In his message for the 51st World Communications Day that is traditionally celebrated on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, which is May 28 this year, Pope Francis has given a pastoral directive for those involved in the media apostolate, hitting at the same time a very critical nerve of mainstream journalism.
The Holy Father said, “I would like to encourage everyone to engage in constructive forms of communication that reject prejudices towards others and foster a culture of encounter, helping all of us view the world around us with realism and trust…
I am convinced that we have to break the vicious circle of anxiety and stem the spiral of fear resulting from a constant focus on ‘bad news’ (wars, terrorism, scandals and all sorts of human failure.)” And he enjoins, “I propose that all of us work at overcoming that feeling of growing discontent and resignation that can at times generate apathy, fear or the idea that evil has no limits.”
At first glance, this cuts across the basic values of journalism itself. The traditional elements of news such as objectivity, balance and accuracy will certainly frown upon a one-sided or selective reportage. A well-meaning journalist will certainly sneer with an eclectic news story that is intentionally crafted to generate only one side of the sentiment spectrum. In his remarks during the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America in February 1962, US President John F. Kennedy said, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
On deeper look, however, one discovers that that is not the pastoral direction of Pope Francis in his message for this year’s World Communications Day. The media landscape has changed. And so are the givens. The “man bites dog” aphorism in journalism which describes how the unusual, infrequent event is more likely to be reported as news than the ordinary was true during the times past when news was controlled by gatekeepers and mighty publishers. Those were the days when reporters held on to the journalistic saying, “You never read about a plane that did not crash.” In the face of a fast-changing media environment that is characterized by the proliferation fake news, massive and indiscriminate social media utilization, and the tabloidization of news, traditional journalism is painfully undergoing a “legitimacy crisis”.
The Pope says, “I would like, then, to contribute to the search for an open and creative style of communication that never seeks to glamorize evil but instead to concentrate on solutions and to inspire a positive and responsible approach on the part of its recipients. I ask everyone to offer the people of our time storylines that are at heart “good news”. His “constructive forms of communication” is actually today’s emerging trend in journalism. The Windesheim’s School of Journalism in the Netherlands is the first international school of journalism that has integrated “constructive journalism” into its curriculum.
But this aside, it is interesting to note that Twitter recently reported that in its social media platform “positive messages have more engagement and obtain more reach on our global platform that negative content.” Another study reveals that at Huffington Post, “content that is about good news, stories that reinforce our faith in human nature are shared three times more on the Huffington Post than the combined average of all our other sections’ share rate.”
But Pope Francis’ call for “constructive forms of communication” is more than the merely constructive journalism. He says, “Everything depends on the way we look at things, on the lens we use to view them. If we change that lens, reality itself appears different. So how can we begin to ‘read’ reality through the right lens?… For us Christians, that lens can only be the good news, beginning with the Good News par excellence: ‘the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.’ (Mk 1:1).”
A Catholic journalist sees reality from the lens of his Christian perspective, from the mindset of the Gospel. Unlike the “objectivity” of a mainstream journalist that is tied up with the editorial policies of the news network, the “truth” of a Catholic journalist is as transcendent and as encompassing as the Gospel itself. Truth to tell, the constructive form of communication of a Catholic communicator has to be solidly founded on that “Truth” that gives “hope and trust in our time.” In fact, as the Holy Father puts it, it is shaped and secured with a unique confidence—a “confidence in the seed of God’s Kingdom and in the mystery of Easter.”
This new pastoral directions of Pope Francis in this fast-morphing world of social communications will spur the Church to give birth to new breed of Catholic communicators whose journalistic constructs must come from within. Or Christian faith, to put it more bluntly.