It was one of the main reasons I decided to leave the secular media. I was so very tired of fighting endless battles with producers, news directors, and promotions department managers; staff who rarely left the safety of their offices on any given workday, telling me what the story was before I even walked out the door and into the news van. Toward the end of my nearly 20 years serving as a street reporter and news anchor in Detroit radio and television, this scenario of managers trying to invent a story they thought would surely be a ratings pleaser—before giving the reporter a chance to investigate the location or event chosen for me to cover—had become all too common place. I had to deal with it nearly every day.
What made this approach to the news even more egregious was the stream of promotions written and often aired long before the story was even developed and broadcast. And this was in the late 1990s, long before the Internet and social media took center stage in news coverage and the general dissemination of information!
That’s why the 2021 World Communications Day Statement, “Come and See: Communicating by Encountering People Where and As They Are”, is a must read for anyone (not just Catholics) interested in understanding much of what has gone wrong with the communications industry. It is an industry now dominated by fake news, an over abundance of anonymous sources, and the failure on the part of much of the news media to follow basic principles one is supposed to learn in a freshman journalism class, among other serious issues.
We do not need to be reminded of how many problems have occurred from sensationalism and misinformation in the last few years involving elections, the Church, and of course the continuing coverage of COVID-19. As a Catholic talk show host, I spend a great deal of time both on air and off helping listeners take a closer look at what media they are consuming and to discern fact from fiction. We cannot expect perfection from the media, but we should at least expect accuracy and the willingness to report and not invent stories.
Pope Francis opens the Message by emphasizing the words of Christ from the opening chapter of the Fourth Gospel, “Come and see” (Jn 1:46):
The invitation to “come and see”, which was part of those first moving encounters of Jesus with the disciples, is also the method for all authentic human communication. In order to tell the truth of life that becomes history (cf. Message for the 54th World Communications Day, 24 January 2020), it is necessary to move beyond the complacent attitude that we “already know” certain things. Instead, we need to go and see them for ourselves, to spend time with people, to listen to their stories and to confront reality, which always in some way surprises us.
While the entire document is well worth our time, the section that really caught my attention from a news perspective, is entitled “Hitting the Streets.” Pope Francis addresses the problem I faced where too many journalists spend too much time inside the newsroom and on their laptops and phones, ignoring the people and the world around them:
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. 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 grass roots level. 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.
Nothing replaces good old fashion Journalism 101 which back in the day meant a reporter would actually “hit the streets”, as the statement describes, and spend time with those sources closest to the scene to not only verify the facts, but to also get a better understanding of how those sources and others close to the story are impacted and what it might mean for the rest of us.
“The crisis of the publishing industry,” writes Pope Francis, “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 firsthand. 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.”
Pope Francis challenges us further, by pointing out that while technology comes with many benefits, it can only take us so far when it comes to learning more about the human experience. “Any instrument,” he observes, “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.”
As we mark World Communications Day this Sunday, May 16th, perhaps we can all take a cue from the theme of this year’s message, based on a verse from John’s Gospel, where Philip encourages Nathaniel to go beyond the negatives stories he has heard about the town of Nazareth, and its residents. We should all be willing to “come and see” for ourselves, first and foremost when it comes to encountering Christ, but also encountering other people and experiences as opposed to being limited to often faulty, to say the least, media messaging.
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