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Society must use media to help us understand ourselves

By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register

02/17/2016

TORONTO (CCN) — The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has decided it doesn’t need a communications committee any more.

The bishops’ conference quietly axed its communications committee the last week of January, hard on the heels of news that Canada’s newspaper industry had killed off two small city dailies in Guelph, Ont., and Kelowna, B.C., and merged the competing Sun and Postmedia newsrooms in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, sending 90 journalists out onto the job market.

The CCCB communications committee had once been a full-scale commission of the bishops with separate groups to deal with communications issues in French and English Canada. It was downgraded to a single, bilingual consultative committee in 2007. In its recent configuration the committee was largely concerned with internal communications issues and the CCCB’s website.

“The hope of the executive committee and the permanent council is that we can work more in collaboration with dioceses at the communication level, and maybe also the media — I mean the religious press,” said spokesperson René Laprise.

At the Holy See, Pope Francis’ message for World Communications Day is concerned not so much with how the church portrays itself in media as how society and individuals understand themselves through media.

“Communication has the power to build bridges,” writes the pope. “To enable encounter and inclusion and thus to enrich society . . . to heal wounded memories and to build peace and harmony.”

These are high ideals for journalists at a time when traditional journalism is under threat. Catholic Register columnist Peter Stockland, who worked more than 30 years in newspapers, including four years as editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette, said newspapers bear some responsibility for their own demise in Canada.

“The economic structures were a train wreck waiting to happen for decades. The idea that the Internet killed newspapers is a partial truth at best,” Stockland said.

For many years Canada’s newspaper industry typically took 30- and 40-per-cent profits out of their operations without reinvesting in either technology or journalism, said Stockland.

“We clearly need a different economic model. We also need a different editorial model.”

From the time that The Washington Post effectively brought down the Nixon administration with investigative reporting, the ideals of journalists subtly shifted through the 1980s and ’90s. Instead of the daily grind of ordinary reporting on city council, police, courts, sports and trends, newspapers lived for the next major scandal and thought of themselves as the one institution that could hold public figures to account.

“Everybody became Woodward and Bernstein. There was a kind of pomposity,” said Stockland. “That sort of unworkable or unsustainable economic model ran headlong into an editorial model of ‘We know best.’ . . . Journalists should never pretend that we know best.”

It is the problem of authority and how it is misused both online and in print that most concerns the Pontifical Council on Social Communications, said Salt + Light Media Foundation CEO Rev. Tom Rosica. Rosica has been a longtime member of the council.

“This year the message is in the very specific context of the Year of Mercy,” said Rosica. “But language is everything. The church recognizes that there are very serious problems with the language that is being used and the pseudo-authority that is being invoked. We have to apply the principles of charity to the Internet as well.”

Pope Francis puts the problem in terms of “vicious circles of condemnation and vengeance which continue to ensnare individuals and nations, encouraging expressions of hatred.”

In the context of mercy, media can’t engage in a game of “gotcha” or self-righteous poses, Francis said.

“Where they must firmly condemn evil, they should never try to rupture relationships and communication,” says Francis’ Communications Day message.

The basic ethos of news reporting in Canada began to lose its credibility and connection with ordinary readers when editors and reporters lost sight of both sides of their mission, said Stockland.

“The old phrase used to be that the job of a newspaper was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” he said. “What happened was that the afflicting the comfortable part came very much at the expense of the comforting the afflicted part. Even within whatever remains of print publication, that comforting of the afflicted is really what needs to take precedence again. The balance needs to be restored.”

Pope Francis argues for exactly that balance in how the church communicates with itself and the world.

“May our way of communicating help to overcome the mindset that neatly separates sinners from the righteous,” he writes. “Our primary task is to uphold the truth with love.”

World Day of Communication this year is celebrated on May 8. The patron saint of journalists is St. Francis de Sales, whose feast day is Jan. 24.

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