Voices May 02, 2019
Press freedom demands press responsibility
This may sound pretentious, but I doubt there’s ever been a
more difficult, or important, time for the Catholic press.
May 3 is Press Freedom Day, a day worth celebrating by its own right. After all, the struggles – financial and political – facing newspapers around the world are abundantly obvious. Newspapers are failing, news organizations are scaling back, political regimes are clamping down on journalists, and social media like Facebook, Twitter and Google news feeds are entirely changing the definition of journalism so anyone with a keyboard is now effectively a journalist.
But with freedom comes responsibility, and it seem to me that the day after Press Freedom Day should be Press Responsibility Day, a time to remember age-old traditions like impartiality, fairness, balance, absence of agendas, and attempting to tell all sides of a story.
Admittedly through history this has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance.
Newspapers were run by publishers eager to put their personal stamp on their publication, and an average-sized city might have several journals with varying biases – Liberal or Tory, some crusading against crime, some deferential to the elites, still others promoting populism, social justice or whatever the publisher’s personal axe to grind happened to be.
Newspapers (and reporters) made little attempt to hide their agendas, at the same time professing to be truthtellers to the extent their bias allowed.
Thanks to that competitiveness and rivalry in the news business, and something called the Rashomon effect, people could get, if not the whole truth, then a more complete version of it. The Rashomon principle describes how different individuals report the details of an event based on their interpretation of what they witnessed. If you have enough people describing an event, you theoretically get closer to the truth of what happened.
Gradually the newspaper industry adopted a more professional approach toward presenting the news, but along with higher media standards came more pack-driven journalism. Today it’s the rare reporter who is courageous enough to break from a compelling media narrative and risk being the odd writer out.
Indeed, Simon Fraser University professor Robert Anderson says the Rashomon effect particularly comes into play on communication when there is “absence of evidence to elevate or disqualify any version of the truth, plus the social pressure for closure on the question.”
That rather describes nicely what we’re witnessing today, with billions of people viewing events as they trend, each edited and reported differently, and interpret them according to their own biases and without concern for any sense of truth.
Until recently journalists at least gave lip service to reporting the truth. But in the 1990 book The Media Elite, the authors critiqued modern journalism by exploring how news reporting is subject to the Rashomon effect. Despite journalists’ assurances that their business was about truth and faithful reporting, the authors wrote: “News is like a prism that breaks a single object into multiple images. The image we perceive depends equally on the object, the eye of the beholder, and – not least – the prism itself.”
The news media – what’s left of it – is that prism, and it became apparent decades ago that the prism was cracked when, on the issue of abortion for one thing, the media stopped reporting honestly, instead adopting a liberal stance toward abortion as a human-rights issue that was relevant to women, but not babies. “Fake news” is hardly a new occurrence, and we shouldn’t assume that any media unable to report honestly on the causes and consequences of abortion can be trusted to report truthfully about any other issue.
The May 3 UN-sponsored World Press Freedom Day will be used by many as a chance to pay homage to the built-in biases of journalism as it is, rather than as it should be.
So let’s make sure World Press Freedom Day includes the Catholic press. In a world where the number of media voices attempting to be fair are declining, where shrillness is increasing, where toxicity is the prevailing attitude, and where unwelcome viewpoints are silenced, Catholic communicators have an indispensable role to play.
The Vatican 1971 Pastoral Instruction on Media said, “The task of the Catholic press is to balance, to complete and, if necessary, to correct the news and comments about religion and the Christian life. At one and the same time it will be a glass that reflects the world and a light to show it the way. It will be a forum, a meeting place for the exchange of views.
Pray that the clarity of the Catholic media prism is sustained in a world that St. Paul says “sees through a glass, darkly.”
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