Pope Francis’ Tips For Journalists
APPLYING CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING TO: MEDIA’S VOCATION PROMOTING CLARITY BETWEEN NEIGHBOURS, AND ENABLING CHARITABLE ENGAGEMENT WITHIN SOCIETIES
While honouring two journalists who have worked at the Vatican for more than four decades, Pope Francis lauded the journalistic vocation and offered his wisdom for journalists today. His tips for media included:
- “Your mission is to explain the world, to make it less obscure, to make those who live in it less afraid and to look at others with greater awareness.”
- “Journalists [should be] willing to ‘wear out the soles of their shoes,’ to get out of the newsroom, to walk around the city, to meet people, to assess the situations in which we live in our time.”
- To report or recount what has happened and why, the pope said, journalists should not make themselves the star of the story or the judge of an event, but they do have to allow themselves “to be struck and sometimes wounded” by the stories they encounter.
- Pope Francis also asked reporters to remember that “the church is not a political organization with left- and right-wingers, as is the case in parliaments. At times, unfortunately, our considerations are reduced to this, with some root in reality. But no, the church is not this.”
CST VALUE: TRUTH
Brendan: The Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching (198) reads, Men and women have the specific duty to move always towards the truth, to respect it and bear responsible witness to it. Living in the truth has special significance in social relationships. In fact, when the coexistence of human beings within a community is founded on truth, it is ordered and fruitful, and it corresponds to their dignity as persons. The more people and social groups strive to resolve social problems according to the truth, the more they distance themselves from abuses and act in accordance with the objective demands of morality. The Pope’s “tips” for journalists bring to life this idea of truth as foundational to the proper ordering of the community.
A community founded in truth is fruitful. Media well-rooted in its vocation is oriented towards truth. Media’s unveiling of truth makes the world less obscure, in the Pope’s words, which means we as citizens can approach the world “less afraid” (more capable of living out the theological virtue of hope!) and thus approach our neighbours with greater openness and awareness. In this vision, media’s vocation of speaking truth makes possible charitable engagement with our fellow citizens. What a powerful vocation, so central to a functioning and loving society.
But we face a unique challenge these days: so many different “media” sources, many ideological, many of which reject the full dignity of their neighbours, many of which obscure the truth and instead promote distortions and dehumanization, many of which speak without accountability or reasonable norms, promote fear, and in turn harm awareness of and authentic connection to our neighbours. We face a real challenge when media moves away from their core vocation. Social disunity and damage results.
Matthew: Truth is a central theme for Pope Francis, as it has been for many popes before him, and for the founders of virtually all democracies. The importance of truth bobs up many times in his plea for dialogue in Fratelli tutti:
Some people attempt to flee from reality, taking refuge in their own little world; others react to it with destructive violence. Yet “between selfish indifference and violent protest there is always another possible option: that of dialogue. Dialogue between generations; dialogue among our people, for we are that people; readiness to give and receive, while remaining open to the truth. A country flourishes when constructive dialogue occurs between its many rich cultural components…
Dialogue is often confused with something quite different: the feverish exchange of opinions on social networks, frequently based on media information that is not always reliable. These exchanges are merely parallel monologues… Indeed, the media’s noisy potpourri of facts and opinions is often an obstacle to dialogue, since it lets everyone cling stubbornly to his or her own ideas, interests and choices, with the excuse that everyone else is wrong. It becomes easier to discredit and insult opponents from the outset than to open a respectful dialogue aimed at achieving agreement on a deeper level. Worse, this kind of language, usually drawn from media coverage of political campaigns, has become so widespread as to be part of daily conversation. Discussion is often manipulated by powerful special interests that seek to tilt public opinion unfairly in their favour.
Lack of dialogue means that in these individual sectors people are concerned not for the common good, but for the benefits of power or, at best, for ways to impose their own ideas…
The heroes of the future will be those who can break with this unhealthy mindset and determine respectfully to promote truthfulness, aside from personal interest. God willing, such heroes are quietly emerging, even now, in the midst of our society. (Fratelli tutti 199-201)
CST VALUES: CHARITABLE LOVE AND JUSTICE
Brendan: This is a great example of how the principles of CST must be viewed as an integral whole for them to be sensibly applied in our common life. In the Pope’s vision, rooted in Catholic social teaching, there cannot be a just and charitable society without truth, without a media that promotes clarity and awareness of neighbour. I think that’s a powerful indication of the integrality of Catholic social teaching—that one value, principle or virtue cannot be set aside as unnecessary. The whole is the healthy society. Isolated from one another, they become ideologies.
