Info-Ethics for a Connected World

Authored By: Father John Flynn, LC


Info-Ethics for a Connected World

Benedict XVI on Media Responsibility

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, 10 FEB. 2008 (ZENIT)

The media needs to combine modern cultural trends with perennial ethical values, recommended Benedict XVI in his message for World Communications Day. The day will be marked May 4, but the Pontiff's message was published Jan. 24, the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists.

The theme of this year's World Communications Day is "The Media: At the Crossroads Between Self-Promotion and Service. Searching for the Truth in Order to Share it With Others."

In his message the Pope recognized the pervasive presence of the media in contemporary society: "Truly, there is no area of human experience, especially given the vast phenomenon of globalization, in which the media have not become an integral part of interpersonal relations and of social, economic, political and religious development" (No. 1).

This influence is often positive, Benedict XVI acknowledged. He mentioned the contribution of the media in bringing information and news to people, as well as fostering dialogue and literacy. The media, he continued, are vital in guaranteeing the free circulation of ideas, along with promoting ideals of solidarity and justice

Nevertheless, the Pope added, communication can be damaging when it is used for ideological purposes, or when it imposes false models of life. He also warned against an excessive consumerism, and using violence and vulgarity to increase audience share.

A further shortcoming that the message identified is when the media manipulates reality by creating events, instead of reporting information.

Reporting religion

Insufficiencies such as those mentioned by the Pope are often present when it comes to coverage of the Church and religion in general by the media. A recent example was the reporting on the numbers of people who attended a Church-sponsored, pro-family rally Dec. 30 in Madrid.

Organizers claimed between one-and-a-half and two million people were present. An "abundant" million were at the rally, according to Madrid's municipal authorities, cited in a report in the Dec. 31 edition of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Nevertheless, El País, the socialist-inclined Spanish daily, and frequent critic of the Church, confidently asserted on Dec. 31 that no more than 160,000 people attended the event. One report, on the Internet-based site "Periodista Digital," further reduced the number in a Dec. 30 chronicle of the rally to "thousands."

The Spanish daily "El Mundo," in an editorial published Dec. 31, also remarked on another notable aspect of the media coverage. In spite of the importance of the rally and the interest in the event by many Catholics in Spain, no television station, apart from a minor one run by the Church, bothered to provide a complete transmission of the rally held in Madrid.

In Australia, a blatant case of trying to silence religion came when the producers of a popular reality television program — "Australian Idol" — banned participants from talking about religion.

In a public appearance held at the Sydney Motor Show, the final six contestants on the program were instructed not to answer questions about their religion or personal beliefs, reported a local newspaper, the Sun Herald, Oct. 21. According to the article, apparently the show's creator, Fremantle Media, was upset that some of the participants were being supported by a large Christian audience.

Bias and errors

Hollywood is well-known for its failure to give the Church fair treatment, and last year was no exception. The film "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" quickly caused protests for its biased historical vision. On Nov. 2, the eve of its release in Britain, the Telegraph newspaper published an article listing the many historical faults in the production.

A review in the Oct. 21-27 issue of the American weekly newspaper, the National Catholic Register, singled out the "Catholic bashing" pervading the film. The article noted the sinister way in which Catholics were portrayed and their almost uniform characterization as traitors and conspirators.

Print media is not exempt from problems, and an egregious case of inaccuracy came with the so-called "Gospel of Judas Iscariot," which in 2006 National Geographic announced it had discovered. A recent article reviewed the many errors made by National Geographic its rush to make headline news.

April D. DeConick, in an editorial-page commentary published Dec. 1 in the New York Times, described how he re-translated the Coptic text, finding many errors, including choices of translation made by National Geographic scholars that "fall well outside the commonly accepted practices."

Offending Christians

Sometimes it seems the media purposely sets out to offend Christians. A Sept. 21 report on the London-based Times newspaper Web page informed readers about "a beer-bellied, hip-hop styled, Jesus," featured in a publicity campaign for a Belgian television station. The station, part of the European media company RTL, also portrayed Jesus flanked by two bikini-clad blondes.

Father Eric de Beukelaer, a spokesman for the Belgium bishops' conference, protested at the way in which Jesus had been depicted, and also his use as a "walking billboard," the Times reported.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Catholic League recently protested the comedy musical "Jerry Springer: The Opera," which in January was scheduled to run at New York's Carnegie Hall. "It's an all-out assault on Christianity," said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, the Chicago Tribune reported Jan. 25.

The show has been played in a number of locations over the last few years, causing widespread protests for its content. In England the BBC broadcast the show on television in 2005. This led to court action, by Stephen Green of the evangelical group Christian Voice, who brought blasphemy charges against the BBC.

A final decision recently came in this matter when the High Court ruled that broadcasters and theaters staging live productions could not be prosecuted for blasphemy, reported the Telegraph newspaper on Dec. 6. The article noted that the BBC received a record 63,000 complaints about the show when it was broadcast.

The incongruous way in which Christianity is targeted for this sort of offence was highlighted when, shortly after the High Court decision, a story based on the Three Little Pigs was turned down from an awards competition sponsored by an agency of the British government because it could offend Muslims.

In a Jan. 23 article the BBC recounted that Becta, an educational technology agency, rejected submission of the digital book that retold the classic tale from its Bett Award competition, because the judges warned that "the use of pigs raises cultural issues."

Ethical guidelines

Deficient coverage of religion is just one aspect of problems with the media. Benedict XVI's message for World Communications Day recommended an "info-ethics" to orient communications. The Pope made a comparison with the development in recent years of bioethics, in response to changes in the areas of science and medicine, to the area of social communications.

The Pontiff placed this info-ethics into what he termed the anthropological question that is the key challenge of the third millennium. The media, he noted, involves "essential dimensions of the human person and the truth concerning the human person" (No. 4). The media, the Pope argued, needs to take into account the dignity of the human person.

Instead of falling into the errors of materialism and relativism Benedict XVI recommended that the media, "can and must contribute to making known the truth about humanity, and defending it against those who tend to deny or destroy it" (No. 5).

This is particularly urgent, the message continued, in the current context where the new media are changing the nature of communication.

We all search for the truth, the Pope commented. The media can help us find this truth, as it does in publications and programs that communicate the truth, beauty and greatness of the person.

"Let us ask the Holy Spirit," Benedict XVI concluded, "to raise up courageous communicators and authentic witnesses to the truth" (No. 6).

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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