Vatican tells journalists to speak truth

journalistIt is not often that members of the clergy use their position to discuss journalistic ethics. Most of the complaints from clergy that I have witnessed firsthand deal with the way a particular story was handled or how their church or parish was portrayed in the local newspaper. Ministers and priests often reflect the theme we espouse here at GetReligion, that the media just does not get it when it comes to religion.

With that in mind, the statements by Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican’s press office, that “those working in the media have a moral duty to disseminate the truth,” is somewhat thoughtful and out of the ordinary. The fact that the statement is not coming in response to a specific story or the way an issue was covered is unexpected.

That said, Bruce Tomaso of the Dallas Morning News had a different reaction when he posted on the Zenit.org item titled “Journalists Have Duty to Serve Truth.” Many likely share his thoughts:

I read the following on Zenit.org:

Journalists Have Duty to Serve Truth

VATICAN CITY, JAN. 27, 2008 (Zenit.org). — Those working in the media have a moral duty to disseminate the truth, according to a Vatican spokesman.

My first thought was: So do the priests who abuse children, and the bishops who protect them.

Journalists burning out on the God beat are not an unheard of incident. In fact, it happened at least twice last year. One cites his coverage of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal.

There is more to this story from the Vatican than just an attempt to poke at journalists. Lombardi is giving an analysis of Benedict XVI’s talk for World Communications Day which is on May 4. Here is what the theme is supposed to be:

We have to ask ourselves seriously, said Father Lombardi, “if [the media] are at the service of the good of persons and the common good of societies.”

“Often, in fact, we have good reason to doubt this or to be bitterly disappointed,” he observed. Too many times “the media seem to claim not simply to represent reality, but to determine it, owing to the power and the power of suggestion that they possess.”

The Vatican spokesman continued, citing Benedict XVI’s message: “This happens when the media are not used for ‘the proper purpose of disseminating information, but to create events,’ or at least to amplify their importance, to manipulate their correct interpretation, or impose particular interpretation for ideological purposes, economic and political interests or interests of any other sort.

The question asked by Lombardi is one that is commonly asked in journalism school ethics classes. It may be news to Lombardi that his answer may not be the one given in those classes. Everyone would not readily accept the concept that the media is at the “service” for the good of people and society. I am of the belief that journalists are at the service of the facts and what they observe. The good of society is often not clear when the news is being reported.

I know journalists are not required to attend journalism school and some people don’t believe that a degree is even that helpful, but thinking through these types of important issues could do a lot to improve the media’s coverage of events and issues. Unfortunately, the news outlet for these comments did not make an effort to analyze them. Perhaps as the date for the Pope’s speech approaches, others will do some critical thinking on what he is expected to say.

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  • Stephen A.

    Great, more snark from a reporter against religion. Heat, not light.

    Taking journalists to task for not necessarily seeking to promote the good of society in their reporting seems a bit high minded, since it may be inferred here that they are being asked to slant their stories in a certain way to do so (i.e. by ignoring or leave out facts that may NOT promote the Common Good.)

    Then again, many times, several motives other than The Common Good enter into a news story: shock value, entertainment, humor/snark, pride (the “This Will Change the World” syndrome) or greed (to benefit circulation/viewership) so the call towards seeking the GOOD and the benefits to society in one’s reporting, while it may be novel to some, is definitely at least ONE of the motives reporters should certainly be aware of, at least.

  • Sebastian

    This one one of the big complaints against media coverage of Vatican II, creating stories instead of focusing on what was going on.

  • Larry Rasczak

    Stephen A is correct when he says “Great, more snark from a reporter against religion. Heat, not light.” The Zenit quote is a strawman, both it and most likely the person that posted it, are worthless.

    The moral duty of a journalist is not related to or affected by how other professionals, be they lawyers, doctors, or Catholic Priests uphold, or fail to uphold their respective moral duties. One could just as logically argue that the failure of the White Star Line to adequately protect its passegers from the dangers of icebergs relieves Bill Clinton from his moral duty to be faithful to his wife. In neither argument is there any logical relationships between the two points. However this is exactly the sort of poorly thought out bilge I have come to expect from “journalists”.

    The disconnect comes because, unlike most of the inhabitants of Journalisim Schools, Catholics (and I assume Fr. Lombardi) still believe in the existance of an OBJECTIVE truth; and he assumes as much in his request that journalists report said Truth. His point is that the common good is always served by reporting the Truth…(even if in the case of the Church sex abuse scandal) NOT that reporters should be asked to slant their stories to promote some “Common Good”. In fact it is that very slanting of stories that he is arguing against.

    To a moral and ethical relativists of the Press his request will seem to just another cynical request that people slant stories in his favor. This speaks volumes about the moral quality, and intelectual attainment, of the Press.

  • Jerry

    I don’t see serving society and serving truth as antithetical but rather two different frames-of-reference on the same basic virtue. What the article refers to – media bias, pandering and sensationalizing – serves neither truth nor society. There can be value in emphasizing one or the other aspect but I think it’s worthwhile remembering the two aspects are part of the same virtue.

    That said, it’s not always obvious what truth and service to society are in any given situation. I’m reminded of one of my favorite Sufi (Nasruddin) stories:

    Nasruddin is searching the ground under a street lamp. A friend asks him what he is doing. He says: “I’m looking for my key.” “Are you sure you lost it here?” “I lost it inside my house.” “Then why are you looking here?” “Because the light is better here.”

  • http://religionblog.dallasnews.com Bruce Tomaso

    Larry,

    Actually, I think my bilge is quite well thought out.

    And my snark was not directed against religion. It was directed against priests who molest little boys and the bishops who refuse to hold those priests accountable, even as they lecture the rest of us on our moral debt to the truth.

    Bruce Tomaso

  • kyle

    Really, Bruce? So do you have any evidence that Father Federico Lombardi and Pope Benedict XVI are among these “priests who molest little boys and the bishops who refuse to hold those priests accountable” or is it just guilt by association or are you just taking an opportunity to vent your spleen at the outrage of those abuses and picking the handiest target or are you an anti-Catholic bigot or what?

    I assume, based on your logic, that if you were instead covering education and the head of the Department of Education made a comment on media and its duty to the truth, your first thought would be to say “So do the teachers who abuse children, and the principals who protect them.” Right?

  • Joe

    Bruce Tomaso,
    OK, I grant you your bilge may be sincerely heart-felt. Nonetheless your strawman’s argument lacks logic, as Larry and kyle point out. Appreciate if you could help me understand the thought process of leading Journalists.

    Those working in the media have a moral duty to disseminate the truth.

    Aside from who said this, do you disagree with this statement on face-value? If so, then why? What premise do you find faulty… do you disagree that a moral duty exists, that truth exists, or do you disagree with the Church’s definition of truth? Thanks.

  • Stephen A.

    Bruce, some priests and bishops were grossly immoral in those molestation cases. Some “journalists,” like Jayson Blair, were found to be liars and fabricators. I certainly wouldn’t judge ALL reporters by that standard. Nor would I judge all priests by the worst among them, but some reporters continually do just that.

    I’d hope journalists would see good advice and take it, wherever it came from – even if from an imperfect institutions like the church, academia, the halls of government or business.

    While we may be tempted to say “Look who’s talking!” and we may be right to an extent, that’s kind of a cheap shot and not something that advances the profession nor does it help society reach its ideals.

  • kyle

    I am of the belief that journalists are at the service of the facts and what they observe. The good of society is often not clear when the news is being reported.

    This strikes me as an exceedingly odd formulation, although I could be misreading. How does one “serve” a fact? Does the fact have some kind of unmet needs for which a reporter can provide? Surely a reporter embraces fidelity to fact precisely because it is a service to the people who read the newspaper or watch the show.

    That’s basically what the Church is saying, and has said over and over again: journalists serve the common good precisely by telling the truth. There was a whole document at Vatican II dedicated to media, Inter Mirifica; it’s dealt with in some depth in the Catechism (2493-2499); and there have been several messages since, including one of the last major documents of John Paul II’s pontificate.

    Here’s a sample from the Catechism:

    The information provided by the media is at the service of the common good (Cf. IM, 11). Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice and solidarity: “The proper exercise of this right demands that the content of the communication be true and — within the limits set by justice and charity — complete. Further, it should be communicated honestly and properly. This means that in the gathering and in the publication of news, the moral law and the legitimate rights and dignity of man should be upheld” (IM 5/2).

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Shouldn’t an editor be very worried about a reporter who openly ridiculed a basic ethic such as writing “truthful” stories???

