February 8, 2019


Catholic journalism should promote spirals of unselfishness and love

February is Catholic Press Month. It’s a good time to express our appreciation for the faith‑filled professionals who carry out the vitally important work of Catholic social communications. It’s also an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the fundamental values of journalism, especially Catholic journalism.

When I first started writing for The Criterion in the early 1990s, there were lots of discussion about the degree of separation that should exist between Catholic media and Church hierarchy. Many argued that a free and independent press was needed in order to hold Church leaders accountable and keep the Catholic community informed about issues that might otherwise be “swept under the carpet.”

The revelations of the past two decades concerning clergy sexual abuse, and allegations of cover-up by popes and bishops, has heightened our awareness of the need for transparency and accountability. At the same time, the media’s uncritical acceptance of investigative reports by government agencies who claim to expose cover‑ups by Church leaders has cast some doubt on the ability of journalists to convey truthfully what is actually going on in complex cases of abuse where the truth is not easy to discover, interpret correctly, or disclose to the public.

In his 2019 World Day of Communications message, released on Jan. 24, Pope Francis warns against the dangers of using social media to divide rather than unite people. “We define ourselves starting with what divides us rather than with what unites us,” the pope says, “giving rise to suspicion and the venting of every kind of prejudice [ethnic, sexual, religious and other].”

This admonition applies to all forms of social communications. Talk radio, for example, can be bitterly divisive. So can network and cable TV programs. Even worse, as Pope Francis points out frequently, is gossip, the “word of mouth” network that appears to rejoice in the sins of others (real or imagined) and that, whether true or not, are embellished out of all proportion in the repeated telling.

Social media too often raises destructive backyard gossip to a global enterprise. We need only consider the distorted story of the young men from Covington Catholic High School in Covington, Ky., which went viral in a matter of moments and set in motion attacks, counterattacks and even death threats. Where was the truth in the telling of that very sad story?

In The Criterion’s first issue published on Oct. 7, 1960, an editorial offered a summary of the newspaper’s journalistic philosophy: “We will be attempting the difficult task of applying to concrete, specific situations the religious and moral ideals of the Catholic faith. It is not a task in which one can enjoy the easy certitude of reiterating high principles and unarguable platitudes. One must get specific, and to be specific one must know more than principles; one must be acquainted with the relevant facts of each situation or issue. No one is going to be totally right all the time in an effort of this scope.”

Knowing the facts would seem to be more important now than ever in an age when “news”—whether real or false, understated or exaggerated, unifying or divisive—travels through cyberspace at a rate of speed unimaginable in 1960.

The Criterion’s first editorial made a commitment to its readers that is worth repeating: “We do not propose to be non‑controversial. Controversy means at least that someone is awake. It does not have to mean that someone is boiling mad.”

Pope Francis would agree. The goal of authentic journalism is “communion,” the coming together of individuals and groups by means of open dialogue, free discussion, and, when necessary, respectful disagreement over the relevant facts of each situation or issue. Character assassination, vitriolic insults and ideological diatribes are not journalism. They are certainly not Catholic journalism.

Here in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis we are blessed with outstanding communications professionals who bring to their ministries a commitment to the truth, especially as it is lived on a daily basis by the priests, deacons, religious women and men, and lay Catholics throughout all 39 counties of central and southern Indiana. During Catholic Press Month, we owe them a word of thanks and the promise of our heartfelt prayers.

As predicted in The Criterion’s first editorial, our team (publisher, associate publisher, editors, reporters, designers, administrative staff and editorial writers) doesn’t get it right all the time. But as that first issue of this newspaper explained, our commitment is to be true to our name. That mean we truly want to be “a criterion or standard of judging, a rule or test by which anything is tried in forming a correct judgment respecting it.” I think we succeed a lot more often than we fail.

—Daniel Conway

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