Moral Limit On Media?

Authored By: Fr. William Saunders

Straight Answers from Father William Saunders


What does the Catholic Church teach concerning the moral responsibility of journalists, reporters and newscasters? -- A reader in Alexandria

The new addresses the moral responsibility of journalists, reporters and newscasters under the heading of the Eighth Commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." However, before addressing these individuals in particular, the lays the foundational principles regarding speech or other communication which are binding for everyone.

Each of us is exhorted to live in the truth of God: "The Old Testament attests that God is the source of all truth. His Word is truth. His Law is truth. His 'faithfulness endures to all generations.' Since God is 'true' the members of His people are called to live in the truth" (No. 2464). For Christians this exhortation has an even greater impact because of Jesus. He is the Word of God who became flesh (Jn 1:14). He is the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:5). Jesus asserted, "If you live according to My teaching, you are truly My disciples; then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:31-32).

Therefore, Christians are bound to live by the truth, both in word and deed. Jesus said, "Say, 'Yes' when you mean 'Yes' and 'No' when you mean 'No'" (Mt 5:37). Sins against the truth include the following: lying, which seeks to deceive someone by speaking falsehood; false witness or perjury, which seeks to derail the exercise of justice; boasting, which exaggerates one's accomplishments; rash judgment, which assumes as true the moral fault of someone else without sufficient reason; detraction, which reveals someone's faults or failings to others when there was no real reason to do so; calumny, which harms the reputation of another person through false testimony; flattery, which condones or encourages another's wrongful acts; and irony, which characterizes some aspect of another's behavior in a harmful or malicious way (, No. 2475-2485). Although we are addressing these issues in the context of our faith, any reasonable person -- believer or not -- would see the evil behind these actions.

While we are bound to be truthful, we must also remember that no one has the right to know everything. No one has the unconditional right to the truth (No. 2488). Circumstances arise which prevent us, out of love, from revealing the truth or the whole truth to someone who asks for it. "Charity and respect for the truth should dictate response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it" (No. 2489).

For instance, priests are forbidden under the pain of excommunication ever to reveal the contents of a confession; civil servants are bound to keep certain secrets for the protection of the country; physicians, lawyers and others have confidential information which must be kept secret, except in the case of the most exceptional circumstances, such as the well- being of the client.

While we do not lie in these situations, prudence determines what can and cannot be revealed so as to protect a greater good. Again, while this caveat is part of our Catholic teaching, any reasonable person -- believer or not -- can see the goodness behind these guidelines.

These very principles govern those individuals who work in the mass media -- television, radio, press, movies, etc. The Second Vatican Council's 1963 "Decree on the Means of Social Communication" ("Inter Mirifica") addressed the advancing role of the media in everyday life. All of us realize the important task of the various communications media to disseminate many types of information as well as to assist in the formation and diffusion of ideas and sound public opinion. By doing so, the media should enrich the lives of the community it serves.

Nevertheless, journalists, reporters and newscasters are morally bound to be truthful and work within the limits set by justice and charity. Those who work in the media wield great power. Therefore the information must be presented honestly, fairly and properly. The media must maintain a fair balance between the requirements for the common good and respecting the individual's rights. "Interference by the media in the private lives of persons engaged in political or public activity is to be condemned to the extent that it infringes upon their privacy and freedom" (No. 2492). Moreover, the media must never defame individuals (No. 2497). Journalists, reporters and newscasters must strive to maintain basic key virtues in their reporting -- honesty, fairness, justice, charity. By adhering to these virtues, they will serve to strengthen the common good and the solidarity among people.

During my time as a priest, I have come to know two journalists and one radio newscaster who were very much concerned about reporting the facts fairly and honestly in an unbiased manner. However, I am sad to say that I think they are the exception rather than the norm, especially in light of more recent experiences. I have dealt with certain journalists, reporters and newscasters who are like voyeurs, who invade the privacy of a person or distort the factual base just so they can create a sensational story.

In three minutes of air time, a newscaster can destroy the life-long reputation of an individual by focusing on some particular angle and by weaving a story based on conjecture and innuendo. Sadly, the victim may have spent years doing many good things and have benefitted the lives of countless people, and yet none of that side is portrayed. Such a tragedy occurs particularly when the victim has died and cannot defend himself. As Marc Antony spoke in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones." I believe that some members of the media simply wage a vendetta to chip away at all of our heroes until they fall and then bury the good they did. Instead of assisting in the formation of wholesome ideas by fairly presenting all sides of an issue, journalists, reporters and newscasters can also promote their own particular agenda and persecute those who stand in opposition. Pope John Paul II, in , lamented, "The media have conditioned society to listen to what it wants to hear. An even worse situation occurs when theologians and especially moralists ally themselves with the media, which obviously pay a great deal of attention to what they have to say when it opposes 'sound doctrine'" (pp. 172-3). Yes, I fear many journalists and newscasters believe they have the truth and will do all they can to manipulate the public into believing it, especially by casting doubts or disparagement upon the opposition.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, "In journalism, the modern man wants controversy, not truth." Part of the moral problem, then, is also what we, the viewer, reader and listener are willing to accept and buy. We need to hold our journalists, reporters and newscasters to the same standard which governs us and any reasonable individual.

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the May 18, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377- 0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.

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