Can Pope Francis Take Down Fake News?

The pontiff has declared his focus for the 2018 World Communications Day next May — 'the truth will set you free,' he says

In an announcement posted last week on Twitter, Pope Francis said he will focus on the issue of fake news and its effect on society for 2018 World Communications Day, to be held May 13. The pontiff’s message for the celebration will be: “The truth will set you free. Fake news and journalism for peace.”

The annual World Communications Day was first established by the Second Vatican Council under Pope Paul VI in 1963 through the papal decree Inter Mirifica, or “On the Means of Social Communication.” The decree, and the annual conferences that followed, were meant to address the concerns and challenges of mass communication, such as cinema, television, media — and now social media.

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The pope will also release a document meant to tackle the issue of fake news. The Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications noted that fake news promulgates false information that “contributes to creating and fueling strong polarization of opinions.”

This “distortion of facts,” says the statement, has a direct impact on individual and societal behaviors. Because of its influence on culture and society, the Catholic Church will be studying the causes and “consequences of misinformation in the media.” Journalism should “always [seek] the truth” and promote understanding, not polarization, among people, said the statement. But with the rise of the internet and social media and the widespread ease of publishing today, truth-seeking and understanding are far from the focus, alas.

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Fake news was once known as propaganda, or the deliberate spread of misinformation to mislead the public for either financial and political gain. Now, though, fake news has expanded to include articles that misrepresent reality — most often by leaving out all the facts; by using headlines that misrepresent, mislead or bait readers; or by sharing an underlying bias and reporting only one side of a story.

The term fake news gained widespread popularity during the 2016 presidential election, when President Donald Trump attacked news outlets such as CNN for propagating fake news. While Trump and his supporters continued to cite instances of fake news from liberally biased media outlets, those same media outlets attacked right-leaning media for the same thing. As the Vatican aptly observed, the use and presence of fake news has contributed to the increased polarization of a nation already split politically.

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Pope Francis is no stranger to such polarization or the spread of biased or fake news. Since assuming the papacy, his comments, actions and motives have been consistently labeled political and liberal, even though in a perfect world the pope and the church in general do not or should not have a political mission. The mission of the church is to lead souls to Christ — whereas political parties concern themselves with the state, government, and the associated powers therein.

Pope Francis has been labeled a darling of the Left. However, this labeling is hardly new: Pope John Paul II and even Pope Benedict XVI were labeled as darlings of the Right.

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The problem of fake news is especially concerning, since so many young adults can’t assess and analyze information properly. Researchers from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education found that many students from middle school through college lack the ability to evaluate information at a basic level — and can’t distinguish between real news and fake news.

They also don’t have the ability to verify sources of news for accuracy. The church has picked up on this — and will attack it head-on via World Communications Day.

Truth cannot take a back seat to sensationalized news.

The secretariat stressed the importance of fact checking and source checking in a separate interview with Vatican Radio; it’s necessary to verify sources, as this is the primary rule of journalism. It added that truth cannot take a back seat to quick information and sensationalized news.

What is needed now is revisiting the “foundations of ethics and the ethics of the journalistic profession,” as well as returning to critical thinking and reasoning — by both the journalist and the reader. These ethics include seeking truth and reporting it accurately, as well as interpreting information fairly. An honest context does not misrepresent, oversimplify, or promote a personal narrative or political idea held by either the journalist, the media, or the masses.

Steffani Jacobs is a freelance writer based in the Twin Cities area.

(photo credit, homepage image: Edgar Jiménez, Flickr; photo credit, article image: Alfredo Borba, Flickr)

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