Fake Church news and Catholic click-bait

News media has been transformed by the internet and social media, but the breadth of that change appeared clearly during the past election cycle. High-profile failures in reporting have happened before, but “fake news” as a constant obstacle to being well-informed came into its own in the fast-paced election cycle.

The Catholic media world has not escaped its own troubles. In a Catholic version of the butterfly effect, whispers from Rome can turn to storms in America. The challenge for the Church, as it is for the wider society, is to recall the vocation of journalism and how to live faithfully even in something as ordinary as checking the news.

“Catholic media — when reporting the news as much as when publishing opinion columns or catechetical features — has a formational as well as an informational role to play,” Greg Erlandson, former publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service (CNS), told OSV. He explained a Catholic perspective on the news informs readers about both what the Church teaches and how the teaching applies to contemporary events.

Because of that responsibility, Erlandson said, “the Catholic press is obliged to respect the truth, strive for fairness with intellectual humility and avoid destructive gossip, slander or corrosive attacks.”

A new era

The transition of the media environment to an online presence has led to challenges both for journalism and for audiences. Catholic media, Erlandson said, is undergoing “a wrenching transition.” While a technology-driven expansion of Catholic media has broadened the evangelical reach of the Church, paying for it has been difficult. The new reality of media has led to a constant hunt for funds, often through cultivating a community of donors. Erlandson said that the patronage of donors carries risks, either through large donors exercising “significant influence” on how important issues are covered or through media operations “chasing after whatever will attract listeners, viewers or readers and inspire them to give a donation.” Unfortunately, Erlandson noted, “the outrageous works much more effectively than the reasonable.”

CNS waded directly into these issues in its coverage of Facebook’s abrupt removal of numerous Catholic-themed pages July 17. While the pages were restored just over a day later, the move sparked social media reports of a Catholic crackdown or an ideological purge. But CNS got the story from Facebook that a spam detection tool had accidentally triggered the episode.

Click-bait headlines successfully attract attention, and they can be innocuous, but Catholic media has examples of other, more serious abuses. Unsubstantiated rumors, based on anonymous sources, such as the Vatican reportedly rescinding Summorum Pontificum (Pope Benedict XVI’s widespread allowance of the extraordinary form Latin Mass) after the Society of St. Pius X is made a personal prelature; or that Cardinal Gerhard Müller had been dismissed as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after refusing to approve of women priests and other changes. These items show that even in Catholic media, Catholics need to be careful of the news they consume.

J.D. Long-Garcia, editor-in-chief of Angelus News, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ media outlet, told OSV that guessing about the intentions behind an event can lead to an article that reflects mostly what a journalist believes. At the same time, contemporary audiences like short pieces to present clear sides, “but it’s rarely that simple,” he said.

“Good journalism describes the complexity behind what’s happening.”

New old problems

The problem of “fake news,” however, is actually an old challenge that has just found a new medium with the internet and social media.

“Fake news has always been around as long as people have taught,” Brian Gilchrist, assistant professor in the communication department at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, told OSV. As soon as the Church began its preaching, he explained, fake news about the Church sprang up. The introduction of a new communication technology, such as the internet, however, “fundamentally transforms” a culture.

One of the major changes, Gilchrist said, is that “not only do people not agree with the same interpretation of an event, they often disagree with whether an event happened in the first place.”

And the medium used to learn about a story — thumbing through a newspaper versus scrolling down a screen — changes how a reader encounters that news. “The medium we choose creates constraints that shape our message,” Gilchrist said. While a newspaper presents a “mosaic” of news, from sports to politics, and has a definite start and beginning, online browsing lacks those clear bookends.

The lack of social controls over behavior on the internet has led to each user defining their personal code of ethics online. And while combative behavior is not a new phenomenon, Gilchrist said, American society is still trying to discover “how to respond to instantaneous information and make an informed decision about it.”

Gospel engagement

Although the contemporary media environment presents some challenges for the Church as it proclaims the Gospel, that isn’t a new situation. “It’s always been a challenge to proclaim a challenge and to reach people, because the message of Jesus Christ is still a challenge today,” Long-Garcia said.

And the opportunities for the Church to learn from and engage the culture have been multiplied by the internet. Even something like a click-bait headline, Long-Garcia said, can be an opportunity for the Church to learn how to write better headlines. The challenge for Catholic media, he said, “is to be engaged across all media outlets and have truth at its core.”

Through social media, all Catholics both can listen to what others are saying and engage the men and women in these conversations. Joe Towalski, communications director at the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota, editor of The Visitor diocesan newspaper, and president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, told OSV that previous popes have emphasized in their World Communications Day messages that communications should happen “in the context of charity, respect, responsibility and truthfulness.”

Towalski’s suggestions to avoid being misinformed by the news include checking the source publishing the news, to understand if it has an agenda, and corroborating extraordinary claims with other reputable sources. Reading widely, outside of what Facebook and Twitter customize for a news feed or what they normally agree with, can help Catholics better understand the arguments on all sides, including their own.

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Daughter of St. Paul Sister Helena Burns, a frequent speaker on media literacy, told OSV that even taking a short webinar on news literacy can be immensely helpful for anyone navigating the current news environment. She also emphasized that families have a responsibility “to parent the media culture that their children are thoroughly immersed in.” She suggested parents not only set guidelines for children’s media use but also model in their own lives how to use it well — including stepping back.

“There need to be plenty of times during our day when we just exist with devices switched completely off,” she said.

Nicholas W. Smith writes from New York.