In-Depth Look at Fake News and Journalism for Peace-Pope Francis’ World Communications Day Message

This year’s Message for World Communications Day is so timely that I wanted to highlight/summarize a couple important points from the Message—especially for people who haven’t read it. Three paragraphs impressed me so much that I made a line-by-line meditation on it—and I will share my notes from that with you below.

The theme for 2018 is “The truth will set you free”: Fake news and journalism for peace. In this powerful meditation for all of us living in the digital age (especially for all Christian communicators–which is all of us), Pope Francis highlights the importance of truth: in our lives, in our relationships, in our communication, in our service. The Message first gives a description of fake news, what makes fake news thrive, and how fake news exploits the human person, leading to:

  • the spread of disinformation
  • the spread of hate and arrogance,
  • demonizing others
  • fomenting conflict.

In describing how we can respond to fake news, Pope Francis approaches it from what we Pauline Sisters call a “Media Mindful” perspective:

“Preventing and identifying the way disinformation works also calls for a profound and careful process of discernment. We need to unmask what could be called the ‘snake-tactics’ used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place.”

Pope Francis goes on to recount how the “Father of Lies” perpetrated humanity’s first instance of fake news in Genesis 3:

  • pretense of friendship
  • speaking partial truths that distorts the truth and falsifies reality (incomplete, out of context)
  • speaking with the appearance of truth only

Pope Francis concludes, “Trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.”

How fake news so easily goes viral brings to my mind a story about St. Philip Neri, who is popularly remembered for his humor and humility, but who was renowned during his lifetime as a wise confessor. The story goes that to a woman who confessed the sin of gossip, St. Philip gave her the penance of walking through the town plucking the feathers of a chicken, and then to return to him. When she returned, the saint told her to now go back and gather up all the feathers. Dismayed, she protested that it was impossible. St. Philip pointed out that it is impossible to take back the harm that our gossip does.

Fake news can take lying and gossiping to a global level. Fake news may be driven by greed and a thirst for power, simple negligence, but it ultimately victimizes individuals by robbing us of our interior freedom. One solution is for everyone to practice a deeper awareness when it comes to our communication and especially our media usage. This is what we try to encourage in schools, parishes, and families, by sharing the practice of Media Mindfulness, which Pope Francis refers to (without using the label):

“Education for truth means teaching people how to discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclinations, lest we lose sight of what is good and yield to every temptation.”

My favorite two paragraphs of the message I will quote in full, with a few of my personal reflections.

(You can download the four-page line by line reflection here.) 

Pope Francis wraps up with an invitation:

– to all people to listen and engage in sincere dialogue

– to journalists to take up the weighty responsibility of a commitment to truth: to be protectors of the news.

“Informing others means forming others; it means being in touch with people’s lives. That is why ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace.”

Pope Francis concludes with a powerful prayer to Christ, our Truth, that I will be praying daily through this year dedicated to Truth:

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 judgements.
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 practise 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.
Amen.

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