Last week, hundreds of Catholic media experts from all over the world gathered to discuss the problem of “fake news” and the challenge of reporting in what has been dubbed by some as the “post-truth” era.
With the advent of the internet and a sharp rise in the number of media outlets going online, competition to be the first to report a story is becoming more and more fierce.
The result is often a mass production and consumption of information with few adequate systems of checks and balances to verify what is being published. Pressure is high to compromise fact-checking for the sake of staying on top of a rapidly changing news cycle. Some entities intentionally offer misleading information to promote a certain agenda or sway public opinion.
Fake news can be hard to recognize because it often contains elements of truth, but is mixed with inaccurate or partial facts. This has led to confusion and a mistrust of information and the institutions providing it, experts say.
An analysis of this malady and proposals for a possible remedy were precisely the topic of discussion during this year's Saint Francis de Sales Days conference, which took place Jan. 24-26 in Lourdes.
The conference, titled “Media and Truth,” was co-organized by the Vatican's Secretariat for Communications and French organization the Federation of Catholic Media (FMC). Other entities, including nonprofit media organization SIGNIS and the French bishops conference, also participated.
Speakers at the conference, who hold various positions in Catholic media, discussed the topic from philosophical, theological, political, economic and journalistic points of view.
Typically an event for French-speaking media, this year the conference was open to international media and coincided with the Jan. 24 publication of Pope Francis' message for the World Day of Social Communications, which was dedicated to the topic of fake news.
In comments to CNA, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Vigano, prefect of the Secretariat for Communications, said talking about fake news right now “is central because the panorama of media has changed.”
With traditional newspapers in crisis, he said, news is increasingly being spread by “a plethora of people who think of themselves as authoritative interpreters of contemporary life on the internet.”
This phenomenon, he said, “confuses presence, at times very widespread, with pertinence.” Because of this, addressing the problem of fake news “means having the journalistic profession at heart.”
Natasa Govekar, director of the Pastoral Theological Department of the Secretariat for Communications, said that while technology may appear to make communication easier than in past generations, “in reality it's harder… because we are inundated with images, but without an education on images.”
“We don't realize the power that they have and we perceive them as if there were just illustrations that accompany a text to make it more interesting,” she told CNA. “We don't realize that they arrive much faster and much more directly than words,” and often words aren't able “to 'correct' the choice of a mistaken image.”
Govekar, who spoke on the second day of the conference about the impact of images in communication, said Pope Francis is a prime example of how a picture can communicate more clearly than words.
She said whenever she looks at the Pope's social media accounts, particularly his Instagram “Franciscus” profile, the comments always say things like “I willingly listen to your words because of how you said them,” or “I like to see your comments or a minute of your video because you always have this smile that captivates,” or “Even if I don't understand your language, just the tone of your voice is consoling for me.”
“Even before understanding what he is saying and what he is inviting us to, we see it. The image, the gesture, speaks before the words arrive,” Govekar said, explaining that people don't need to conduct a study on the image to understand what's being communicated.
Helen Osman, president of SIGNIS, echoed Govekar's sentiments. With the rise of digital media, she said, information can be spread more quickly than ever before, but “the challenge is to provide quality material that people find useful and helpful in their lives.”
Osman spoke to the conference about state of both secular and Catholic media in the United States, highlighting a decrease of trust in journalists. This, she said, is largely due to the fact that journalists are perceived to be out of touch with their audiences, and can also be attributed to social media being used to promote “yellow journalism.”
“There's this growing acceptance or reference for conspiracy theories or concepts that aren't even factually accurate,” Osman said, explaining that in her experience, she finds that this trend is often due to fear.
As Catholic journalists, “we know what answers those fears,” she said, so “why are we not presenting that in a way that makes sense to people and helps them sort through this?”
Other speakers also noted that the Catholic media have not been exempt from the troubling trends plaguing modern journalism.
In his opening speech, Vigano observed that Catholic media are not only victims of fake news, “but we are also authors,” even if unintentionally.
And sometimes, fake news is spread intentionally, when worldliness and the search for honor becomes a motivation, he said. “Fake news is often used to eliminate an enemy or, on the contrary but no worse, to valorize a person who may not have any human or professional maturity.”
In her comments to CNA, Govekar warned that digital platforms can be a new and effective way to share the Gospel, but can also be misused to promote agendas under the guise of evangelization.
Likewise, Osman — who in her speech said Catholic media in the U.S. at times tend to be overly apologetic and defensive in tone — said Catholic media can also fall victim to fake news and conspiracies.
“We're human, so yes we struggle with that,” she said, adding that “it's not easy, it's not easy to hear someone say things or demonstrate beliefs that are in direct opposition to my beliefs.”
She cautioned against the assumption that “anyone who disagrees with the Church is to be demonized or cast out, or at the very least not heard.”
Pointing to the Pope's message for the World Day of Communications, Osman said Francis continues to challenge Catholics in this area, particularly on the need to listen and dialogue with others.
Communications, she said, “is about listening and about trying to understand the other person. So perhaps we can take off the lens that 'this is an attack on me' and instead focus on the other person and say, help me understand why you think this way.”
To avoid fake news, “the first step is to lean in more, to listen more, and instead of feeling like we've got to counter every position or every new development.”
“It's not a debate for me to win,” she said, but “it's a moment for me to understand who you are.”
Similarly, Msgr. Vigano, in his opening speech Jan. 24, also highlighted dialogue and listening as the remedy to fake news.
“The most radical antidote is to allow oneself to be (purified) by the truth” and to have “the ability to listen,” which involves actively trying to understanding their perspective.
Communications, he said, “isn't just a transmission of facts,” but a reciprocal exchange with others. Ultimately, it's “an occasion to build bridges of peace.”
In his comments to CNA, Vigano said that to fight against fake news, Catholics can first of all avoid sharing news that is unfounded and unverified.
He stressed that problem of truth “is in all of society, not just among Catholics,” and said that members of the Church, “we have a greater responsibility” than non-believers to work for truth.
For her part, Govekar said sharing information and working in teams is an effective tool to avoid fake news. She noted that Pope Francis, in his message for communications day, invites journalists “to be guardians of the news.”
Communion and teamwork help with this, she said, because involving multiple people creates feedback and fosters dialogue.
To recognize fake news, Osman urged readers to “come at all information with a critical eye: who's writing it, what is their motive, why is this important to me, how does it stack up against my experience?”
“I think it's a matter of not reading something and saying 'oh, obviously this is true,' but to...verify everything. In other words, don't assume that this person or this material is bad, but verify everything.”