Inés San Martín
ROME – At a time when “fake news” is spreading, Pope Francis is calling on journalists, “protectors of the news,” to rediscover the dignity of their profession and the responsibility they have to communicate the truth.
The pontiff also said that the first fake news is found in the book of Genesis, when the “crafty serpent” tempted the woman “by pretending to be her friend,” to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
“God’s paternal command, meant for their good, is discredited by the seductive enticement of the enemy,” Francis said. “This biblical episode brings to light an essential element for our reflection: There is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences.”
Hence, the pontiff said, the need to unmask the “snake-tactics” used by those who disguise themselves in order to “strike at any time.” That first fake news, Francis added, began “the tragic history of human sin, issuing in the countless other evils committed against God, neighbor, society and creation.”
Francis’s words came in the annual message for the 52nd Vatican-sponsored World Communications Day, to be marked on May 13, on the Sunday previous to Pentecost. The theme he chose for the 2018 commemoration is “‘The truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace.”
Following a long tradition, the pope’s message was released on January 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists.
The message comes a week after President Donald Trump released the “Fake News Awards,” presented on the GOP webpage as a response to 2017’s “unrelenting bias, unfair news coverage, and even downright fake news. Studies have shown that over 90 percent of the media’s coverage of President Trump is negative.”
Francis began his message by noting that this is not the first time the papal message for this date speaks to the issue of truth, but he was inspired to go back to it due to the proliferation of fake news.
The pontiff acknowledged that the term fake news has been the object of debate. However, in general, “it refers to the spreading of disinformation online or in the traditional media.”
Fake news, Francis wrote, has to do with false information that is based on non-existent or distorted data, and that is meant to deceive and manipulate the reader.
“Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests,” he wrote.
It is a sign of “intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes,” leading only to the spread of “arrogance and hatred.”
“The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict,” he said.
Fake news is primarily effective because it mimics real news, he said, and because it grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudice, exploiting emotions such as anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.
“Untrue stories can spread so quickly that even authoritative denials fail to contain the damage,” he said.
The best antidote against falsehoods, the pontiff argued, is people who are ready to listen, who engage in honest dialogue so the truth can emerge, and who are attracted by goodness and are responsible in the way they use language.
“If responsibility is the answer to the spread of fake news, then a weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protectors of news,” Francis wrote, with italics in the original.
Being journalists, according to the pontiff, is not only a job but a mission, and amid the “feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop,” they’re called to remember that persons – not speed or audience impact – are at the heart of information.
Hence, he argued, accurate sources and protecting communication are ways of promoting goodness and generating trust, “opening the way to communion and peace.”
A journalism of peace, Francis added, does not mean a “saccharin kind of journalism,” that doesn’t acknowledge the existence of problems or that is full of sentimentalism. On the contrary, a journalism of peace is one that is truthful, and devoid of rhetorical slogans and sensational headlines.
“A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice,” he said. “A journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”
Falsehood, Francis said, “can always creep in,” even when what’s stated is true: an argument can rest on undeniable facts, but if it’s used to hurt or discredit a person, to provoke quarrels, foment division or encourage resignation, however correct the argument may appear, “it is not truthful.”
To counter fake news, Francis highlighted the importance of education, which gives people the tools to discern and understand “our deepest desires and inclinations, lest we lose sight of what is good and yield to every temptation,” the role of tech and media companies, and the institutional and legal initiatives aimed at curbing the phenomenon.
Since his election to the papacy, the Argentine pontiff has fallen pray to fake news in various instances. For instance, during the 2016 election cycle there was a story circulated widely on social media which falsely reported that he had endorsed then-candidate Trump.
In late 2017, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke had to issue a statement saying that Francis doesn’t use the instant messaging platform WhatsApp, saying on Twitter that the pope “does not send messages or blessings though this medium.”
The need for the clarification came after a Catholic organization in Argentina, the Pope Francis Foundation, launched a “Wabot-Papa Francisco,” a chatbot that allegedly allows users to contact the pope and keep up-to-date with his schedule.
Also in late 2017, a Northern Irish radio called “Q Radio” suggested the pontiff could visit Northern Ireland in August 2018 in the company of Queen Elizabeth II, while he’s in Ireland for the August 21-26 World Meeting of Families in Dublin.
While there are grounds to think Francis may want to head north of the border while he’s on the Emerald Isle in order to lend his support to the peace process, there’s no real indication he would do so in the company of the 91-year-old queen.