There has been a lot of discussion about fake news in recent months. The phrase was popularized by President Donald Trump, who often calls out news reports that he claims are inaccurate.
While newspapers sometimes take the brunt of the blame for inaccurate information, other sources, such as bloggers with a political agenda, contribute to and perpetuate the fake news problem. During elections and even during legislative debates, politicians’ claims can lead to inaccuracies and misinformation.
Social media, especially the popular outlets Twitter and Facebook, then allows unsubstantiated information to spread like wildfire. Fact-checking websites such as Snopes.com and PolitiFact.com now help viewers separate fact from fiction.
“Fake news” has even entered the church’s lexicon.
On Sept. 29, Pope Francis announced that the 2018 World Communications Day theme is “The truth will set you free (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace.”
“The church would like to make its contribution by proposing a reflection on the causes, logic and consequences of misinformation in the media,” the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication said in a statement announcing the theme. The pope’s message will seek to help “promote professional journalism, always seeking the truth, and thus a journalism of peace that promotes understanding among people.”
World Communications Day is commonly observed the Sunday before Pentecost, this coming year on May 13. The pope’s message will be released on Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists.
During a meeting with members of the Catholic Press Association-Catholic News Service Liaison Committee in Washington, D.C., last week, Bishop Christopher Coyne, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Committee, addressed the proliferation of fake news.
“More and more, the roles all of you have, in the work that you do, is to just speak the truth and to do so in a way that’s balanced,” he told the committee members.
Bishop Coyne, along with James Rogers, the USCCB’s chief communications officer, said that misinformation by bloggers and others has led the USCCB to release statements of clarification in recent years. It’s something the conference doesn’t do often, they said, because it can raise the level of attention given to a topic.
However, when the topic challenges church doctrine, the bishops must respond, they said.
For example, when Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former staff member, accused the U.S. bishops of supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program because “they need illegal aliens to fill the pews,” the USCCB issued a statement condemning Bannon’s words.
“We responded because Bannon’s quote crossed the line,” said Rogers, who wrote that Catholic teaching on justice for immigrants “comes directly from Jesus himself in Matthew 25.”
Truth and civility are casualties in the modern world of social media and Pope Francis understands this. He calls on journalists to combat fake news and to foster the common good within society. It can be challenging and demoralizing, as church leaders have learned, but it’s a battle that needs to be waged.
— Sam Lucero