Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘media ethics’

With the Leveson Report just out, and the Year of Faith ongoing, I went back to the document Inter Mirifica, the Decree on the Media of Social Communications from the Second Vatican Council, promulgated on 4 December 1963.

Double Octuple Newspaper Press  by Sue Clarke

It has to be said that this is not the most celebrated of the documents from Vatican II. Many commentators think that it was not creative enough, not sensitive to the moment, not aware of the need for the Church to open out to the world. But it’s interesting to read – fifty years later – the two main paragraphs that concern what we would now call ‘media ethics’ (see paragraphs 5 and 12 copied below).

The primary concern is to protect the freedom of the press, and to highlight the importance of a free media for the common good. I don’t know the background to the document well, but one of the defining features of the political landscape will have been the Cold War, and the multiple threats to freedom that were emerging in Eastern Bloc countries. The main worry for the Council fathers was not press intrusion but state intrusion. So they assert the ‘right to information’.

Nevertheless, this right is not absolute. It requires truth, justice, charity; respect for the laws of morality and the rights and dignity of individuals; and the manner of communication should be ‘proper and decent’. Public authority should protect this freedom of information, but it is also obliged ‘to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media’. The language is almost archaic; the meaning is clear.

So you can’t move from Inter Mirifica to a concrete conclusion about which recommendations in the Leveson report to implement, but there are some helpful principles here which seem as relevant as they were fifty years ago.

Here are the relevant paragraphs:

5. It is, however, especially necessary that all parties concerned should adopt for themselves a proper moral outlook on the use of these media, especially with respect to certain questions that have been vigorously aired in our day.

The first question has to do with “information,” as it is called, or the search for and reporting of the news. Now clearly this has become most useful and very often necessary for the progress of contemporary society and for achieving closer links among men. The prompt publication of affairs and events provides every individual with a fuller, continuing acquaintance with them, and thus all can contribute more effectively to the common good and more readily promote and advance the welfare of the entire civil society. Therefore, in society men have a right to information, in accord with the circumstances in each case, about matters concerning individuals or the community. The proper exercise of this right demands, however, that the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity. In addition, the manner in which the news is communicated should be proper and decent. This means that in both the search for news and in reporting it, there must be full respect for the laws of morality and for the legitimate rights and dignity of the individual. For not all knowledge is helpful, but “it is charity that edifies.”

12. The public authority, in these matters, is bound by special responsibilities in view of the common good, to which these media are ordered. The same authority has, in virtue of its office, the duty of protecting and safeguarding true and just freedom of information, a freedom that is totally necessary for the welfare of contemporary society, especially when it is a question of freedom of the press. It ought also to encourage spiritual values, culture and the fine arts and guarantee the rights of those who wish to use the media. Moreover, public authority has the duty of helping those projects which, though they are certainly most beneficial for young people, cannot otherwise be undertaken.

Lastly, the same public authority, which legitimately concerns itself with the health of the citizenry, is obliged, through the promulgation and careful enforcement of laws, to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media. Such vigilance in no wise restricts the freedom of individuals or groups, especially where there is a lack of adequate precaution on the part of those who are professionally engaged in using these media.

Read Full Post »

I might as well post the second half of the sermon, which has its own distinctive theme: the need for all those working in the media to witness to the truth, however difficult that may be.

But there is a broader truth to the Decem Rationes controversy. It’s not just that Christians should use the media to witness to Christian truth, it’s that the very purpose of the communications media is to witness to truth. Not just Christian truth, any truth, the truth of whatever is at hand. You might dismiss this as a romantic fantasy. I’m like Toby Young in his book ‘How to lose friends and alienate people’. He crossed the Atlantic in search of these heroic New York newspapermen, whose only concern was to speak truth to power. He ended up working on the gossip column at Vanity Fair. 

It’s easy to be cynical. But my impression of people in the media is that they are still full of idealism. It’s just that the ideals get suffocated by other influences. There are the long-term pressures that you might call ‘cultural’ or ‘political’: to turn the news media into an arm of the entertainment industry; to manipulate the media for political or commercial ends, etc. But for you as individuals working in the media the challenges are probably more short term and personal: worries about contracts, budgets, deadlines; editorial pressures from above; tensions between colleagues; worrying about the present project or the future career; the pressure to dumb down, to oversimplify, to sensationalise.

The pressure to frame the story in a way that betrays its essential meaning, or to follow a story you know is trivial just because others are following it. All of this makes it difficult on a day-to-day basis to hold on to the ideals that brought you here in the first place. Difficult even to keep to the most basic principle in media ethics: to tell the truth.

It’s the same for the church, especially for her leaders and representatives. We are called to witness to the truth. Not just the truth of Christian faith, but also the truth of the present situation – including our failures and mistakes. Nothing can be gained from hiding the truth. It’s only a love of truth, even of difficult truths, that will save us, and will help others to trust us.

So what can we do? Well, here are two thoughts from the Scriptures. First, let’s keep our integrity. It doesn’t mean we will avoid every compromise, or live up to every one of our ideals. But at the very least let us not go against our conscience in the workplace, and let us make sure that we don’t cross that fundamental ethical line of speaking or writing what is not true. St Stephen was killed simply because he told others what he had seen: ‘I see the Son of Man Standing at the Right Hand of God’. He was killed for telling the truth. We may not seek martyrdom, but we can still seek the truth in the highly pressured circumstances of our work.

Second, let’s preserve our Christian faith. St Stephen only managed to endure this ordeal because he was filled with the Holy Spirit and because his gaze was fixed on Heaven. I don’t mean that you should fall on your knees and gaze into the heavens whenever you have a tense moment in the newsroom. But you need to be rooted in something deeper than the immediate demands being made on you each day. You need to be rooted in your faith. This involves the simplest of decisions: to practice your faith, to pray each day, to speak about your Christian faith with others — if the moment arises: that you are a Christian, that you are a Catholic, that it matters to you. These aren’t obligations or burdens, they are the foundations that make it possible for you to stay steady during all the madness of the working week. They are the same foundations that gave St Edmund Campion the passion he needed to print his illicit text, and the courage to endure his martyrdom.

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,203 other followers

%d bloggers like this: