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How to Separate “Fake News” and Truth in Catholic News

When you read scandalous or controversial headlines about the Catholic Church, it can be discouraging. However, there is no need to abandon the news. In this extract from "Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith", veteran journalist Christopher R. Altieri explains how to separate the "fake news" from the truth.

This blog is extracted from our book Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith by veteran Catholic journalist Christopher R. Altieri

Anyone who wants to read the news without becoming unhinged needs to learn certain practices of mindfulness – the Old School disciplines of thought, not the New Age
claptrap – especially regarding the reasons for which news and affairs publications are giving space to one story rather than another, and why they are covering a given story in the way they’re covering it.

Here, the truths of the faith can help. Whenever you see something claiming the Pope is a heretic, for example, know that you are almost certainly dealing with conspiracy theory. We have it on good authority that the Barque of Peter will come safely to port. We know much less about what condition she will be in when she does arrive.

TRUTH-TELLING

News media at their best tell you what’s happening on the boat and in the seas she’s on. Captains can make bad decisions that lose passengers, crew and cargo, even if they aren’t going to cause the ship to founder. So, if you read a story about how the Pope is not the Pope, your best bet is to read something else. There may well be a story to read and know about, but you’re almost certainly safer getting the story from someone else.

You might call this test the Pevensie Protocol. Many of you will be familiar with the episode in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which the older Pevensie children, Peter and Susan, encounter Professor Kirke and speak to him about their younger sister, Lucy, who claimed to have found a secret gateway to another world. Their younger brother, Edmund, had been giving Lucy a hard time about it. Lucy seemed quite convinced of her story, and the older children were worried about her.

“There are only three possibilities”, the professor tells Peter and Susan. “Either your sister [Lucy] is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth.” There are usually lots of other possibilities in real life, including that someone may be giving a truthful account that does not agree with the facts. “You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad”, the professor goes on to say. “For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up”, he concludes, “we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

News reporters are the people who get paid not to make those assumptions, but to press them, and to discover – insofar as it is possible to discover them – the facts that will clarify the business. Readers are the people who need to judge the issue. In this, the bit that too frequently gets left out is the second thing that Professor Kirke mentions: “It is obvious that she is not mad.” For one thing, people suffering madness frequently tell the truth. They really are seeing the things they say they see. That’s why we say they’re mad.

FAKE NEWS?

Pope Francis had some very interesting things to say about the fourth estate [the profession of journalism] in his Message for the 52nd World Day for Social Communications in 2018. The theme of the Pope’s Message was from the Gospel according to St John: “The truth will set you free.” The subtitle: “fake news and
journalism for peace.” I wrote a pretty lengthy treatment of the Message for the Catholic World Report, the gist of which is worth revisiting.

“Francis”, I noted, “often quotes Scripture antiphonally.” I meant that he will quote a line or short passage, intending to bring the broader passage to the fore of the reader’s or hearer’s mind. That’s what antiphons do. I said that there was evidence the Message was one of the cases in which he was doing just that. I hedged a little bit on that claim, for modesty’s sake, but I was pretty confident. Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve been doing this for a good while, and have developed a “feel” for these sorts of things. Journalists who have spent a good deal of time on a given “beat” will develop such sensitivities – and readers of their copy will notice, if they know what to look for.

Readers will be able to discern whether and to what extent a writer really knows his or her subject, by noticing the kinds of things a writer notices and the way in which a
writer notices the things he or she does. It’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with the writer’s take, mind you. It’s a matter of probing whether a writer knows what he or she is talking about. Writers will frequently expound on subjects about which they haven’t the requisite expertise, simply because they’ve received an assignment, need to meet a deadline, and want to make sure their readers feel they’ve got their money’s worth.

Writers of affairs commentary, especially, will frequently write with more confidence than their knowledge of their subject warrants. That’s not to say they’re wrong – they may well be dead-on right – but “I don’t get writer’s block”, an old journalists’ expression goes, “I get hunger pains.” That is to say, writers will frequently give the reading public what the reading public wants to get, because writers want to get paid so they can eat. Indeed, the best writers will do this reliably.

It’s why they are able to make a living at writing. The really good ones will give you what you need, in a way you like – or don’t mind – having it. Like children and vegetables (or medicine) a little salt (or sugar) helps things go down.

“You shall know the truth”, are the words Our Lord says right before he says, “the truth will set you free.” In the Message, the Holy Father asks how we are to discern the
truth in a climate of intolerance and hypersensitivity, both of which flourish in environs of “instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.” He is right to pose the question, and insightful in framing it as he does.

