Instead of bashing the media, encourage good journalism

Categories: Guest Views

July 4, 2014, edition
By Kyle Eller

Sometimes, with a sort of quiet schadenfreude, people will re­late to me their prediction of the imminent death of the main­stream media.

Often it is in the midst of a dis­cussion of the latest instance of me­dia malpractice toward the Catholic Church, and perhaps even the shar­ing of my own war stories, that such things are said, so I not only under­stand but share the frustration and hurt many people carry.

Media has power, and seeing that power used to misrepresent or attack one’s beliefs or even whole groups of people under a pretense of journalis­tic objectivity is galling.

Therefore it is understandable when people in these conversations are surprised to hear me switch sides and start defending the media.

Now, I’m a career newspaperman with more than 1 million words in print, and I’m a lover of newspapers from my childhood. I’m undeniably biased here.

But my defense is not just based on self-interest and personal prefer­ence but on Catholic teaching.

If it comes as a surprise to you that there is such a thing as Catho­lic teaching on the media, let alone a profound and richly developed one, don’t feel bad. It surprised me too, when I first began to encounter it as a new convert who happened to be a professional journalist.

‘Amazing’ technologies

Way back at the Second Vatican Council, long decades before social media and smart phones and tablets and blogs, the church was prophet­ically noting the rapid progress of technology, which even then was giving media a growing and power­ful influence over society. The Latin title of the council’s Decree on the Media of Social Communications is “Inter Mirifica,” and that “miri­fica” refers to these “wonderful” or “amazing” technological advances.

That was 1963.

Earlier still, saints of the church were already capturing these “amaz­ing” technologies for Christ. One of my heroes, St. Maximilian Kolbe, lived in evangelical poverty as a Fran­ciscan priest, but his monks held patents for advanced press technol­ogy, which they used to spread the faith throughout whole countries.

Another hero of mine, St. John Paul II, took advantage of under­ground media in communist Poland to spread hope and made masterful use of the media as pope.

Basically, the church’s teaching and practice is pro-media, not in the sense that we should overlook jour­nalistic injustices but in the sense that we recognize journalism plays an important role in society.

It’s sometimes said (although I’m not sure it’s true) that bank tellers learn to spot counterfeit money by handling lots of real money. Get to know the authentic thing, and the fake supposedly sticks out.

Maybe in a similar way it’s helpful for us to consider what the church says about what the media is authen­tically for and how it is used and ex­ercised responsibly, so that we will know better how to identify and criticize the counterfeit.

Serving the common good

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that media provide in­formation that is “at the service of the common good. Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice and solidarity” (2494).

This, to me, is the indispensable starting point. Here we see the “te­los” — the purpose — of the media. The media exists to inform society, not just for the sake of selling adver­tisements or for entertaining us but to meet the needs of society, and in particular as a service to the com­mon good.

Recall that the common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their ful­fillment more fully and more easily” (CCC 1906). It includes three cru­cial elements: respect for the person as such (1907), the social well-be­ing and development of the group (1908) and peace, “the stability and security of a just order” (1909).

The church has many, many ad­ditional things to say here about the practice of journalism, about how we ought to approach media as its consumers, and more, but I think it’s important to begin at this begin­ning, to recognize in a deep way that the media has an important role to play in contributing to human flour­ishing, both at an individual and at a social level.

In that light, wishing the media would simply go away because there are widespread problems in the way it is done these days seems a bit like wishing the police force would go away because some cops are bad, or wishing the family would go away because some parents are abusive or neglectful.

As in so many things, the old Lat­in maxim “abusus non tollit usum” proves very helpful. It means, rough­ly, that misusing something doesn’t take away the thing’s legitimacy.

Beginning at the beginning helps us evaluate and engage the media thoughtfully. Far from inhibiting us from criticizing failures to do the right thing, it should give us at least a small patch of common ground from which to address journalistic misfires.

After all, we can see how bad jour­nalism not only hurts individuals and groups but runs contrary to the whole purpose of journalism. For instance, when a journalist misrep­resents someone’s views, it marks a failure to accurately inform the public and it actively works against truth, justice and solidarity, directly damaging the common good.

Bad journalism hurts journalism. Good journalism helps everyone.

So the solution to bad journalism is not “no journalism” (or worse, more bad journalism going in the opposite direction) — it’s encour­aging good journalism. And we as Catholics are blessed with a rich vi­sion of what that looks like.

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese ofDuluth, Minn. Reach him at keller@dioceseduluth.org.