Where do you get your news? It’s funny how the answer to a seemingly innocent question can reveal so much about the person we’re talking to. Whether you read Vox, The Atlantic, or National Review; watch MSNBC, CNN, or Fox; or read the National Catholic Reporter, Catholic News Agency, or LifeSite News, revealing what sources you turn to can be like opening up a window into the soul.
In some ways, the media companies like it this way. Media companies have an interest in cultivating not just a broad base of consumers who are somewhat interested in their products but also a dedicated cadre of core consumers that are kept engaged through emotive appeals to particular fears and the need for community with like-minded people.
This article isn’t a criticism of media companies, though. What’s important here is that as much as media personalities insist they remain unbiased and objective, there is no standard to judge whether they have actually achieved their aims.
Objectivity in the news is a practical impossibility. One cannot possibly state with certainty all the facts that are necessary for understanding any given event or fact. In legal settings, we know that two similarly situated witnesses can come away with two completely different interpretations of the same event. Even if one had perfect knowledge of an event, the choices one makes regarding which facts to present and which to exclude within the limits of a news report are inevitably based on inherent (and often unconscious) biases and assumptions that are impossible to completely overcome. What one person finds relevant, another person might find extraneous. Who is to say which one is correct? This is why asserting that any media company has it completely right is so revealing, because what one is really saying is, “I agree with the biases expressed here.”
In his annual messages given on the celebration of World Communications Day, Pope Francis often reflects on the nature of information and how it is communicated. His comments range from deeply theological and philosophical to the eminently practical. In 2017, Pope Francis tackles the problem of objectivity described above. He said:
In and of itself, reality has no one clear meaning. Everything depends on the way we look at things, on the lens we use to view them. If we change that lens, reality itself appears different.
This isn’t an embrace of relativism but a frank acknowledgement of the human condition. Due in part to our human frailty and in part due to the authentic diversity in the Spirit of God, it is highly unlikely that two people will ever perfectly agree on how to interpret anything of significance. As Pope Francis asks, then, “How can we begin to ‘read’ reality through the right lens?”
For us Christians, that lens can only be the good news, beginning with the Good News par excellence: “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (Mk 1:1). With these words, Saint Mark opens his Gospel not by relating “good news” about Jesus, but rather the good news that is Jesus himself.
All of our individual stories, facts, and life events take place in the context of a much larger and more significant story: the mercy and love of God. There is nothing that takes place on earth that isn’t part of this “main drama” or related to it. Francis writes that faith, the experience of seeing reality with the eyes of Christ, “penetrates to the core of our human experience” (Cf. Lumen Fidei).
In Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis describes relativism as a philosophy that proposes a reality shaped entirely by the human condition. Without an eternal, transcendent truth, the only “truth” available to us is our own convictions and feelings, whatever it is that we ourselves, however sinful we may be, find meaningful in this life. The truth of God’s mercy and love breaks us free of our myopia: “[F]aith is… a light coming from the future and opening before us vast horizons which guide us beyond our isolated selves towards the breadth of communion.” In Laudato Si’, Francis shows how relativism makes “everything… irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests.” Relativism is opposed to love.
Because truth is Christ himself, who created and united man to himself in love, what is true is also loving and whatever is of love is true. This relationship between love and truth is explored at the beginning of Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate and is worth reading in full. Pope Francis, in his 2018 World Communications Day address, provides this practical insight:
An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful. We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.
This has important ramifications for Catholic media professionals in particular. Any Catholic news outlet must understand that their mission is not the pursuit of a stark, cold truth. The truth they seek in their journalism and writing is Christ himself in his act of redeeming mankind. Accordingly, their coverage must be written in the light of faith and with love. Journalism, especially the coverage of the darker sides of humanity, such as sexual abuse by clergy, can reveal the deep suffering of others and in this way open the eyes of the Church so that the Church can find its way to greater humility and holiness before the Lord. But there are too many examples today in Catholic media of journalism gone wrong–stories that may contain some factual information, but are written with an intent to “provoke quarrels” and “foment division.”
For example, articles that willfully seek to interpret Pope Francis in a way that is contrary to Scripture and Tradition frequently cause the faithful to become skeptical about the pope’s authority to preach on faith and morals. To the extent that the faithful are led away from the Magisterium and taught to trust in their own convictions and emotions, these articles are “provoking quarrels” and “fomenting divisions.” They are, by the standard set by Francis, false.
Assuming that there are plenty of division-fometing websites and media companies that are not going away any time soon, what is the way forward? Francis encourages the faithful to practice discernment and not to absorb information without giving it a second thought:
We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data – all treated as being of equal importance – and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.
In an address in celebration of the World Day of Peace in 2016, Francis describes how the sheer volume of information can dull our senses if we’re not careful. There are those who are simply immersed in information but have no compassion for others. Francis writes, “Theirs is the attitude of those who know, but keep their gaze, their thoughts and their actions focused on themselves.”
It’s certainly laudable to want to be informed so that we can be better citizens and more conscious of our neighbor in need. However, there are many dangers associated with being “in the know.” What are some things we can do to read the news more responsibly? Below are two possible solutions.
The first is to approach all news sources with caution and discernment, even those that we generally trust and believe to be reliable. As I described above, all media expresses some inherent bias. It is therefore important for readers who want to understand the truth to understand any potential biases of their sources. Reading multiple articles from different sources will typically allow the reader to gain a fuller understanding of a particular subject or issue. Some sources will seek to present all relevant information “objectively” while others expressly make their opinions and biases known. Between these two, the latter is frequently a more honest approach, and it removes some burden on the reader to try to independently assess the biases of the author.
Also, as Pope Francis warns, there is a danger that we can become complacent with the news and simply take all information at face value. Francis is especially cognizant of the fact–as he discusses in Christus Vivit and elsewhere–that people can have the bad habit of seeking out information “which only confirms their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests.” This is especially problematic on social media because of the way those platforms are designed.
The second solution is to stop following the news so much. In a recent article in The Guardian entitled, “How the news took over reality,” Oliver Burkeman, describes the extraordinary volume of information that we receive on a daily basis. Burkeman reviews the history of the news and its rapid development from an occasional, community-building exercise to today. Burkeman writes,
It’s not simply that we spend too many hours glued to screens. It’s that for some of us, at least, they have altered our way of being in the world such that the news is no longer one aspect of the backdrop to our lives, but the main drama.
Whereas media companies once had to compete to simply get into our lives at all and information travelled slowly, now information travels nearly instantaneously and media companies have to compete, not for physical space, but mind space–in other words, for our attention (and for ad revenue). This has potentially disastrous consequences for anyone who wants the non-sensationalized, non-click-grabbing version of an important story. Burkeman concludes, “Far from it being our moral duty to care so much about the news, it may in fact be our duty to start caring somewhat less.”
Pope Francis teaches that the quantity of information we receive, while increasing awareness of an issue, might actually have an inverse correlation with virtue. Francis writes, “Indeed, the information glut can numb people’s sensibilities and to some degree downplay the gravity of the problems.” We might be well-read, but if we’re not willing to do something about it, then what’s the point? It is better, therefore, to read less, read well, and engage with virtue.
Biases in media are inevitable and unavoidable, but readers can do something about it. On the one hand, it is important to read the news responsibly, cognizant of any biases. On the other hand, there are some media companies whose entire mission is opposed to truth and love and should be altogether avoided. By engaging with the news in a virtuous way, there is less risk that the “main drama” of Jesus Christ’s plan of salvation, which includes the Church and its Magisterium, will be upstaged by the increasingly shortened and sensationalized news cycle.