  • kyle

    Shouldn’t an editor be very worried about a reporter who openly ridiculed a basic ethic such as writing “truthful” stories???

    Tomaso’s post and his defense of it here unfortunately illustrate the importance of this question, a matter not only of orthodoxy with regard to this ethic but of orthopraxis as well. Where is truth or justice in either?

    Interestingly, the blog post and the fact that in all likelihood neither the reporter nor any editor will ever be held accountable for it outside this comment box illustrate Father Lombardi’s point rather too well:

    “Often, in fact, we have good reason to doubt this [that the media are serving the common good] or to be bitterly disappointed,” he observed. Too many times “the media seem to claim not simply to represent reality, but to determine it, owing to the power and the power of suggestion that they possess.”

    The Vatican spokesman continued, citing Benedict XVI’s message: “This happens when the media are not used for ‘the proper purpose of disseminating information, but to create events,’ or at least to amplify their importance, to manipulate their correct interpretation, or impose particular interpretation for ideological purposes, economic and political interests or interests of any other sort.

    Here our reporter was not concerned with the point the source made or with whether it had any validity at all, he was concerned solely with ensuring that, because it came from the Catholic Church, all who read it saw it through the prism of the abuse scandal. He created his own event, using the power of suggestion he possesses. He made sure to impose his particular interpretation.

  • Joe

    Kyle,
    about the odd formulation of “journalists are at the service of the facts” possibly could be an Italian-English translation issue. I’m logging off my computer now so don’t have time to check the original source, but often times is the case with Zenit.

  • kyle

    Mea culpa, Joe, I should have attributed better: It was Daniel Pulliam’s formulation I was talking about, made in disagreement with Father Lombardi’s statement that journalism is in service to the common good. Your point about the translation is well taken, though, as some of the phrasing is a bit awkward.

  • Jay

    David,

    It may be news to Lombardi that his answer may not be the one given in those classes. Everyone would not readily accept the concept that the media is at the “service” for the good of people and society. I am of the belief that journalists are at the service of the facts and what they observe. The good of society is often not clear when the news is being reported.

    I found your disclaimer either naive or disingenuous. Since you’re neither, perhaps it’s poorly worded.

    There’s so much of the modern profession, ethos, awards, and training that emphasizes journalism as a way to “change the world.”

    I mean, 30 seconds on Google found this page of statements about a passion for journalism by members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. This is not a profession in service of the truth, but as part of an effort to change the world in the direction they think best.

  • http://religionblog.dallasnews.com/ Bruce Tomaso

    Joe:

    I didn’t make a straw man argument; I didn’t make an argument at all.

    I take no issue, and never did, with the proposition that journalists have an obligation to tell the truth. All I suggested was: so does the church. Do you disagree?

    Deacon Bresnahan:

    Please tell me where I “openly ridiculed” the “basic ethic” that journalists ought to write truthful stories. I don’t think you can, sir, because I didn’t.

    Kyle:

    I no more imposed my “particular interpretation” through what I wrote than you did through what you wrote.

    You suggest, without knowing a thing about me, that I am an anti-Catholic bigot. You imply that I’m accusing Father Lombardi — to say nothing of the pope! — of evil acts, if only by association. You conclude, with nothing to base your conclusion on, that I’m unconcerned about whether Father Lombardi’s points are valid.

    I would humbly (and in parting) suggest that if one of us is creating an event out of whole cloth, it is not I.

  • kyle

    I no more imposed my “particular interpretation” through what I wrote than you did through what you wrote.

    You took a statement from a man half a world away, posted the first paragraph of it on your site and then put it in the context of a literally completely unrelated event that you find to be more important, relegating the actual news story to the jump page. I pointed out what you did.

    Yeah, sure, exactly the same. Uh huh.

    As I said, truth and justice have not been your strong suits in this matter.

    You suggest, without knowing a thing about me, that I am an anti-Catholic bigot. You imply that I’m accusing Father Lombardi — to say nothing of the pope! — of evil acts, if only by association. You conclude, with nothing to base your conclusion on, that I’m unconcerned about whether Father Lombardi’s points are valid.

    Bruce, you wrote: “And my snark was not directed against religion. It was directed against priests who molest little boys and the bishops who refuse to hold those priests accountable, even as they lecture the rest of us on our moral debt to the truth” (emphasis added). Maybe your grammar is really poor, but the “they” in that sentence, referring to those who are “lecturing” about the obligation to truth, has an antecedent. That antecedent in the very same sentence is to priests who molest and bishops who cover them. The only people “lecturing” are the pope and Father Lombardi. I’m not reading into you, I’m just reading you.

    I would humbly (and in parting) suggest that if one of us is creating an event out of whole cloth, it is not I.

    Humility is precisely the virtue that is lacking here in your dogged refusal to recognize your very obvious error and bias. But I cannot say I’m particularly surprised that you are skating away without either offering an apology of mounting any kind of coherent defense of what you wrote. After all, it’s just Catholics — it’s not like we’re a protected group or anything, so you can pretty much say what you want and not face any consequences.

    Enjoy your day.

  • Dennis Colby

    Mr. Tomaso makes an interesting point:

    My first thought was: So do the priests who abuse children, and the bishops who protect them.

    I’m sure that was the first thought of a lot of people in the U.S., and that it’s probably the first thought they have whenever the words “Catholic Church” are brought up.

    However, whenever the term “school” comes up, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a similar reaction.

    And yet, as the Associated Press conclusively demonstrated in an investigation last year, there is a serious problem with sexual abuse in American schools, and with a lack of punishment for the perpetrators.

    http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/10/21/teacher.sex.abuse.ap/index.html

    I wonder if Mr. Tomaso thinks it’s fair to respond to every statement made by a teacher or school official with a comment about molestation.

  • Julia

    For anyone who is interested:

    Here’s some more from the new Vatican point man on guidelines for communications from Catholic sources. There is a call for more openness, lack of fundamentalism and reporting on negative news as well as the positive.

    http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/2008/01/media-is-message.html

  • Asinus Gravis

    I find the “interpretations” of Bruce’s comment strange indeed–like they are largely coming out of left field.

    Here is my reading of his comment. The Vatican spokesman said that journalists have an obligation to tell the truth. That is true, but it is not unique to journalists. Others have the same obligation, including priests and bishops. All of us who speak and write have an obligtion to tell the truth. There is absolutely nothing anti-Catholic about that!

  • kyle

    Bruce wrote, above: “It was directed against priests who molest little boys and the bishops who refuse to hold those priests accountable, even as they lecture the rest of us on our moral debt to the truth.”

    That is a plain English sentence equating the speaker he was responding to — that is the pope and his spokesman — with priests who molest little boys and bishops who refuse to hold them accountable.

    What’s more, the very mention of it in conjunction with this totally unrelated news story is either a non-sequitur or an equation of the pope with those criminals, that is, guilt by association. Apparently, every time any of the 1 billion plus Catholics speak anything that challenges Bruce, the response is, “Yo mama. ‘The Church’ molests little boys.”

    But that’s not anti-Catholic, we’re told.

    Again, the correct comparison has been given twice above. By Bruce’s logic, if the U.S. Secretary of Education or a state education official in Texas were to comment that members of the media have a duty to the truth, Bruce’s “first thought” ought to be: “So do teachers who molest kids and the principals who protect them.”

    Does anyone seriously think that would be his first thought? If not, why not?

  • kyle

    Instead of playing the victim, maybe Bruce should recognize how fortunate he is that only a few readers of this blog have noticed his gaffes and take the opportunity to just clarify. Blogging is a casual medium, and anyone who is even slightly introspect recognizes how easy it is to post something that’s not as well-considered as it should be and not reflective of what you really think. A simple clarification would have sufficed. Unfortunately, his “cure” in the comments here was worse than the disease.

  • Bob Rowland

    My concern when the pediphile scandal was being reported, is that many journalists went out of the way to blame the Cathoilc Church that had no way to defend itself. Their purpose seemed to be to bankrupt the Catholic Church and bring it to its undeserved knees. To blame the Church per se for those whose actions were clearly violations of Church doctrine and policy is unconscionable. I have no problem with reporting the truth about the scandal of the bishops that allowed abuse and the priests that abused. But I believe the offenders are the ones that should bear the blame and the punishment for their actions, not the Catholic Church, the 97% innocent members of the hierarchy or the innocent parishioners who have had to indirectly pay the monetary judgments. How many other churches have had to pay exhorbitant amounts for the proven similar percentage of abuse of its ministry?

  • Maureen

    Clearly, the columnist was not indulging in a non sequitur. He was indulging in “tu quoque” — ie, “You do it too!”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tu_quoque


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