SELLING (MORE) SOAP

Anxiety is a pretty normal human emotion. We all feel it. Some people feel more of it more keenly than the rest of us, others more constantly than others. Some people feel anxious pretty much all the time. I was about to say they feel anxious all the time about everything, but that’s not quite right. People who suffer anxiety as a psychological condition are not necessarily anxious about anything in particular. They’re just anxious – and their anxiety will go out in search of an object in reality on which to seize. If you suffer anxiety, or know someone who does, you won’t need to hear me or anyone else say anything about how unhelpful our media environment is in these regards.

The media environment in which we live is one built to make us all more anxious – or at least differently so – than we would be, were we living without “the innerwebz” (as a former colleague delightfully referred to it). Anxious people frequently have little sales resistance when it comes to things touted as remedies or relief. When the things purporting to offer remedy or relief actually increase anxiety in the long term, by confirming the need for the thing in the first place, a vicious cycle is born and the purveyors of the product have a customer for life.

The advertising executives – “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue and their ilk – have known this for decades, but these days, there’s another wrinkle. In an age of “free” news
on the internet, anxious readers are not only easy targets for spivs. They – we – are the products being sold. Data miners track what we read, what we search for, what we buy. They track where we go and who we see. They know what we eat. Our phones know when we’re awake and when we’re asleep. Our digital devices turn our lives into series of ones and zeros, and then the owners of the hardware and software that do the collecting sell the data.

In order to survive, news outlets have got to sell advertising. Data help ad-placement firms present users with special offers on products they – we – want to buy. So, businesses collect and track and sell users’ data to other businesses. Websites want readers to stay, so they use similar software to show users more of what they like to read. Click on a story about something very rare and very scary – like meningitis in children – and the next time you open Google News, I bet there will be another story about that or something similar. Pretty soon, you’ll have the idea that every third kid is sick with the disease. Really, one is more likely to be struck by lightning in one’s own living room on a clear day.

It’s small wonder more of us aren’t more anxious than we are. Or are we? It’s tough on a good day to draw the line between anxiety as an emotion and anxiety as a disordered psychological condition. The other states Pope Francis mentioned in his World Communications Day address – contempt, anger, and frustration – may all arise naturally, too. They build over time, are often rooted in some legitimate complaint, and come to the surface – when they do – because of rough or unfair treatment we or others in whom we are somehow invested have experienced.

Nevertheless, a good many of us often adopt postures of contempt in public and private discourse. One used to hear it said that we don’t talk to each other in real life the way we talk to each other on social media. These days, I wonder whether that’s as true as it used to be. We like to read writers who do angry well. We watch talking heads on TV who make sport of the people supposed to be their interlocutors. As long as we keep buying (or using) what they’re selling (or offering), they’ll keep putting it out there. The only long-term solution to this part of the problem – the only way to change the environment – is to change what’s on offer. We can’t do that and keep buying the same old goods. In general, we’re pretty willing to be angry and frustrated.

If I were a spiritual advisor rather than a newsman, I might tell you here about how the way we consume news is of a piece with the way we consume other things. The tools we use to avoid unhealthy attachments to food or sex or money, or break unhealthy habits when we’ve formed them in those and other regards can serve us all when it comes to the news and media consumption in general.

“Fasting” from digital media is something about which there’s been a good deal of talk lately (and for a good while, now), and it’s a good idea, if you can do it. “Just turn it off,” isn’t necessarily great advice, though, even when it is theoretically practicable. It isn’t necessarily practicable, either. “Just don’t eat”, isn’t very good advice, either.

Dietology has developed a good deal, and there are nutritionists and dietologists – trained medical professionals – who can tailor a diet to your needs and goals, whether
they are to lose weight, break bad habits, or just stay healthy. Some of us can eat whole bags of marshmallows at a sitting without gaining an ounce, while others (ahem) can’t have an extra half-helping of Brussels sprouts without tipping the scales. Some of us are built for speed, others of us built for comfort. Some of us need 4,000 calories per day, just to break even, and how one gets them doesn’t matter much. Most of us don’t. It’s the same, mutatis mutandis, for media in general and news in particular.

WHAT IS TRUTH?

“We can recognise the truth of statements from their fruits”, Pope Francis went on to say, “whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.” I’m not sure we can.

