-format the contents, and do not sell it or a reproduction. Contact the author with inquiries or comments.
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POPE FRANCIS’ MESSAGE ON WORLD COMMUNICATIONS DAY, MAY 13, 2018
If you’re uneasy about the current ways in which our society communicates news and sometimes stifles the flow of information and conversation, you might want to learn more about the diagnosis—and the prescription for a cure—recently proposed by Pope Francis.
Regardless of our religious affiliations, the Pope’s reflections for the 2018 World Communications Day (May 13), offer us an insightful starting point to discuss the role of the news media in our conflict-prone, trust-starved world. His message, titled “The Truth Will Set You Free: Fake News and Journalism for Peace,” encourages producers and consumers of mass-marketed information to adopt a more responsible approach to seeking, conveying, and utilizing truth for the purpose of solving problems in cohesive communities.
As if to show how fundamental this challenge is for the well-being of our global human community, and to acknowledge that our ailment is too systemic to address symptom-by-symptom, Pope Francis concludes his message with a big-picture prayer to use when starting our comprehensive treatment. He paraphrases a prayer attributed to his historic namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi.
This is wise because St. Francis (1181/1182-1226) is beloved among people of diverse faiths. Also, the original version of the “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis” is widely known and resonates in many hearts as a reasonable, albeit demanding and transformative, roadmap for justice and healing. The Pope’s sequel starts with the same aspiration as its precursor: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.”
Both versions—we’ll playfully call them versions 1.0 and 2.0—reflect a commitment to the Gospel message of love and peace requiring a break with conventional behavior.
We will focus on Peace Prayer version 2.0 as an encapsulation of the entire World Communications Day message. It’s a good start. Prayer isn’t something you do when all else has failed, but rather it’s the proper first step in a journey.
Also, it’s not our intent here to get “into the weeds” of political, sociological and journalistic debates about specific steps for addressing today’s problems in news and everyday language. Those debates need to take place, and we all need to be engaged, but we begin by treading lightly because current circumstances—at least in the United States, where our assessment is based—make any concrete criticisms more likely to prompt agitated reactions. That’s all the more reason for us to begin simply, in solidarity, with a humble prayer.
But please ponder all the volatile-yet-valuable subject areas where Pope Francis will take you when you read his entire message at the Vatican can website. He uses memorable phrases to make inspiring arguments. Consider this sampler of his advice for constructive communication:
- A “journalism of peace” paradigm respects the dignity of journalists and their mission to pursue truth, cultivate understanding and serve the public. The Pope suggests not a saccharine approach that only tells us upbeat news, but a diligent spirit that digs into the stories behind the conflicts, provides alternative perspectives, gives a voice to the marginalized, opposes falsehoods and facile explanations, and enables “virtuous processes” to solve problems.
- His useful definition of “fake news” is this: “false information based on non-existent or distorted data” and intended to “deceive and manipulate” audiences in order to “influence political decisions and serve economic interests,” alongside other goals. [One might say fake news comprises both a “what” and a “why.” – Bill]
- Journalists must be “protectors of news,” not allowing it to be defined chiefly by its speed or its impact. The “heart of information is … persons.” Information and formation of people go together, so one protects communication and promotes goodness by “being in touch with people’s lives” and building relationships of trust. [One might say our communication too often gets “newsjacked.” The day’s most prominent, mass-marketed talking points have been manufactured by strategists in exclusive circles rather than harvested from the concerns and activities of folks experiencing real life in families and other connections to the public square. – Bill]
- Our culture needs “education for truth,” that is, teaching people to discern and evaluate the truth in terms that incorporate our desire to do what we ought. “We all have to be attuned to truth” if we seek validity, virtue, and value in our lives. [Here, consumers of news play a role at least as important as the generators of news; we first establish a demand for truth which then must be supplied. We can set the bar high, refusing to be satisfied with a story simply because a statistic or factoid suggests its apparent credibility. We can demand more verification and follow-ups on the questions the first story begged. We can ponder the implications of a story in our hearts, exercising an insatiable curiosity that is not quenched if we merely create or “possess” enough “truth” for our purposes. – Bill]
- “Disinformation is not a victimless crime,” the Pope writes. Every time an apparent truth is proven false, news consumers question more anxiously whom to believe next time. Some of us choose allegiance to only one source of news because we’ve lost trust in the broader sharing of what is true. We become polarized and further disconnected from reality. [I once quipped in print that reality has been cancelled due to lack of interest. The marketplace offers us more and more compelling distractions from reality, but we owe it to each other to make our shared reality sufficiently authentic, meaningful, happy, and hopeful to sustain our brothers’ and sisters’ attention and engagement. – Bill]
This pro-journalism message from Pope Francis marks the 52nd World Communications Day, an annual remembrance established by the Second Vatican Council in 1963 and observed on the Sunday prior to Pentecost Sunday. A decree titled Inter Mirifica voiced the Church’s deep interest in all the evolving means and media of cultural expression, and it launched a tradition of papal messages accompanying each “World Day of Social Communications.” You can read all the annual messages issued by Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. “The Truth Will Set You Free: Fake News and Journalism for Peace” was released several months early, on January 28, the feast day of Saint Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalism.
