Communicating the Truth in a Post-Truth World
A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: Sharing the Good News has become far more difficult in an era where feelings matter more than facts and secularized cultural elites see religion as a threat. But the Truth will always prevail.
In 2016, at the height of the “fake news” phenomenon, the Oxford English Dictionary announced its “Word of the Year 2016”: “post-truth,” which it defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Social media are a fundamental component of this phenomenon. As anyone who spends much time on Twitter, TikTok, Facebook or Instagram can attest, virtually all political, social or moral discussions there quickly degenerate into name calling, ad hominem attacks, appeals to being triggered or offended, and dismissal of a person’s arguments because of various kinds of “privilege,” “violent language,” “trigger language” or “cultural appropriation.”
A recent study suggests that about one out of every four adults in the United States has shared false news, knowingly or unknowingly, with friends and others. What this tells us is that the consumers of unreliable news are not a tiny minority. Instead, unwittingly, a large percentage of the adult population actively engages in its spread.
This is the media environment that helped inspire the recent conference “Journalism in a Post-Truth World,” held March 10-11 at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The result of a partnership between EWTN News and Franciscan University of Steubenville, the conference brought together journalists and consumers of news to explore the craft and field of journalism in what we all recognize is a challenging and tumultuous era. This column is based on my keynote address, “Communicating the Truth in a Post-Truth World.”
Authentic religious information is the Good News, and as such, it is always directly opposed to untruth. St. Francis de Sales, the Church’s patron saint of writers and journalists, used to slide doctrinal pamphlets, detailing the truths of Catholic dogmas, underneath the doors of Calvinists’ homes. St. Francis de Sales used religious information to evangelize.
However, there has always been the problem of false information, untruth. So, what makes a post-truth era such a prevalent problem in our own days?
The proliferation of information from myriad digital sources has clearly caused difficulties in vetting and attempting to verify information.
In addition, the convergence of traditional news media with online and digital media and a global 24-hour news cycle has led to a pressure to report news more quickly — and often without the reliance on traditional journalistic standards and verifications.
Another factor at play is the changing economy of the traditional news space. The wall of separation between advertising and editorial has crumbled. As legacy news outlets have shifted to reliance on digital advertising revenue, they are increasingly under pressure to attract more and more digital readers — which increases the likelihood that they may publish material not because it is accurate or newsworthy, but because it gets clicks.
When it comes to news related to the Church and even religion in general, the issue of fake news is compounded by the fact that the secular media simply has little knowledge on religious subjects, especially the Catholic Church. And even worse, they deliberately reject any notion of objective truth and, increasingly, even basic scientific fact in the name of ideology and relativism. Further, many secular journalists simply do not share the same values and goals as believers or authentically Catholic media and Catholic journalists.
At the same time, we have a general public skepticism about both facts and statistics. Empirical studies show what many of us already innately know: Humans are biased information-seekers. We prefer to receive information that confirms our existing views. This is sometimes referred to as the “echo-chamber” effect, where true conversion from one point of view to another based on reasoned argument and accurate information is nearly impossible.
All of this — from the spread of fake news and the echo-chamber effect to media consumers’ growing skepticism with facts and data, coupled with the increasing hostility among cultural elites toward religion in general — presents massive challenges to preaching the Gospel in this current age. We can see as a result the increasing secularization of our culture.
This is reflected in the decline of Mass attendance and active participation in the life of the Church. We see this in the dramatic rise of the “nones” (those who identify with no religious tradition). We see this in the growth of secular atheism and religious apathy among young people.
And these are challenges that are not unique to America; they have become a reality in many places across the globe, as well.
Let me be very clear: Fake news and the echo-chamber effect are only symptoms of a deeper trend in culture that now has a stranglehold on politics, media, arts and science — the denial of objective truth.
The late, famed philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand prophetically once said:
“One of the most ominous features of the present epoch is undoubtedly the dethronement of truth.”
Truth does not change, as Pope St. John Paul II taught in his important encyclical Veritatis Splendor. “The splendor of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator,” he wrote, “and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord.”
But all too often today, that Truth is obscured, denied or corrupted in the interests of ideology and relativism.
In media, we see the use of language to obfuscate, indoctrinate and intimidate. Consider how the secular and even some progressive Catholic media work to advance abortion and gender ideology even as they coerce anyone who objects or resists their agenda.
It is beyond argument now that the secular media work to promote abortion, working hand in hand with elected officials and government bureaucrats to advance the entire agenda of the abortion industry. Lies such as “abortion is health care,” or “abortions are safer than pregnancies,” and Planned Parenthood’s claim that only 3% of its business is abortion are repeated daily. New lies have been promoted following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision last June that overturned the infamous abortion regime of Roe v. Wade.
Similarly, Orwellian language is used in the issue of the transgender movement.
The Biden administration has implemented the most radical and far-reaching policies to advance gender ideology — under the guise of so-called “gender-affirming care” — including unwarranted ruinous hormonal and surgical interventions, even on minors.
The Department of Health and Human Services and secular media, however, are joined in their post-truth campaign by Big Tech, where abortion and transgender ideology lead regularly to social-media practices such as shadowbanning, suspension of accounts, and outright blocking of accounts.
Our response to the tides of censorship and intimidation in the post-truth era, first of all, requires courage and fortitude. We will continue to face intolerance and censorship for speaking the Truth, but it is a profoundly worthy cause.
Secondly, we must remember that science and reason are on the side of objective truth. As with both abortion and the transgender movement, biology, medicine and common sense are some of our greatest tools to educate, inform and open the eyes of an increasingly bewildered and confused culture.
Thirdly, we must build alliances, friendships and collaborations across all walks of life and fields among those who see the same crisis of a post-truth era. Along the way, we will find unlikely allies; and while we may not agree on everything, finding common ground on such key issues as biological reality, woke culture, and the lies about abortion will be invaluable starting points for action.
Finally, we must commit to working to reform and rebuild the fields of media, Big Tech and especially journalism.
In these challenging times, amid our post-truth society, we should not allow ourselves to despair or to be discouraged. And as Catholics, we know that it is the Good News that will prevail. Just as the Church has always done in difficult times, each one of us must continue to live and to preach and to spread the truth of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. Because, “You shall know the truth, and the Truth shall set you free.”
God bless you!