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Peter Stockland: Commandments set path for journalists

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  • November 20, 2021

What was surprising about the Hindustan Times being the first source I was offered on Google for reports of Pope Francis’ weekend message to journalists was how unsurprising it was.

Less than a decade ago, the appearance of the familiar in the unexpected still provoked at least a momentary sense of the marvellous. Today, the welter of undifferentiated information pinging off our eyeballs from all nodes of the globe defines ordinariness.

Like the poor, it seems, the predictable will now always be with us, especially when it comes to reporting on the Catholic Church. Coverage of the Holy Father’s words immediately zoomed in on his reference to clerical sex scandals.

“(I) thank you for what you tell us about what is wrong in the Church, for helping us not to sweep it under the carpet, and for the voice you have given to the abuse victims,” Reuters reported Francis as saying.

En passant, the wire service managed to mention that the occasion of those remarks was the papal honouring of two veteran Vatican-based reporters, Philip Pullella and Valentina Alazraki. With that hastily dispatched in a paragraph, it was back to boiler plate history of the sex scandals that have riven the Church.

Almost entirely ignored was Francis’ far more compelling call for journalists not just to get out of their newsrooms and into the world, but to regard their work as “launching oneself on a mission” to explain, to clarify, to counter fear with truth.

The Pope offered three safeguards against the dangers of avalanche media: listening, going deep and storytelling. Predictably, none of those practices or his overall wise counsel made it into the news reports that I saw, perhaps because the journalists responsible were racing downhill at breakneck speed to deliver the world another tired take on clerical sexual abuse. 

Yet all three of the journalistic habits he recommended form a blessed trinity of first-rate journalism. Anyone who has been a reporter past the probationary stage knows the time-pressed temptation to hear a hot quote and have fingers poised to Tweet it, only to realize doing so would possibly contribute to spreading false news.

Hearing and listening are not, we learn by experience, the same. Staying in place to absorb the full depth of what’s said is the sine qua non for moral journalistic storytelling. Moral, that is, not moralizing. Moral, that is, meaning committed to reporting that is as close as we get to truth on this side of Heaven.

Or as Pope Francis put it: “Today, we are in great need of journalists and communicators who are passionate about reality, who are able to find the treasures that are often hidden in the folds of our society….”

Being passionate about reality means being acutely aware of our own ideological blinders. It also means avoiding the trap in the claim that because everyone has biases, no one is truly objective. Of course we have biases.

But it’s precisely the process of growing aware of our biases that lets us report objectively. Objectivity in journalism, or anywhere, is like looking through the objective lens of a telescope and factoring for the predispositions of the work of human hands. We can’t let the imperfections that we know exist prevent us from seeking “the treasures hidden in the folds of our society.”

For Catholic journalists, I grow more convinced each day, such seeking must adhere to, indeed be answerable to, the great commandments Our Lord gave us. First, we must first love God — i.e., fix our gazes on the Ultimate Truth with all our hearts, minds, strength and souls in pursuit of whatever news is fit to reproduce. Second, we must love our neighbours as ourselves.

The practice of the second, in fact, impels us to steadfastness in achieving the first. It reminds us, over and over, that the sources of our stories are beloved children of Christ just like us. We must tell the truth about them if we are able to live the surprising Good News about Him.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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