VATICAN CITY — Catholic communicators gathered in Rome this week to discuss the need for more respectful dialogue in the public sphere, saying that fake news and polemics must be overcome with truth, mercy and openness.
When it comes to modern-day public discourse, Irish Archbishop Eamon Martin said, “We have to be aware of our language, because nowadays people ‘switch off,’ they don’t hear, and we cannot get the Gospel message out simply condemning everyone who lives their lives contrary to what we believe in.”
Now more than ever, when emotions are high, polemics are strong, and digital communication is increasingly more impersonal, mutual respect is needed in order to effectively communicate with those we don’t agree with, both within the Church and outside of it, he said.
This is also true “in the kind of culture wars which we are engaging in, sometimes even within the Church; they simply drown out any opportunity for people to make that personal commitment to Christ, which is really what the Gospel is about.”
“This is a challenge for us within the Church, and it’s exemplified by blogs countering blogs, Twitter countering Twitter, where everyone is shouting and absolutely no one is hearing anything.”
The remedy, Archbishop Martin said, is to focus, in every exchange, on communicating the fact that “God loves you. He loves you personally; he’s calling you to conversion in your own personal life story.”
Archbishop Martin spoke on the first day of an April 17-19 conference for Catholic communicators in Rome. Co-organized by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and EWTN, the three-day seminar was dedicated to the theme of “Dialogue, Respect and Freedom of Expression in the Public Arena.”
Speakers and panelists included media representatives and experts from around the world who touched on issues such as polarization, “fake news,” defamation and how to promote values through the media.
Michael Warsaw, chairman of the board and CEO of EWTN Global Catholic Network, gave a keynote speech on fake news and the responsibility of journalists on the final day of the conference.
Warsaw pointed to a recent example of a fake story that gained a lot of steam during the U.S. presidential election of 2016.
During the campaign season, a fake news site published an article titled “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement,” which gained more than 100,000 comments, shares and reactions on Facebook alone and nearly 1 million Facebook engagements, making it “the single biggest fake news hit of the U.S. election.”
Shortly after, another fake news article appeared saying Pope Francis had endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, Warsaw said, noting that it is thanks to articles like this that modern society has come to be known as the “post-truth” or “post-fact” world.
Warsaw cited various studies showing that consumers of fake news are no small minority, and, quoting the Pope, he said that, because of this, journalists in particular are called to be “the protectors of news.”
“Pope Francis, in his 2018 message, rightly condemns that ‘spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions and serve economic interests,’ ... but the challenges facing journalism and the public at large today go deeper than the ‘fake news’ phenomenon,” he said.
Rather, the real crux of the matter is growing general distrust of media, as well as a loss of trust in data, analysis and objective facts, he said.
Because of this, those who work in social communications must be offered ongoing formation, both spiritual and professional, so that both individual journalists and media outlets “become more trusted by the public and are seen as objective and reliable.”
Quoting Pope Francis’ message for the 2018 World Day of Social Communications, Warsaw said the most “radical antidote” to the phenomenon of fake news is “purification by the truth.”
“As Catholic communicators and media, we are called to do our part to be truth-tellers,” he said, and “we must take heart in knowing that we are not the first Catholics to live in a ‘post-truth’ era.”
In his comments to CNA, Archbishop Martin stressed the importance of fostering an environment where true and honest dialogue can take place and where media can help “engage in a culture of encounter.”
“We meet people where they are at, some of whom are completely against what we stand for, others who are open to conversation,” he said, explaining that when things get heated, “pacifying” one’s tone is a good place to start, in terms of having a fruitful exchange.
“I think this conference has courageously opened up a sort of middle ground where we can engage in a type of ‘courtyard of the gentiles,’ where we enter that space in which there are some people who are diametrically opposed to what we stand for.”
And this, the archbishop said, can only happen “out of respect, and it can only happen when there is a culture of freedom to speak.”
For those involved in communication, he added, “We can only hope that, with the help of the Holy Spirit and by the grace of God, we can invite people, that we can win them for Christ, by our witness, by our example and by the strength and courage of our message.”