“One may as well provoke a quarrel with a truth as with a falsehood”, I noted in the treatment of the “fake news” Message from Pope Francis. One may also force an issue
with a frank statement of truth, or push someone out of the conversation. We can misuse true statements, just as we can misuse the power of speech by telling falsehoods. The devil can quote Scripture. We have it on sound authority that he has, and does.

More to the point: the fact that a statement provokes a quarrel or foments division or causes discouragement is no measure of the statement’s truth. “Sometimes,” I noted in the same piece, “the Emperor has no clothes.” Here’s more:

“Our Lord said things about his coming: that it was not to bring peace but division; to set father against son and son against father; to set the whole world ablaze (cf. Lk 12:49-53). Such expressions are easily manipulated, and perhaps difficult to parse, or at least to apply to concrete situations. Nevertheless, they are at bottom an expression of the basic opposition Christ’s coming into the world establishes between him and his followers, on the one side, and those surrendered to the world’s addictions, on the other – hence, a warning about the inevitability of conflict, for which Christians are to be prepared.

There will always be those, who respond to truth with querulousness, accuse truth-tellers of divisiveness, and receive frankness as though it were offered to discourage. The certain presence of such pathologies of responsiveness must mean that they can never serve as criteria for determining the truth of their occasions.”

“An impeccable argument”, Pope Francis wrote, “can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful.” There’s a good deal of truth to that. Why we say what we say is as important as what we say and when we say it.

Still, a sound argument deployed to advance a less-than-praiseworthy end is a sound argument. Solid facts often hurt feelings when they’re unpleasant. Unflattering facts hurt reputations when they’re widely shared. Those are both matters that regard the use we make of facts and arguments.

When it comes to public figures, especially those in offices of public trust, information regarding their character and conduct may well merit public scrutiny, precisely because it will damage their reputation. “While we hope that journalists will be careful and discriminating in these regards”, I wrote, “there can be no question of their primary duty, which is to what we used to call the public weal, in the service of which it is from time to time necessary to expose the badness of powerful persons.”

Pope Francis was certainly correct to say, “[A] weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely journalists, the protectors of news.” Journalists have a “duty of care” towards the reputations of the people about whom they report. They also have a duty to the public. The public trust is the foundation and reason for the journalistic profession.

NEITHER FEAR NOR FAVOUR

In other words, the standard Pope Francis proposed will always tend to favour powerful people over the little guys. That makes it problematic, to say the least. John Adams once famously said the people have:

“[the] right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and
conduct of their rulers.”

Journalists inform the public. Their job is to bring facts before the citizenry as fully as possible, and to explain them as best they can. Journalists have a responsibility to frame issues fairly. They’re not supposed to show favour. “Fake news is fake,” I wrote in the treatment for the Catholic World Report, but also noted that bad press is often the result of very good journalism.

Later in the Message, Pope Francis talked about the “snake-tactics” that are “used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place”, and said that “we” – by which I took him to mean citizens and journalists together – have a duty to unmask them.

That’s true, at least sometimes. If, by “unmasking” he meant something like knowing how to spot fake news, then – yes – we ought to be trained up and on the lookout for it. There’s no fool-proof system or checklist for spotting fake news, but getting your news from reputable sources is one thing we can all do. Just note that “reputable” doesn’t mean “in line with my worldview” or anything close.

Also, keep in mind that general news outlets like newspapers and magazines will often be better at letting you know there is a story than they will be at getting all the fine points of it exactly right. They’re frequently good on the gist of things, but the devil is in the detail. When it comes to stories on a specialised beat – religion, say, or science – it’s good practice to take stories you see in the dailies and weeklies (and monthlies, ahem) with a grain of salt. There’s always more to the story when there is one, and sometimes the story isn’t really there – not because the story is made up or twisted into something it’s not – because the story is either thin or old or not really that big a deal to begin with, or a combination of all of those.

If, however, journalists and citizens were to make unmasking irresponsible or malicious media types anything like their primary concern, it would soon become their only
concern. There would be little time for anything else, and less energy. Pope Francis has given better advice elsewhere, when it comes to dealing with the serpent: ignore him – and when that is impossible, rely on God. “Do not argue with Satan,” Pope Francis told the faithful gathered in St Peter’s Square to pray the Angelus with him on Sunday 9th March 2014. It wasn’t the first time he’d given that advice, and would not be the last.

I talked a little earlier [in the book] about the so-called “Five Ws” – Who? What? Where? When? Why? – which journalists bring the public in their news reportage. That last one is the synthesis of the first four, and – if it isn’t the toughest to nail down, as I’ve sometimes thought and said it is – it’s certainly the most open to debate.

