The media as a vast enterprise of neighbourliness

  • January 30, 2014

“You just want to sell newspapers!” is one of the most interesting insults that every reporter and editor hears at some point. There aren’t many professions liable to quite that sort of calumny.

Nobody angrily tells doctors, “You just want to save lives!” Math teachers aren’t brought up short with, “You just want to explain calculus!”

Somehow the world regards the profession of journalism as a disreputable way to make a living. What sort of person goes around asking intrusive questions, compiling all the answers and then telling strangers all about it?
Is there any more convenient masked villain in a debate than the media?

Sometimes it seems like nobody loves us. Except for Holy Mother Church.

Dec. 4, 1963, in the middle of the Second Vatican Council, the bishops of the world declared, “There exists in human society a right to information on subjects that are of concern to men either as individuals or as members of society.” Well, hallelujah. That was Inter Mirifica, the Council’s Decree on the Means of Social Communication. After the Council, the Vatican instituted World Communications Day (Sunday, June 1) and Popes Paul VI to Francis have now issued 48 World Communications Day messages.

There are times when it seems the Church doesn’t love journalists very much. There are phone calls and e-mails never answered, or answered weeks after deadline. There are attempts to shape and direct what we write. There are expectations that our job should not extend beyond repeating official press releases.

But these old complaints could actually be applied to all kinds of organizations. Governments, corporations, charities are always inhabited by a few people who demand control of everything. These are some of the issues I’ll address when I speak on Media Ethics at The Paulist Centre in Toronto on Feb. 13.

The real complaint Catholic journalists have had about World Communications Day has not been that papal messages fail to appreciate how important media is, but rather that they don’t seem to know what a journalist is. At Vatican conferences and in statements about social communications, professional journalists have been lumped in with public relations officers, bloggers, academic essayists, advertising creatives, catechists, preachers and even computer networking technicians. The idea that there is a particular, professional role for a disinterested observer who gathers information and organizes it into a story working solely on behalf of readers has never quite been appreciated.

In part, this is because Europe has a very different press tradition than the anglophone world. When I studied journalism at New York University in the early 1980s, our professor told us that when an editor tells an American journalist, “We need more on this story,” the American reporter goes back to his desk and starts making phone calls. On the other hand the French reporter goes back to his desk, lights a cigarette and thinks about it.

This Pope isn’t European. His Latin American experience may not have acquainted him with the most sober, objective and professional press in the world, but Pope Francis seems to understand reporters and their aspirations. In his first World Communications Day message, his concerns about media are the same ones reporters and editors worry about.

Pope Francis worries that in just trying to tell the story we’re not getting through — that readers and audiences aren’t ready to meet their fellow human beings when they pick up their newspaper, turn on their television or tap into their tablet.

“How, then, can communication be at the service of an authentic culture of encounter?” Francis asks in the World Communications Day message released Jan. 23.

As far as journalists are concerned, this is the most important question before us. Pope Francis redefines the media as a vast enterprise of neighbourliness.

“We might paraphrase the question in this way: How can we be neighbourly in our use of the communications media and in the new environment created by digital technology?” he writes.

Us pre-digital journalists remember when we could assume an audience of neighbours who knew how to be neighbourly. The journalist’s job was to extend neighbourliness beyond neighbourhoods to include the whole city, the country and even the world.

“Nowadays there is a danger that certain media so condition our responses that we fail to see our real neighbour,” the Pope tells us.

How right he is. The Internet has drawn us all closer but strangely made it more difficult to answer the question, “And who is my neighbour?”

(Swan is associate editor of The Catholic Register.)

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