Celebrate the fact that you’re open-minded enough to be interested in a Christian view of secular journalism and its socio-political effects in the United States. And that you’re willing to begin your exploration by focusing mostly on the concluding section of one Catholic document, a section which happens to be a prayer—even though you may not be the sort of person who prays a lot, at least not for journalists! You’re part of the audience Pope Francis wants to reach. He obviously believes the cure for the stupefied state of modern communications will require courageous, contrarian thinkers.
If the reflections presented here help to convince you there are better ways to address issues and orchestrate cooperation in our society, utilizing both faith and reason, more power to you! But know that some cultural leaders won’t approve of advocates for a stronger human solidarity that rises above the status quo of old-media divisiveness and new-media “engagement.” You risk being seen as an exemplar of that great insight from the renowned writer Flannery O’Connor: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” But O’Connor recognized that this often leads to classic adventures.
THE PEACE PRAYER, v 1.0 and v 2.0
The original ”Peace Prayer of Saint Francis” is a good model for the Pope to use in touching hearts through the spirit of the saint. You can read the enormously popular prayer here and in many other places. Did you know that the pontiff did not have to reach far back into history to find this “version 1.0” as the basis of his paraphrase focused on journalism?
Remarkably, various scholars now say the origin of version 1.0 does not appear to precede the 20th century. A Franciscan Media publication, St Anthony Messenger, has reported that the prayer’s first appearance occurred in 1912 in a small spiritual magazine in France. No name was given for the author, and there was no connection to St. Francis implied. That tie-in with the poor man from Assisi arose around 1920, when a French Franciscan priest printed the prayer on the back of a holy card bearing the saint’s image, according to St. Anthony Messenger. The first known translation of the prayer into English dates back to 1936, when it was published as part of a book, Living Courageously, by a minister of the Disciples of Christ. That minister, Kirby Page, attributed the prayer to St. Francis.
It is correct for the Pope to call this a Franciscan prayer because of its decades-long association with the saint and his abiding qualities: a passion for peace, along with the insight that peace is achieved through self-donating kindness and a passion to make up for what is lacking. We become instruments for the Lord to use when we place ourselves third—with God’s will coming first and others’ needs coming second.
Version 2.0, as presented on World Communications Day, captures another Franciscan trait for which Pope Francis is also known—a holistic emphasis on human ecology, a worldview in which everything is connected to everything else, with everyone engaged and responsible and in balanced relationships, so as to let all of creation flourish. Pope Francis is a Jesuit, but the author of this mini-book, as a lifetime-professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order, can testify that a well-known Franciscan salutation greets all people with words of joy and abundance: “Peace and every good thing!”
You can find the aforementioned principles in the prayer Pope Francis has written. Their relevance to the task of renewing fruitful communication—and their witness to the Franciscan instinct connecting daily life to the Gospel of love—are worth exploring in greater depth. That’s the motivation for the step-by-step, line-by-line reflections occupying the remainder of this book.
