It’s pretty easy to click “share” on that latest political conspiracy theory circulating social media or listen to every word spouted by the cable news commentator, no matter if it’s the truth or not. But believing everything shared in the media — or believing nothing — isn’t simply black and white, for both being a responsible media consumer and a spiritual one.
“I think the truth is fundamental to who we are as created by God,” said Father Andrew Hart, JCL, theological consultant to Arkansas Catholic and adjutant judicial vicar for the Diocese of Little Rock Tribunal. “ God is the truth, goodness and beauty. Because we’ve been created by God and for God, the truth as we know it and seek it is kind of fundamental to how we are wired and it’s part of our spiritual DNA. Through truth, we come to know God in a deeper way.”
Understanding how the media has evolved can help the faithful become savvy news consumers who only spread the truth rather than falling into the trap of “fake news.”
According to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, Americans are more skeptical of the media, with just 45 percent saying news organizations care about how good of a job they do.
Dr. David Keith spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before becoming a journalism lecturer at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway in 2006. He has been a regular contributor to AETN’s political and news programming and is adviser to UCA’s student newspaper, The Echo. Keith said painting every type of media with the same brush, from Arkansas Catholic to The New York Times, or a local broadcast network to a national one, is ineffective when the consumer describes “the media.”
Father Hart said there are also spiritual consequences of not treating every person as a human being created by God with “an eternal destiny.”
“In this highly politicized age we live in, people are going to be highly encouraged to see news reporting through the political lens they might have or any lens they might be predisposed to. It’s unfair to paint everyone with that broad brush. I think the wise person is careful, whether they’re talking to a reporter or reading an article in a paper, they’re always asking themselves what is being told to me? What is the reason it’s being told to me … To do that with an open mind,”
Several changes happened in recent decades in how news is gathered and received. In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission abolished the 1949 fairness doctrine, which required broadcast media to allow airtime for matters of public interest and includes contrasting views on controversial matters. It gave rise to talk radio.
“The repeated message from a partisan slant, this was not news. This was not news reporting or anything like that. It was a man talking on the radio,” Keith said.
This change also impacted cable news programming in the 1980s, with Keith calling the 24-hour news cycle “a blessing and a curse.” As national cable networks like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC were launched and provided continuous news, it became expensive.
“The problem with broadcast news over print is it’s expensive. So if you’re going to a cable channel, any broadcast outlet, especially at the national level, it’s a team that does the news gathering,” Keith said.
“It’s a lot cheaper and faster and quicker turnaround to have four or five people sit around a table and argue with each other,” Keith said. “And it’s done so, depending on the network that you’re watching, with one slant or the other. I’m not going to say absolutely, but you don’t go to cable television to find unbiased, fair commentary. What you have is the people sitting around the table, whether it’s from the left political spectrum or the right political spectrum, espousing their views, even though they may have their token from the other side on there, which is better than nothing. But that person also often gets drowned out.”
He added, “People see this as news because it’s on a news channel. But by and large, it’s commentary,” meaning people’s opinions versus unbiased news gathering.
Father Hart said a 24-hour news cycle doesn’t have to be indulged.
“There’s a danger with consuming so much news generally, even if it’s all true, because we become overly focused on what’s being reported or how it’s being reported and too focused on the cycle of what’s happening now, breaking news headlines,” Father Hart said. “We can sometimes misunderstand and forget about the broader perspective of who we are. … We need journalism, we need good news reporting, but then that information has to be filtered through a different lens of faith.”
The rise of the internet in the ’90s also changed how news is spread. Before the internet, people received their information from newspapers, television and radio, relying on the journalists to share the news following standard ethical practices.
“We’ve kind of removed that because now you can get information from anybody through, obviously, social media, but also through websites, blogs, whatever it happens to be,” Keith said. “And so people can deliver a message and bypass the media.”
The media is meant to act as a “filter,” not in a censorship sense, but parsing out the information most relevant to the public, Keith explained. Because of this, politicians do not need the media and can share whatever information they want with the masses, versus delivered by a professional journalist whose responsibility is to the public, not the politician.
Before joining the seminary and later being ordained a priest in 2012, Father Hart was a double major in English and communication, focusing on journalism and mass media studies, at Saint Louis University. He considered journalism as a career, serving for a year as editor-in-chief of the seminary magazine at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
“I saw journalism as contributing to the good of society and sharing the truth with people, even if that truth was sometimes difficult to hear,” he said.
Today, he still shares the truth, but from the Bible and Catholic tradition. And truth, whether in a church or a newspaper, is fundamental.
“Jesus says in the Gospel, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’... As human beings, we have the ability to lead others to truth,” he said, adding that if a person is spreading lies, it’s spiritually problematic. “Whether telling a white lie or giving into conspiracy theories, we are in some ways overturning how God has created us to be.”
Father Hart said we only have so much time on this earth and the type of media we choose to spend a lot of time with can shape who we are.
“Even in the Catholic news world there are perspectives that are coming from different places and there is information being given from different vantage points. Rarely do I see anything fabricated, but it may be spun in a different way. … We don’t want to become skeptical of anything we read, but actively discerning,” he said.
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