Moral radar: Papal media messages can cut through 'post-truth' fog

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — With “post-truth” being
crowned “Word of the Year” by Oxford Dictionaries, Pope Francis’
urgent call to communicate trust and hope could not have come at a better time.

Helping people see the world with “realism and
trust” must be encouraged as well as fostering encounter, not exclusion,
through constructive dialogue, the pope said in his World Communications Day
message this year.

A post-truth culture in which objective facts
and objective, divinely inspired moral principles no longer have any place or
pull in people’s lives is not to be taken lightly, said Bishop Paul Tighe, adjunct
secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

“One of the real risks at the moment is that if we
become totally skeptical about all the (sources) of information, it will lead
to a breakdown of the kind of trust that is necessary for society and indeed
our own human lives to flourish,” he told Catholic News Service Jan. 24,
the day the pope’s message was released to the public.

People need “good, reliable, trustworthy
information” if they are going to make “responsible and dependable
decisions in areas of politics, economics, health care” and other key
concerns, he said.

The presence and primacy of truth and the dangers of
relativism were a major hallmark of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate. He spoke
of its impact on the media in his World Communications’ Day message in 2008 and
even in his encyclical “Charity in Truth” in 2009. In his 2008
message, he called for a code of ethics for the communication industry.

It is “absurd to maintain that (mass media) are
neutral,” he wrote in 2009, noting media are often under pressure to serve
“economic interests intent on dominating the market” and to “impose
cultural models that serve ideological and political agendas.”

Pope Benedict drilled down on the dangers foreseen by his
predecessors, particularly St. John Paul II and Blessed Paul VI, who
established the World Communications Day tradition in 1967.

While early papal messages dedicated to television, video
and audio cassettes and cinema may seem antiquated, all 51 messages have the
same underlying purpose: to bring attention to the potential dangers and damage
caused by swift technological changes in media communications and to best ways
the new tools can promote truth, hope, joy and human life and dignity.

Blessed Paul summed up the importance of truth in his
communications message in 1972 — just a few months before the Watergate
scandal began, leading to discoveries of government abuses of power and the
1974 resignation of then-President Richard M. Nixon.

“The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the
truth” can be “safely transmitted” when the one providing the
information and the one receiving it are both diligent and sincere, Blessed
Paul said.

In this early communications’ day message, Blessed Paul,
in essence, answers Pope Benedict’s wish for an info-ethics guide by saying:

— Giving information is much more than observing and
reporting an incident. The reporter describes the context, searches for the
causes, examines the surrounding circumstances, and tries to assess the
possible effects.

— Reporting work can be compared to scientific research,
since it demands observing the facts carefully, checking for accuracy, critically
evaluating the sources of the information, and finally, passing on the findings
in a way that “nothing essential is overlooked or suppressed.”

— Similar respect for and diligence in seeking the truth
is necessary for those receiving information.

— People should pursue the search for truth
“actively and responsibly” in order to avoid a “passive and
uncritical acceptance of whatever happens to be offered” by the media.

— It would be an affront to one’s own personal dignity
if people, especially Christians, ever relinquished their right to contribute
to the search for truth, which is “not only of abstract and philosophical
truth, but also of the workaday truth of concrete daily happenings.”

— Let people “meet the assault of the mass
media” with an awareness of their own human dignity, intelligence, and
gift of “an independent personal judgment with the capacity to make its
own decisions” and freely choose from the many opinions.

— Religion coverage demands understanding events beyond
“merely human implications,” but also the spiritual context, the “religious
truth of particular happenings” and the “whole divine plan to which
they must be related.”

— Reporting on religion “requires something beyond
mere professional competence. It requires the illumination of faith” in
order to offer fuller understanding.

— Fiction and entertainment provide relaxation but
“it surely would be an unhealthy thing if the listener, or reader, or
viewer, were to allow his critical faculty to be lulled to sleep. The truth
remains a vitally important thing even in a recreational context, and he must
remain sufficiently alert to recognize any deviation from the truth in what he
reads, hears or sees.”

— Artistic freedom and fanciful creations are not
expected to “portray concrete reality,” but they must not deny
reality. “Even they have an obligation of fidelity to the truth and to the
values inseparable from it.”

— True art helps people search for and stick to the
truth, and never exploits — “for quick profits or other unworthy ends —
either the ignorance or the human weaknesses of audiences.”

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