Matthew: I think the Pope is agreeing with you in paragraph 207 of Fratelli tutti: Is it possible to be concerned for truth, to seek the truth that responds to life’s deepest meaning? What is law without the conviction, born of age-old reflection and great wisdom, that each human being is sacred and inviolable? If society is to have a future, it must respect the truth of our human dignity and submit to that truth. Murder is not wrong simply because it is socially unacceptable and punished by law, but because of a deeper conviction. This is a non-negotiable truth attained by the use of reason and accepted in conscience. A society is noble and decent not least for its support of the pursuit of truth and its adherence to the most basic of truths.
CST PERMANENT PRINCIPLES: SUBSIDIARITY AND SOLIDARITY
Brendan: The Pope in his tip on the vocation of journalists to “wear out the soles of their shoes” by leaving the newsroom, exposing themselves to the city, encountering their neighbours, allowing themselves to be wounded and touched by their stories and experiences, to me does demonstrates how subsidiarity plays into the vocation of media. So much of media today is dominated by what we might call the politics of the aggregate: polling about who or what “the people” in the aggregate support by measuring thousands of responses, looking at Twitter or social media as a source for the experiences of “real people”, staying in newsrooms and interacting and seeking the opinions of only a small few, seeking academic expertise and policy expertise (which is important!) while eschewing the expertise of those living with the experiences of the issues we face as a society. This willingness to walk in the dirt of common life, for a journalist, is a vision of subsidiarity. And naturally, that subsidiarity results in a greater solidarity with the wider community, and again, a journalistic approach that provides greater clarity of the real experiences and real concerns of our neighbours, instead of a journalism that obscures.
Matthew: That’s a great point, one which would not have occurred to me. Applying such practices on our own part, in organized and integral fashion, might help to address an unfortunate combination of related issues, born of social media: the replacement of responsible, organized networks of individual reporters who shared factual descriptions of news stories through syndicates, so that by reporting on local events through syndicate channels, a broader range of news might be shared by everyone, and editorially commented on, in distinct news items, by individuals designated as having a qualifying degree of wisdom. As an alternative to the posting of ill-founded posting of individual mixtures of truth and opinion (too often dominated by the latter), with no attempt at responsible organization or rigour, would it be possible, by applying principles of subsidiarity to ourselves, and modifying our personal lifestyles a bit, we might attempt to band together in an organized fashion and share truthful, balanced, and appropriately labelled news and editorial opinion?
CHRISTIAN VIRTUE: HUMILITY
Brendan: The Pope highlights the need for journalists not to make themselves the star of the story. Yet we live in a time of celebrity journalism. Particular journalists or commentators build platforms for themselves, on the weight of their tone, style, ideological preconceptions, or aggressive approaches. People follow these particular commentators, elevating their insights above all others. This is part of the challenge of bubble culture: when journalists elevate themselves as “brands” above stories, above elevating the experiences of others, we are left by nature with a more divisive, less clear, less humanizing media. This is especially true as traditional media becomes less sustainably profitable, and more journalists become freelancers, building their own platforms on YouTube, social media, Substack, etc. This is a serious challenge we have to consider.
POINTS TO PONDER:
- How do we encourage “celebrity journalists” to engage in real dialogue (not just debate!) with each other—breaking out of ideological siloes—but also with the experiences of those whose human dignity and lived injustices might persuade them towards more humane approaches? Is there anything we, personally, can do?
- How do we educate young journalists and journalism students in a culture of “wearing out their shoes,” instead of depending so much on social media culture and commentary as today’s generation of journalists often do?
- The Pope’s advice to journalists not to treat the church as a political organization, with a right-wing and a left-wing, is so important. Often secular—and Catholic!—media portray the different charisms and initiatives of the church’s evangelical witness as along a traditional political spectrum. One or the other Catholic or organization is a “liberal” Catholic or a “conservative” Catholic. How are these labels—entirely absorbed from the culture, and not rooted in a real theologically grounded understanding of the nature of the church and her mission—harmful to our unity, and to the clarity the Pope speaks of and awareness of our neighbours? How do we harbour in our own hearts these views? How do they prevent us from engaging more fully in the Church’s mission? If we adopt a practice of considering each of the principles, values, and virtues of our Church’s teachings as we reflect on current events and especially news items, as a regular discipline, might it help us to better ground ourselves in those teachings, and grow as Catholic disciples of Christ?
- At a time when truth is so obscured because of ideology, lack of clarity, divisive media, a sinful desire to have our own ideas affirmed rather than challenged by the experiences of others, a rejection of Church teachings, etc, how do we re-center truth back into our understanding of what it means to build a charitable and just society?
- How do we encourage media organizations that obscure truth and have lost sight of their vocation to reorient themselves back towards their critical role? How do we encourage media organizations that have already devoted themselves to balanced, truthful, and responsible reporting practices?