(Dialog editor Joseph P. Owens was invited to take part in “Fake News and Journalism for Peace,” a John Cardinal Foley Symposium presented May 24 at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He was one of three panelists at a public forum in celebration of World Communications Day. Below are his remarks focused on the message from Pope Francis released at the Vatican Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists.)
Fake News is a concept that seemed like cheap political bluster when it somehow became accepted terminology in recent years.
How can a craft that has based its very existence on nothing but the truth be reduced to such rubble?
It didn’t seem possible.
As much as those of us in the news business scoffed and turned away the idea that such treachery can exist, here we are, enjoined in a battle to convince people that there can be an honest effort to gather facts, ignore personal interests and present unvarnished information that will help get to the core of important issues that impact people’s lives.
When I first received the invitation to join this discussion at the John Cardinal Foley Symposium, I thought it would be easy. Journalism is based on a difficult set of tasks, but can come so naturally to people who believe in its importance and understand the basic premise that without credibility, there is nothing. Would I be able to talk about the nature of our work, the intense determination to get things right and the potentially devastating outcome of losing sight of why it is most necessary to maintain free and honest communication?
I could do it in a heartbeat.
Would I be able to tell you how to overcome the enormous threat of not knowing where to place your trust? Can I outline how we will overcome the two driving forces behind this mounting dilemma?
It’s more daunting than I expected.
Agree with me, or stop talking
Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Journalism is a bit more complicated than that, but for many generations those were words to live by for dedicated people who seek to right the wrongs of the world and shed light on the darkness of the wayward.
What has it become?
In too many cases, it is “Comfort those with whom I agree and afflict those with whom I do not.”
That’s a generalization that does not include all of journalism, but has seeped into otherwise traditional streams of news.
That’s Fake News problem No. 1. Formerly straightforward, reliable news sources prefer the better attention, higher ratings and greater revenue of spouting opinion and making it sound and look like news.
The second problem, or Fake News Part II, is information generated by someone or some thing that has never had any intent of being a genuine provider of verifiable public information.
Electronic communication — social media, in particular — has contributed to decertification of news gatherers, but placing all the blame on technology is as shortsighted as the media’s long-term understanding of instant communication 25 or 30 years ago.
Journalism blew it. That much we know. Newspapers were especially behind the curve. That has never been more evident. We’ll scramble to tell you how we’ve adjusted. We’ll point to real-time news, multimedia platforms, reader engagement and so many more tools that are making us better and doing more to serve you.
We’ll also provide lists of the five most popular frozen yogurt shops in New Hope, the six easiest ways to bake chocolate chip cookies and the seven best things to do on the Ocean City boardwalk. And we’ll spend a lot of time and effort doing it.
You want to find out if your local school district has a new superintendent? You want to know what your town council accomplished at its last meeting? Or if the neighbor kid won the high school swim meet?
Better check Facebook.
A struggle with the human condition
In a couple of decades of transition, news providers have forgotten where they’ve been, are unsure of where they are going and, most important, why their role has ever mattered at all. What we’re left with is befuddled media.
Pope Francis, in his timely Message for World Communication Day, cuts to the chase when he talks about communicators creating “historical memory and the understanding of events.”
“But when we yield to our own pride and selfishness,” his holiness says, “we can also distort the way we use our ability to communicate.”
“The capacity to twist the truth is symptomatic of our condition, both as individuals and communities. On the other hand, when we are faithful to God’s plan, communication becomes an effective expression of our responsible search for truth and our pursuit of goodness.”
Personal responsibility is a large part of the pathway to overcoming the threat of Fake News. It has always been part of the foundation of journalism at its best and it is at the core of how we build upon the strength that effective communication provides.
Francis helps guide the path when he says: “Freedom from falsehood and the search for relationship: these two ingredients cannot be lacking if our words and gestures are to be true, authentic, and trustworthy. To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose. Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another.”
This is most important when considering the reach of social media. Each person must be mindful of their words, considerate of the potential impact on others. What we say matters. Not everyone is trained in the concept of ramifications of the spoken or written word, but all are responsible, just as we are responsible to recognize the source of information and the intentions of those at the keyboard.
How do you know what is real or fake?
Modern media has made it easier to deliver a message. That will not disappear. It has also made it far more difficult to recognize what is true. Consider the motivation of those delivering the message. We need to identify what is honest and what is not.
For that, it is worthwhile to return to the words of Francis.
He says: “The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language. If responsibility is the answer to the spread of fake news, then a weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protectors of news. In today’s world, theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission.”
In fact, it has always been a mission for journalists.
In fact, it has always been about people.
It is people — both generators and consumers of news — who are responsible for making our way through this tangle of unfettered information.
I have always shared with fellow journalists that we need to have faith in people. We need to understand that people, for the most part, recognize the difference between truth and fiction. It has become a more difficult distinction to make, but it is possible.
It is the belief in people that matters most in our current environment. It is the belief in truth that will see us through.
Pope Francis says: “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.”
That has always been true. And it is has never been more true than today.
(Email Joseph P. Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org)