The media challenge
By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Pope St John Paul II’s courage, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s synthesis of reason and faith, and the mercy of Pope Francis provide examples and “communications lessons” for Catholic media practitioners confronting the “spiritual challenge” of presenting the truth in an age of fake news.
John Allen Jr, editor of Crux, an independent news site in partnership with the Knights of Columbus, said media today are facing not only a professional challenge but also a challenge of conscience and “ultimately, a spiritual challenge”.
Allen, the keynote speaker at the Catholic News symposium The Pursuit of Truth in the Age of Fake News at the St Dominic’s Pastoral Centre auditorium on November 18 shared insight on how misinformation can become fake news.
Giving an example of a “plausible rumour” becoming a story, Allen said shortly after Pope Francis was elected Pope a rumour began circulating that he was going out incognito distributing sandwiches to the homeless in St Petersburg. The rumour “spread like wildfire” and an Italian wire service picked it up; soon news agencies around the world had the report.
Crux decided to wait and verify the report with a reliable source before publishing. In deciding not to carry the breaking story, the site lost out on the high traffic generated.
Allen said: “In the present media environment it is not malicious intent nor a conscious desire to deceive; it is instead the relentless market pressure 24/7 news cycle that puts so many people in this business in the awkward position of having to make the choice to go with a tempting story first and to fact-check it later.” Although there are market pressures, in the news business if credibility is lost then “we have nothing” he commented.
From his 25 years as media practitioner, Allen has extensive experience reporting on Pope St John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XI and Pope Francis. He described them as “all extraordinarily complex thinkers and you can’t just boil down to handy-dandy sound bites”. Each though, had a signature phrase they were associated with, Pope St John Paul II, “Be not afraid”; Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI “reason and faith”, and Pope Francis “choosing through the eyes of mercy”.
The papacy of John Paul II lasted 27 years, and Allen said it is easy to forget and take for granted the “revolutionary” things he did. He referred to an impromptu address given by the Polish Pope to the crowd after he was elected. This broke with tradition.
Even when he was confined to a wheelchair, Pope St John Paul II was a pope determined to do things his way. “He had the courage to be dramatically un-papal.” The Pope grew up under Nazi rule in Poland and as a priest and bishop showed tenacity and courage. Allen said he played an indispensable role in bringing down the Communist system.
Pope John Paul II made 104 trips to 156 countries, when the thinking was “being pope meant people came to the Vatican”. It also meant liturgies were formal, sombre, traditional but with Pope John Paul II they were, Allen said, like “Broadway productions”; he wanted the liturgies to be “relevant and speak to the people he was with in all types of ways large and small”.
By choosing Denver, Colorado for World Youth Day 1993 Pope John Paul II
decided “to follow his gut despite the fact all the conventional wisdom told him ‘don’t do it’.” Allen said: “That willingness to buck conventional wisdom, to try and inspire as pope not as tradition dictated but as the moment required, to re-animate, rekindle the evangelical capacity of the Catholic Church… to get it doing mission again.”
During his papacy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has said faith without reason becomes extremism and fundamentalism, and reason without faith, skepticism and nihilism. Allen said the “synthesis between reason and faith was at the heart of Benedict’s papacy.” He went on, “For faith to be real, it had to be rationale which means we have to be able to exercise our rationale faculties and above all we have to do that in the pursuit of truth.”
As Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and later as Pope, Allen said Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was a “change agent” for reforms in the Church’s response to the sexual abuse scandals and finances. The reforms did not begin under Pope Francis as many think.
According to Allen, Pope Benedict had an “iron-clad conviction that we have to take an impartial look at the truth about ourselves because only when we do that can we perceive the cardinal ‘T’ (truth) that comes to us through the Gospel.”
He explained that it is easier to tell the truth about others but willingness to take a clear-eyed view of “who we are becoming and if that is really where we want to go has to be an indispensable piece of the puzzle in the era of fake news”. He advised, “We cannot get to that kind of truth… until we do the interior kind of truth first.”
Mercy is the “Rosetta Stone” of what Pope Francis is about. Media practitioners “could do with a dose of mercy” toward the people they report on. Consideration must be given to the “real people” whose lives may be complicated or ruined by the report.
Journalists should ask themselves how they would want a news agency to treat with them if they were in the situation. “I dare say the answer would be with a dash of mercy,” Allen said.