Together, they form the basis of the public trust that journalism exists to safeguard. They constitute the substance that the ethical code by which journalists are supposed to live their professional lives exists to protect and ensure. That ethical code developed during the age of print. Commitment to journalistic practice informed by that code continued to drive the best journalism through the mass media age of radio and television. It may be that technological developments have affected our culture so deeply and so generally as to require that we ask whether journalism thus conceived and practised is still possible. If the question needs asking, the answer needs trying.

The only way to get the answer is to practise good journalistic fundamentals and see what happens. The public discourse may prove to be unsalvageable – too far gone – but the effort can’t hurt. It might not save the public square, but it will help foster an environment in which the only kind of public discourse worth conducting may stand half a chance. Here are two things we can all do:

• Work against our willingness to be sold on narratives that harmonise with our general outlook and basic worldview, or show our preferred figures – whether politicians, churchmen or others – in a sympathetic light.
• Make serious, sustained, and concerted efforts to expose to unsparing criticism those ideas and views with which we agree.

Together, these two things will help us all develop the habit of “thinking all the good we can” about our fellows – especially those with whom we happen to disagree, even
on very weighty matters. They will also make us better at thinking well of those others. If they don’t, they’ll at least help us attenuate our willingness to think the worst about the people who don’t see things our way.

When the matter at hand is not opinion but behaviour, things are somewhat more tricky. CS Lewis’s character Mark Studdock from That Hideous Strength is instructive in this regard. “This”, writes Lewis of a bad thing the ambitious young academic resolved to do in order to advance himself, “was the first thing Mark had been asked to do which he himself, before he did it, clearly knew to be criminal.” Lewis goes on to say:

the moment of his consent almost escaped his notice; certainly, there was no struggle, no sense of turning a corner. There may have been a time in the world’s history when such moments fully revealed their gravity, with witches prophesying on a blasted heath or visible Rubicons to be crossed. But, for him, it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.

The reporter is not concerned with judging the moral character of the persons on whose actions he reports. The reporter is not strictly concerned, qua reporting, with the moral quality of the actions themselves. He is concerned with saying what happened, who did it, when, where, and – insofar as possible – why. “Because they are wicked men who harbour hatred of the faith and contempt for the People of God,” may well be an answer to that last, especially. Nevertheless, it is not the reporter’s job to give it. It is not the reader’s job to reach it, either.

If that appears to clash with my insistence on the right of the people to knowledge of the character and conduct of their rulers – including their rulers in the faith – then I can only urge that the two assertions are rather in tension with one another. It happens with a fair degree of frequency in life, that we either suspend judgement of a moral agent or allow personal knowledge or knowledge of circumstance – or both, along with other factors as well – to mitigate our judgement of an action or an actor. Then there is occasional warrant for such net judgements.

If you find yourself in search of reasons to justify or support such judgements, rather than to save the persons you are called to judge, the chances are you’ve lost your
way. Your counsels may be poisoned. Knowing what’s going on in the world and in the Church is important. Indulging an appetite for scandal is unhealthy. If you find yourself attracted to the sorts of outlets that appeal to your desire for scandal and outrage, you might consider putting them all down for at least a while.

The work of thinking all the good we can is work we all need to be doing together – all of us, including all of us Catholics – and it’s just no good to say, “What about the other person?” This is the sort of work that “takes a village” but it is also the sort of work that starts with each of us. So, any time you come across a news report or commentary piece telling you to be angry and then giving you a reason, interrogate the reasons and ask yourself why you’re getting this person’s take. That’s how you start.

One practical upshot of this: Catholics everywhere – old and young, women and men, professionals, tradesmen, lay people, clerics, religious – have an opportunity to show their fellows that Catholic religion, contrary to increasingly diffuse public opinion, is actually good for the body politic …if the people who profess it also practise it sincerely.

Keep reading about how to read the news as a person of faith:

Reading the News Without Losing Your FaithIn the digital age, it is practically impossible to avoid lurid headlines or hot-off-the-press scandals. When these scandals involve the Church, it raises questions for many about what it means for people of faith.

Christopher R Altieri, a veteran journalist and Vatican expert, offers insight into how the news is made, how to spot clickbait and “fake news”, and how to discover the real stories behind the shocking headlines. Through a series of recollections from a career in covering the Vatican beat, he offers insight into how he can write about scandal and abuse – and how we can read about it – without losing faith in the promises of Christ.

Find answers by ordering your copy of Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith.