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Challenges for Catholic Media, Communicators and Broadcasters in North America: Report to the Plenary Meeting of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications

October 27, 2009
[The following report was presented by Fr. Rosica at the First Plenary Session of the Social Communications Council October 26, 2009 at the Vatican.]
TRYour Eminences, Your Excellencies,
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Thank you for the privilege of addressing this Plenary Meeting of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. In this presentation I will offer some general comments about media, broadcasting and communications followed by some challenges that are before Catholic media, broadcasting and communications particularly in North America.
Near the end of his encyclical "Charity in Truth," Pope Benedict XVI included a pointed analysis (paragraph #73) about the "increasingly pervasive presence" of modern media and their power to serve good or immoral interests. The sections on communications underscored the pope's cautionary and critical approach to today's media revolution. The Holy Father zeroed in on the popular assumption in the West that the penetration of contemporary media in the developing world will inevitably bring enlightenment and progress. I quote Pope Benedict:
Just because social communications increase the possibilities of interconnection and the dissemination of ideas, it does not follow that they promote freedom or internationalize development and democracy for all.
The pope's critique contains several important points that are very relevant for our North American context:
  • The mass media are not morally "neutral." They are often subordinated to "economic interests intent on dominating the market" and to attempts to "impose cultural models that serve ideological and political agendas," he said.
  • The media have a huge role in shaping attitudes, a role that has been amplified by globalization. That requires careful reflection on their influence, especially when it comes to questions of ethics and the "solidarity" dimension of development, he said.
  • Media have a civilizing effect when they are "geared toward a vision of the person and the common good that reflects truly universal values." That means they need to focus on promoting human dignity, be "inspired by charity and placed at the service of truth."
The situation in North America
Over the past ten years, there has been a veritable explosion and proliferation of new information and communication technologies in our society that leaves us all us a little breathless and perplexed at times! The key descriptive word today for media is “personalization.” One need only think of the number of TV channels, and particularly “specialty” TV channels, available in many homes in North America.
The Internet has opened up new possibilities for communication and the audience share for the mainstream TV stations and newspapers has drastically declined. Over the past two years of economic downturn, we hear almost on a daily basis of the “downsizing” or closure of television networks and their affiliates in both the United States and Canada; significant print volume reduction or complete demise of some of the large daily newspapers in North America; and the closure of weekly diocesan Catholic newspapers.
Part of my work at Salt and Light Television, Canada’s National Catholic Network, involves close collaboration with our country’s public broadcasters and television networks. While there may be some television dramas that are both enjoyable and relaxing, we must be very prudent as we assess the quality of programs and evaluate the meaning that can be drawn from them. I have observed that television producers rarely make moral judgments, and the race to secure ratings and advertising dollars means that many television programs have as their goal to either sensationalize or sentimentalize. This applies especially to reality television programs, which pretend to represent the reality of the lives of ordinary people, when in fact these shows depict the crudest form of human existence and are often based on a deception as they seek to entertain. Such programs glamorize and normalize undignified human behavior.
Radio remains the medium with the second largest share of consumption by North Americans, behind television. It is a powerful and intimate medium and we should never discount the effect and persuasion of a person’s voice being heard over the radio. While radio news can oversimplify in the same way as news items found on the Internet, the best examples of radio, which may include reports of around 2-3 minutes on average or longer interviews, provide the audience with a far better précis of the issue or a more balanced picture of a newsmaker than they had previously been exposed to. Talkback radio dominates the airwaves every morning and afternoon in North America, allowing people to take part directly. But one doesn’t have to listen for too long to realize that the quality can range from the excellent to the appalling and too often in this forum human dignity is lost.
New Forms of Media
The speed with which news can be communicated via the Internet has made the world seem ever smaller. Few of us can now imagine life without email. With so much information available on the net we can sometimes suffer from information overload and the need for careful discrimination and discernment is greater than ever.
Visual and electronic media need a certain kind of content. They thrive on brevity, speed, change, urgency, variety and feelings. But thinking takes time, needs silence and the methodical skills of logic. Nevertheless these new forms of media have undermined the intellectual discipline that we once had when our main tools of communication were books or print publications. This is not a good development.
On the Internet there is no accountability, no code of ethics, and no responsibility for one’s words and actions. The use of the Internet for pornography, and other activities, which attack human dignity, is of the utmost concern and calls for constant vigilance and appropriate government regulation.
One of the challenges for the Church is that the Internet can destroy or confuse the hierarchy of information providing that church agencies have worked so hard to establish. Websites and blogs tend to concentrate on negative messages. Christians are known as the people who are against everything. If anything, we should be known as the people who are for something, something positive that can transform lives and engage and impact the culture.
Social Networking
In our work at Salt and Light Television, which has a unique outreach to a younger audience than most traditional Catholic media and broadcasters, I have found that such sites may be transforming our culture in unexpected negative ways. While such sites make some certain types of connections easier, they are not tied to geography or a community governed by its own social norms. They are subject to personal whims. This fact frees persons from any kind of responsibility that tends to come with membership in a community, and changes the tenor of any relationships that tend to form there. While such social networks do bring people together, there are also related questions: What are they doing to us? What are they doing to our sense of social boundaries? To our sense of individuality? To our friendships?
Challenges for Catholic Communicators
With the electronic age upon us, we are seeing a considerable diminishment of the Catholic press. The Church cannot ignore the great potential of online media if it wants to keep the truths of the faith in close touch with the emerging culture and the younger, growing generations. At the same time, we cannot ignore "old media," because many less developed countries around the world still rely on traditional technologies. The task of Catholic communicators, journalists and broadcasters is to keep working to develop and use new media to communicate the Gospel and promote a culture of dialogue. A single medium is no longer enough to capture the full attention of the audience.
The Church's great challenge in the era of Facebook and Twitter consists in presenting the profound message of Jesus and the teaching of the Church without being sidetracked by technology's superficial aspects. An almost exclusive use of text and emails means that as a society we're losing some of the ability to build interpersonal communication that's necessary for living together and building a community. In using the media to evangelize the masses, we must never lose sight of the need to reach and teach the individual as though he or she were the only person being addressed.
In our efforts to communicate, teach and evangelize, we have to choose between engaging the culture around us or confronting it. There is certainly a time for confronting the culture with the message of the Gospel and the Church, but such “confrontation” must be done with civility, conviction and charity. We need to show the culture that we're not against them, that we have a compelling story, and that the story can change their circumstances. When that happens, people will listen. We need to keep our focus on reaching the world with a message of hope, a theme that has been key in teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, especially in his encyclical on hope, “Spe Salvi.”
We must avoid the great danger of chasing after relevance. Some people work so hard to be relevant that they spin hopelessly into irrelevance. Catholic communicators and broadcasters must have a passion for the Truth, always seeking in depth that solid soil of the vital relationship with God and others, a place to really build a culture of respect, of dialogue and of friendship.
In conclusion, I would like to quote His Eminence Francis Cardinal George, OMI, Archbishop of Chicago and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from his address at the Knights of Columbus' States Dinner in Phoenix, Arizona on August 4, 2009. Cardinal George said:
The Church’s unity today is severely strained, as we all know, and alternative Catholicisms are claiming authenticity even sometimes against the Holy Father and bishops. Even Bishops and priests have sometimes been less than worthy of their calling, and lay groups have sometimes come together to create a Church in their image and likeness rather than Christ’s. Political interference in many countries, including our own, and the hostility of some in the media and entertainment industries, the self-righteousness of some on both the right and the left, various pressure groups with their own agendas, have created a situation full of danger for the Church’s unity, a situation the bishops now want to explicitly address in this country. How to stitch up the Church where her unity is torn, how to use the authority given by Christ to the apostles without wounding the faithful who are already hurting is a project that begins with the bishops’ own submission to Christ and our own self-examination in the light of God’s word that lasts forever.
Cardinal George’s powerful words provide a very accurate description of life in North America as well as some creative strategies for Catholic communicators, journalists and broadcasters to engage the culture around us and humbly offer the world an alternative message of hope.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
C.E.O., Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network
Consultor, Pontifical Council for Social Communications