Earlier this year, the Associated Press Stylebook added “fake news” to its popular advisory tome for journalists, issuing the judgment that it “may be used in quotes or as shorthand for the modern phenomenon of deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news circulating on the internet.”
This addition by AP reflects the “fake news revolution” that has swept the United States and other parts of the world where the dissemination of disinformation is becoming more commonplace and widespread. The concept of fake news has become so prevalent within culture today that the Vatican announced in September that the theme for the annual World Communications Day next May would be “‘The truth will set you free’: Fake news and journalism for peace.” Through this initiative, the Church hopes to “make its contribution by proposing a eflection on the causes, logic and consequences of misinformation in the media and helping to promote professional journalism, always seeking the truth, and thus a journalism of peace that promotes understanding among people.””
Pope Francis primed the pump in mid-December, when he met with a group of Italian journalists. Reminding them of their mission, which he called “among the most important in today’s world,” Pope Francis said media have the responsibility “to inform correctly, to offer everyone a version of the facts conforming as closely as possible to reality.”
It is indeed necessary for media — both Catholic and secular — to stay vigilant in their publishing of fact-based, unbiased content. This means media must value correctness over speed, of facts over sensational narratives, and of nonpartisanship over the temptation toward pandering to gain readership or viewers. And all in an environment of a highly polarized, instantaneous and social media-driven news cycle.
Responding to these challenges, our friends at America magazine recently published a “10-part Social Media Compact” in which they stated their desire to contribute to fostering a “journalism of peace that promotes understanding” rather than stoking the flames of polarization and falsehood that so often flare up in the online space. We would do well to follow suit when navigating the world of social networking.
But we would be remiss if we only challenged the media, traditional or new, to improve when it comes to the spreading of misinformation. Each of us would benefit from taking time to reflect on how we as individuals can work to promote peace and understanding through seeking and sharing the truth. As workers in the vineyard of the New Evangelization, this is our mission. As Catholics, we have the responsibility to work to know true from false and to propagate only the former. We have the responsibility to avoid falsehood in relationships and family life, even when sidestepping the truth may help us reach our goal more quickly, or may seemingly elevate us in the eyes of others. And we have the responsibility to remember that neither partisan politics nor ideology is synonymous with truth. The truth is found in the person of Jesus Christ.
Which brings us back to the theme: “The truth will set you free.” This is only the case, Jesus says, if and when we “remain in my word” (Jn 8:31-32). This means striving to remain in relationship with him by staying in the state of grace, partaking of the sacraments, reading Scripture and serving others. In short, in living the Catholic life.
As we look forward to a new year, let’s commit to being a part of the “fake news” solution, whether as journalists, as members of social media or as individuals. May the truth, indeed, set us free.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young