Consider this a start for society’s long journey toward less hurtful headlines, leading to more truthful information and conversations that can heal society. We’re not suggesting the Pope has added any unique ideas to the ongoing pursuit of more ethical, effective journalism. This is not new, but it’s in a new context—from a pastor rather than a pundit, recognizing that both pondering and stepping forward are needed, although many opinion-shapers encourage neither. You will find links to an existing spectrum of insights that complement the Pope’s—and may enhance your own.
Here’s the prayer for journalism which officially debuted on May 13, 2018. Compare it with “version 1.0,” which is eminently worth frequent repetition. They both echo St. Francis’ love for the Gospel—and hence for “Good News.”
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.
Help us to remove the venom from our judgments.
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:
where there is shouting, let us practice listening;
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;
where there is hostility, let us bring respect;
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.
“Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.”
“Caring for language is a moral issue,” writes Marilyn McEntyre in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, published in 2009. “Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words.” We need to see words as “equipment for our life together,” helping us to guide and nourish each other, she says. Good stewardship of language consists of reinvigorating words “as bearers of truth and as instruments of love.”
Could Pope Francis have read this before he wrote a journalism prayer which begins with our becoming instruments of the Lord’s peace?
The moral stakes are indeed high as we determine how to communicate information and whether to manipulate each other with false statements. “The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict,” the Pope says in his World Communications Day message. “Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred. That is the end result of untruth.”
This holistically-minded pontiff is mapping the arterial pathways along which hatred can infect our body politic and erode communion.
He reminds us that communication and communion have the same root. While the word communion does have a specific liturgical meaning, its secular meaning evokes a feeling of intimate fellowship, a sharing of thoughts at a deep level—surely a cornerstone of a strong relationship or a healthy democracy.
McEntyre’s book also reminds us that conversation is a word to be taken seriously. In early English usage, she says, “to converse was to foster community.” Conversation was understood as “a craft to be cultivated for the common good.”
Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, available free online and often an enlightening portal to thoughts informed by Christian beliefs in the early days of American democracy, includes this definition of conversation: “a keeping company; familiar intercourse; intimate fellowship or association; commerce in social life.”
The loss of conversational skills and instincts is inseparable from today’s nexus of problems that include misleading news, a narcissistic culture and perspectives drawn more from personal feelings than solid facts. We need to redirect our daily patterns of communication toward communion, compassion and the common good.
That prompts one more reflection on this line from Pope Francis’ “Peace Prayer” version 2.0. He consistently spreads responsibility among all of us, not journalists alone. Just as journalists should be serving society at large by listening primarily to the discourse of the public square (rather than defamatory buzzwords strategically manufactured behind closed doors), we in the general populace should work harder toward a communion based on values we understand, such as words and information that unite civil society through a pursuit of truth.
“Help us to remove the venom from our judgments”
The venom has to go, and so do some of the judgments.
Of course, we need to make judgments all the time—decisions about whether to do this or that, and even decisions about whether particular behaviors are desirable or not. The laws and regulations established and enforced by our government reflect its duty to safeguard its people by distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
But judgments about the intrinsic goodness or badness of the individuals engaged in those behaviors can start the venom flowing and must be tempered with humility and charity. Hate the sin, but love the sinner. That’s a rephrasing of something St. Augustine penned—“with love for mankind and hatred of sins,” according to the Catholic Answers website.
Judgments are vital to the journalistic profession. Various codes of ethics adopted by news-related organizations are all about the responsibility to make prudential decisions—regarding the accuracy of information and reliability of sources, for example.
The scope of ethical duties acknowledged by journalists can also penetrate the realm of humility and charity. The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, as revised and approved by its membership in 2014, instructs producers of news to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” It continues, “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.” Furthermore, journalists should “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage,” the SPJ code instructs.
Again, producers and consumers of news alike share the responsibility to avoid judgments that can morph into prejudices, hatred and mockery. But prudential judgments shouldn’t be automatically labeled as disruptive forces when they seek the common good and attempt to increase understanding and charity.
Here, the “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis” (the anonymous version 1.0 that first appeared in the early 1900s) gives good advice applicable to the wider world of communication and communion:
- “Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
- “Where there is injury, pardon.”
- “O Divine Master, grant that I might not seek so much to … be understood as to understand.”
“Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.”
“Where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity.”
“Where there is hostility, let us bring respect.”
The notion that we should treat each other as family influences the words we use, the information we share and the purpose we apply to that sharing. Assuming that our image of family is a happy one, we will want to engage in conversations that deepen our relationships and boost our responsiveness when a brother or sister, parent or child, is in need.
People who have grown up in families with healthy dynamics are likely to have experienced self-sacrificing, active love which they are able to extend to neighbors and to fellow members of a local or national community. Good journalism, or simply good communication, can foster this vitality by telling people the sad or happy news of the day in a way that opens their hearts—not in a way that sentimentalizes or carries a secret agenda or shades the truth with cynicism, bitterness, and fear.
For a number of years, The Wall Street Journal called itself “The Daily Diary of the American Dream.” This slogan, which was unusually evocative for a business newspaper, reminds us that, ideally, news has close ties to home, to relationships that endure beyond struggles and successes. The word journalism comes from the same root as the French phrase du jour, which means “of the day,” suggesting one is in daily contact. The act of “journaling” or keeping a diary often helps us understand life’s journeys, which combine change and continuity.
Journalists may occasionally be privileged to serve as “protectors of news” (to use the Pope’s phrase) by giving voice to the conscience of a community, a conscience that meaningful news helps to form and stabilize. At times, news anchors have been called to speak for the whole country—the country at its best—when they say something like “America today mourned the death of” a certain person, or when they convey the country’s “thoughts and prayers” to victims of a tragedy. Such comments can edify. But everyone today is on high alert for hypocrisy, and resentment will grow if communicators betray moments of authenticity with mere throwaway lines.
It’s something of a tradition for broadcast journalists and their news programs to use phrases of endearment, such as “we’re on your side” or “we’re in touch, so you be in touch,” so as to create a family-like bond with viewers. Of course, in the memorable scene from the movie “Network,” eccentric anchorman Howard Beale finds a different way to connect with people, namely, a spontaneous rave. He rouses isolated individuals to go to their windows and shout en masse, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Authentic, empathetic communication inevitably spans a spectrum from gentle compassion to coarse chastisement, but it is most effective when grounded in charity rather than hostility.
Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in the 2014 edition of The Elements of Journalism, point out that “journalism is the literature of civic life.” News must “keep it real” as a reliable reflection of the good and bad sides of everyday community living. The authors provide a list of core principles of journalism. They write, for instance, that news practitioners “must maintain an independence from those they cover” since their coverage of a partisan issue loses credibility if they are active participants in one of the factions.
But Kovach and Rosenstiel also point out that, now more than ever, news producers and consumers must not be isolated from each other in discerning the nature of news—how it should be generated, shared, and used. After all, the traditional “consumers” of news have taken on roles as publishers, gatekeepers, purveyors and commentators, especially through social media. This insight conforms with Pope Francis’ instruction that the rekindling of effective journalism and the renewal of productive, civil conversation are tasks for which we all must strive—and pray—as fully engaged partners.
This point calls to mind an additional reflection that must be stated, given the Pope’s summons for individuals and communities to build closer relationships. In an address in 2014, he said true missionary disciples must shed their smugness and go out to the margins of societies to experience meaningful encounters of charity and truth-sharing. We must place ourselves “on the peripheries,” he said, because God wants to spread his love among those who have been excluded. This translates into a journalistic mandate to really hear people whose needs and concerns have received little attention. Pope Francis, in his 2013 apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, writes about a person’s duty to be “an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.”
Such an accomplishment definitely would be “good news.” The marginalized confront an information gap and influence gap when poverty denies them access to the online technology that could give them greater access to information and formation, as well as a more prominent voice. The noted press critic A.J. Liebling (1904-1963) famously observed, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
“You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world.”
“Where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony.”
The brilliant and witty British writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) left us several memorable definitions of journalism, which was a big part of his own livelihood. His definitions of nearly everything are found in a collection called The Universe According to G. K. Chesterton, edited by Dale Ahlquist. As one who celebrated the wisdom of common folks but always prescribed humility as a complement to that wisdom, Chesterton at one point called journalism “the art of pretending to know.”
Kovach and Rosenstiel, the aforementioned authors of The Elements of Journalism, take journalism seriously and argues that all citizens should do the same (a position with which Chesterton actually would agree). Even when all the facts are not knowable and a seeker of truth feels stupefied by complex reality, the duo says there is a firm foundation of wisdom: “In the end, journalism is an act of character.”
The authors go on: “Given that there are no laws, no regulations, no licensing and no formal self-policing practices governing journalism’s production—and because journalism by its nature can be exploitative—a heavy burden rests on the ethics and judgment of the individual news gatherer, and the organization that publishes the work.” This includes people who publish their own work thanks to modern technology.
Pope Francis, in his World Communications Day message, says this is why we all need “education for truth.” His prayer highlights the Lord’s trustworthiness and faithfulness as our inspiration. More news is coming from more sources, including advocacy groups, other national governments, and even corporations which practice “brand journalism” to share their expertise with the public. Today’s more complicated information menu makes it vital to wield a moral compass, helping our words conform to reality and virtue. Trust can be eroded quickly if people must constantly ask: Who is providing and vetting this information, and with what motives, and how can we judge between competing claims of truth and public service?
Ultimately, the only sustainable environment in which the information menu can keep growing is one in which the producers and consumers of mass-produced words feel free to challenge each other’s assumptions and prejudices based on a diversity of viewpoints, according to The Elements of Journalism. As previously mentioned, the book focuses on a set of guiding principles, and one of them is: “Journalists have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.” This is key to establishing what the authors call a “culture of honesty” where one’s “primary allegiance is to the citizens.”
An atmosphere of candor, where people step forward to probe the validity of others’ words for the sake of arriving at more complete truth and more harmonious conversations, may have eroded since the book was published in 2014. Too many people have responded to the confusing information marketplace by forming affinity groups committed to one area of facts or truths which they favor, to the exclusion of other understandings. Even worse, some people want to shut down the flow of the competing understandings completely, attacking them as “fake news” or “hater” ideas or speech too contentious to co-exist with feelings of peace and safety.
We must work together, and exchange words together, in such a way as to foster a world where people will embrace inquiry with the common good in mind. They will see truth and trust as things to be received and responded to in collaboration, not things to be grasped as private possessions. The latter approach leads to a sterile, joyless peace. In contrast, St. Francis appreciated the sharing of truth with the humility of a little poor man in the presence of a God whose creation constantly abounds in diversity and integrity. To some degree, his preaching of “good news” represented a much more recent aphorism, attributed to D.T. Niles in The New York Times (May 11, 1986): Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”
Wait a minute. We’re acknowledging that we face bigger-than-ever obstacles on the journey toward a renewal of public discourse and the spread of useful information. We’re saying that today’s public square is even more at risk from weaponized words, where truth is sometimes a precious commodity amid the tide of hatred and mockery. We’re looking to the Franciscan heart and mind for a cure to this condition. Pope Francis obviously sees hope in contrarian notions such as a joyful abundance of diverse, integrative creativity, as opposed to a hoarding of partisan truths or a lobbing of malevolent labels into enemy territory.
In these urgent circumstances, doesn’t it make sense to take up even more sophisticated weapons for the battle—which are, to be clear, more correctly called tools for us as the Lord’s instruments of peace? We’ve been talking a lot about promoting the common good above modern tendencies toward narcissism, fear, and mistrust. That’s right and just, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ goes even farther. It talks about a radical approach commonly called the Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
This might be called asymmetrical warfare because it aims not for the common good or a mass-audience target, but for the maximum good of every individual. It turns the other cheek so as to expose the personal excesses of mean-spiritedness and attempted manipulation. Is it this principle that, if implemented on a large scale, could eventually establish disarming conditions in the public square—the shock and awe of Gospel love literally allowing “good news” to take root in the mainstream and the margins alike?
Recall one example of how this strategy could be a game-changer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists “offenses against truth” which must be avoided as Christ’s disciples “put away” falsehood, malice, guile, insincerity, envy and slander. (CCC 2475)
As you would expect, the offenses include “calumny,” which harms the reputation of others through “remarks contrary to the truth.” More surprisingly, the offenses include “detraction,” which, “without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them.” This is an offense even if the disclosures are true. (CCC 2477)
To be sure, no journalistic code of ethics is likely to go this far, forbidding true news if it detracts and offends the dignity of the person cited. What would happen to the investigative journalism functions and collaborative truth-seeking which can enhance solidarity in society? Nevertheless, the Golden Rule, in all its glory, is worth contemplating as the perfection to which we are called and the environment in which we might become the Lord’s best instruments of dignity and peace.
It’s the ultimate lesson in the “education for truth” Pope Francis calls for because it teaches discernment about words, news and conversation from the perspective of Jesus, who said he was the truth incarnate, as well as the “way” and the “life”. Perhaps we should stop and ponder what life would be like if this criterion prompted us to excise only a fraction of today’s hurtful headlines.
“Where there is shouting, let us practice listening.”
“Where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety.”
In 1982, when the University of Notre Dame hosted a conference on “The Responsibilities of Journalism,” a well-respected, long-time foreign correspondent named Georgie Anne Geyer was one of the speakers, presenting insights that seem as relevant and galvanizing today as they did then. For example, she cautioned that the news media she knew “are over-covering the crises of the world and under-covering the major trends.” She also criticized the “adversariness” of journalists: “We in the press are in considerable danger of removing ourselves from society, like some group of self-righteous monks. And if we remove ourselves from society, as some kind of arbiter or judge, believe me, society will remove itself from us!”
These arguably prophetic remarks, along with all the comments of Geyer and her fellow presenters at the conference, are captured in The Responsibilities of Journalism. The book was published in 1984 and edited by the distinguished writer and commentator Robert Schmuhl. He championed conscientious journalism studies at Notre Dame for decades until his recent retirement. Learn more about his book at Amazon.com.
We can learn more from Geyer’s conference reflections. She was relatively early in pointing out that more and more coverage of foreign affairs was being done not by journalists who live in and understand particular countries, but by “crises coverers” who parachute into one country or another to cover a headline-making development without understanding its context.
“The coverage is sensational, not balanced,” she said. “The coverage does not have as its first concern the telling of important news and the informing of people, but the titillation of people. The coverage does not make Americans understand the world better; it causes them to see the world as a very threatening and unnatural place.” Geyer was describing a syndrome that seems to have spread more widely into national and even local news, not to mention international news.
She captured both sides of the syndrome—the “unethical and dangerous” phenomenon of low-context, high-conflict coverage, as well as the impact on news consumers. Too many Americans, even those who constantly take in information from various media online or on the air, do not know the real background of various headlines. They may feel the need to make assumptions, or adopt other people’s labels and prejudices, rather than dig more deeply. Before and/or after the addition of this confirmation bias to the original news event that engaged them (more for its intrigue than for its true impact), these news consumers sometimes do determine that the world is more dangerous and debilitating than it actually is.
Regarding the tendency among journalists to remove themselves from society and the danger that society would respond in like manner, one can see confirmation of this on the website of the Pew Research Center. A survey (reported in 2013) found that 27 percent of Americans think journalists contribute “not very much” or “nothing at all” to society’s well-being. About the same percentage believed journalists contributed “a lot,” and the remainder fell in-between.
Geyer commented at the 1982 conference that too many journalists were taking an adversarial stance of extreme skepticism and setting themselves up as arbiters of truth against a corrupt, misleading world. She warned that “the very pretense that we can be islands unto ourselves is deeply unethical because we must mix in our society; we must take part in the great dialogue of our people.”
She said she observed, following the Vietnam War, more of the young journalists devoted to “telling the truth about society.” She took a more moderated stand on truth-telling. “Journalism is and must be the search for the little, relative truths that alone keep us sane in the world,” she said. “It is the relentless search for what can be known, not for what cannot be known,” such as ultimate truths that can crowned by fiat and weaponized to silence or criticize others.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that all people “are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.” (CCC 2467) Truth is something that makes demands on us, not something we should claim ownership of in order to make demands on others. Our responsibilities include listening, learning and responding.
(Much more will be included in the revised, complete e-book edition awaiting release later this month. In the meantime, please help me preserve my copyright but contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with feedback and suggestions.)