In February, members of the Catholic media will observe Catholic Press Month. It is an opportunity to celebrate the role of Catholic journalists in reporting and interpreting the news of the church. The observance is even more relevant today, following the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of rioters who ransacked the Capitol and killed Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick.
Catholic journalists stand in unity with our colleagues in the secular press who strive to bring truth and clarity to events around the world. Professional journalists fill an important function in our democracy, one that is upheld in the First Amendment of the Constitution. It is times like the Capitol siege that make us all aware of the news media’s crucial role.
Like police, members of the news media were attacked by rioters. Journalists were there to report — by words and by images — on the events taking place. Instead, they found themselves as targets of angry rioters, who have been conditioned by former President Donald Trump to see the media as “fake” and “the enemy of the people.”
One of the images captured by photojournalists on the scene was a three-word warning etched into a door at the Capitol by rioters: “Murder the media.”
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, a freelance photojournalist for The Washington Post, told Columbia Journalism Review that three people threatened to shoot her during the day. “At one point, a guy leaned over to me and said, ‘I’m coming back with a gun tomorrow and I’m coming for you.’”
Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that the violence displayed toward the media “has no place in democracy.”
“For the past four years, the Trump administration has lobbed attacks against individual and institutional news media,” he added. “As the world has now witnessed, this rhetoric is not just a political diversion — it can embolden mobs to attack reporters who are simply trying to do their job of keeping the public informed.”
Pope Francis has defended the important role of the news media.
“Freedom of the press and of expression is an important indicator of the state of a country’s health,” Pope Francis told members of the Foreign Press Association in 2019. “Let’s not forget that one of the first things dictatorships do is remove freedom of the press or mask it, not leaving it free.”
Are members of the news media responsible for misinformation and lies, as some people suggest? Journalists, who study their trade at universities across the country, follow the established ethics of their profession. For example, at Marquette University in Milwaukee (which trains some of the country’s top journalists, including many in the Catholic press), courses on media ethics are a required part of the curriculum.
When news outlets do make mistakes, they are held accountable. Consequences can range from publishing corrections and clarifications to facing lawsuits for libel. Like any profession, the news media has its challenges. Mergers and consolidations, as well as the quest for profits, have impacted resources for covering news and even the direction of news coverage.
Much of the “misinformation” that plagues our world today is due to websites and blogs, and now social media, that seem to make anyone with an opinion a “news outlet.” People like Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist who hosts the “InfoWars” website, are responsible for blurring the lines between reality and “fake” news.
Three days after the Capitol siege, Pope Francis spoke to an Italian news outlet about the event.
“Even in the most mature state, there’s always something that doesn’t work — people who take a path that’s against the community, against democracy, against the common good,” he said. “But thanks be to God that this has burst out, and there was a chance to see it well, because now you can try and heal it.”
Without the news media’s coverage of the Capitol attack, a “chance to see and to heal” would be impossible. And that would truly be a miscarriage of the media’s responsibility in our democracy.