Pope Francis, pictured on Oct. 3, 2015. Credit: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk.
Pope Francis issued a new warning about misinformation today, weeks after he was the subject of a viral “fake news” story.
Writing in his World Communications Day message, released this morning, the pope said that “the risk of misinformation being spread on social media” was now widely recognized.
“We have known for some time that news and even images can be easily manipulated, for any number of reasons, at times simply for sheer narcissism,” he wrote.
“Being critical in this regard is not about demonizing the internet, but is rather an incentive to greater discernment and responsibility for contents both sent and received.”
“All of us are responsible for the communications we make, for the information we share, for the control that we can exert over fake news by exposing it. All of us are to be witnesses of the truth: to go, to see and to share.”
Earlier this month a false report that Italian police had arrested the pope amid a Vatican “blackout” was widely shared on the internet. The report was posted on a Canadian website which had also previously posted a fictitious claim that former U.S. President Barack Obama had been arrested on espionage charges.
In his message, the pope also stressed the internet’s positive qualities.
“Digital technology gives us the possibility of timely first-hand information that is often quite useful,” he said.
“We can think of certain emergency situations where the internet was the first to report the news and communicate official notices. It is a powerful tool, which demands that all of us be responsible as users and consumers.”
“Potentially we can all become witnesses to events that otherwise would be overlooked by the traditional media, offer a contribution to society and highlight more stories, including positive ones.”
The pope signed the message this morning, the Vigil of the Memorial of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers and journalists.
World Communications Day, established by Pope Paul VI in 1967, will be celebrated in many countries this year on Sunday, 16 May. The day will be observed as the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord in places where it is transferred from Thursday 13 May to Sunday.
In his message, Pope Francis issued an impassioned call to journalists to recommit themselves to “original investigative reporting.”
“Insightful voices have long expressed concern about the risk that original investigative reporting in newspapers and television, radio and web newscasts is being replaced by a reportage that adheres to a standard, often tendentious narrative,” he wrote.
“This approach is less and less capable of grasping the truth of things and the concrete lives of people, much less the more serious social phenomena or positive movements at the grassroots level.”
He continued: “The crisis of the publishing industry risks leading to a reportage created in newsrooms, in front of personal or company computers and on social networks, without ever ‘hitting the streets,’ meeting people face to face to research stories or to verify certain situations first-hand.”
“Unless we open ourselves to this kind of encounter, we remain mere spectators, for all the technical innovations that enable us to feel immersed in a larger and more immediate reality.”
“Any instrument proves useful and valuable only to the extent that it motivates us to go out and see things that otherwise we would not know about, to post on the internet news that would not be available elsewhere, to allow for encounters that otherwise would never happen.”
Pope Francis suggested specific topics for journalists to investigate.
He said: “We can risk reporting the pandemic, and indeed every crisis, only through the lens of the richer nations, of ‘keeping two sets of books.’ For example, there is the question of vaccines, and medical care in general, which risks excluding the poorer peoples.”
“Who would keep us informed about the long wait for treatment in the poverty-stricken villages of Asia, Latin America and Africa? Social and economic differences on the global level risk dictating the order of distribution of anti-COVID vaccines, with the poor always at the end of the line and the right to universal healthcare affirmed in principle, but stripped of real effect.”
“Yet even in the world of the more fortunate, the social tragedy of families rapidly slipping into poverty remains largely hidden; people who are no longer ashamed to wait in line before charitable organizations in order to receive a package of provisions do not tend to make news.”
The pope also praised the “courage and commitment” of journalists, camera operators, editors, and directors who risk their lives to uncover the truth.
“Thanks to their efforts, we now know, for example, about the hardships endured by persecuted minorities in various parts of the world, numerous cases of oppression and injustice inflicted on the poor and on the environment, and many wars that otherwise would be overlooked,” he said.
“It would be a loss not only for news reporting but for society and for democracy as a whole, were those voices to fade away. Our entire human family would be impoverished.”
The theme of this year’s World Communications Day, the 55th commemoration, is “‘Come and See’ (Jn 1:46) Communicating by Encountering People as They Are.”
The pope quoted approvingly advice that the Spanish Blessed Manuel Lozano Garrido (1920-1971) once gave fellow journalists: “Open your eyes with wonder to what you see, let your hands touch the freshness and vitality of things so that when others read what you write, they too can touch first-hand the vibrant miracle of life.”
Francis also cited William Shakespeare as he condemned the “empty rhetoric” that he said abounded in public life.
Quoting from “The Merchant of Venice,” the pope wrote: “This or that one ‘speaks an infinite deal of nothing… His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search.’”
“The blistering words of the English playwright also apply to us as Christian communicators. The Good News of the Gospel spread throughout the world as a result of person-to-person, heart-to-heart encounters with men and women who accepted the invitation to ‘come and see,’ and were struck by the ‘surplus’ of humanity that shone through the gaze, the speech and the gestures of those who bore witness to Jesus Christ.”
The pope said that all Christians faced a challenge: “to communicate by encountering people, where they are and as they are.”
He concluded with a prayer:
Lord, teach us to move beyond ourselves,
and to set out in search of truth.
Teach us to go out and see,
teach us to listen,
not to entertain prejudices
or draw hasty conclusions.
Teach us to go where no one else will go,
to take the time needed to understand,
to pay attention to the essentials,
not to be distracted by the superfluous,
to distinguish deceptive appearances from the truth.
Grant us the grace to recognize your dwelling places in our world
and the honesty needed to tell others what we have seen.