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The Purity of Truth

“I am the way, the truth…….” Jn 14:6

A reflection by Peter Thomas, JPIC Team

Fake news is immoral when it masquerades as truth, when it irresponsibly diverts people's attention from fact. Sometimes it is gossip and other times it distorts the truth so much that the truth about important local, national and international justice issues are sacrificed in favour of a newspaper obtaining a bigger readership or a television station a higher rating or social media seeking more users. When this happens it is unapologetically justified as a commercial measure to guarantee advertising dollars and hence better returns for shareholders. The morality is often overlooked with little regard to the fact that sharing a lie makes the medium, the publisher, the producer, the journalist co-conspirators in telling the lie.

Communication technology is so advanced that we may soon face events on social media that never happened, created in such a way that even experts will have trouble detecting fact from fiction. Two recent headlines in social media that made their way into some traditional media are typical examples of fake news. “Pope Francis found guilty of Child Trafficking, Rape and Murder” was a scurrilous report that went around the world in seconds but fortunately was squashed by the Vatican Communication’s arm and recognised by most reputable media outlets as bogus. Potentially it could have caused the Church considerable grief. Less damaging but nevertheless fake are stories such as, “Sniffing Rosemary increases human memory by up to 75%.” These manufactured tabloid stories are carefully designed click-bait to insure that people visit and stay with web sites and read certain kinds of magazines, most notably in Australia the so-called women’s magazines genre.

Rumours, gossip, false stories…people often believe and share anything that reinforces their beliefs choosing media that acts as an echo- chamber for their prejudices. The major offenders in Australia are radio shock jocks and certain cable TV commentators; there are others but their modus operandi is subtle and therefore potentially more dangerous. With so much traditional and social media we are awash with information having access to just about anything we want if we know how, or have the resources to do it, including false information or fake news, misinformation of the most noxious kind, feeding the prejudices of the naïve, the ignorant and the fearful, supporting our injustices.

Amidst this gloom the church has its mission to uphold a tone of hope, to not give into despair, to not become resigned to a position that the media is always suspect and to encourage quality media that we know is truthful striving to be in accord with fact or reality. It’s true and understandable that many people today are sceptical about any media’s claim to the truth and because of this distrust want to give up the hunt for truth altogether. But can we get by without knowing the truth? How do we discern the truth about social justice issues such as wealth inequality, asylum seekers and refugees, climate science, obligations to the disabled, senior citizens and a thousand- and-one other issues demanding our attention.

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth as consumers have a right to know reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context. And yet today truth is a disputed territory. We are all suffering from what might be called ‘truth fatigue’. We’re tired of fighting about it yet we know that ultimately its truth that works and that matters. We know that truth is a first principle.

The question, ‘What is truth?’ (Jn. 18:38) is found in the gospel when standing trial before the Roman governor Pilate, Jesus said to Pilate, ‘For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’ (Jn. 18:37) Pilate responded by asking, ‘What is truth?’ If only Pilate had known that the truth was standing before him, looking him in the eye. Truth is the church’s credibility and therefore it must be passionately committed to the pursuit of truth, the foundational truth about God, whether or not God exists and the truth about God’s nature. Jesus certainly had a position about the nature of truth and the nature of God. He believed objective truth exists and could be grasped. Like a good journalist he was about evidence and truth; the evidence demonstrating his commitment to justice, to his deity and the truth about God’s Kingdom. So for a Christian, Jesus as truth is the benchmark, the starting point, the standard. As Jesus is in Christian belief the Son of God and because Christians believe that God is true, all truth derives from and corresponds to him. It’s our yardstick as we examine the importance of truth in communication’s media.

Dutch Carmelite saint and journalist, Blessed Titus Brandsma, was murdered by lethal injection in Dachau Concentration Camp on July 26, 1942 for declaring publicly through the influential Dutch Catholic press that Nazism was incompatible with Christian faith. Among the many inspirational quotes we have from his writings two stand out as we seek to understand the demands of truth:

They who want to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come into conflict with it.”…..

”Do not yield to hatred.We are here in a dark tunnel, but we have to go on. At the end, an eternal light is shining for us.”

Titus saw his first obligation as a Christian and a journalist to the truth. For this he gave his life.

In early April 2019, Kerry O’Brien in his speech at the Walkley Fund for Journalism Dinner, at which part of the brief is to promote quality journalism, argued that journalism is failing in Australia and elsewhere as much as it is succeeding. ‘In every under-staffed newsroom ’, said O’Brien, ‘where media releases are published with little or no basic fact-checking, it’s failing.’ He gave numerous examples to back-up this claim and derided the shallowness and promotion of news, even serious news as entertainment, or infotainment, as it quickly came to be called.

For the church the problem in coming to the assistance of media in the promotion of truthful journalism is demythologising media. To many in the church the media is a shadowy world. Driven by profit, defiantly secular and sceptical about anything that is sacred, the media, especially since the sexual abuse scandals, are often pushed aside as alien environments. Such a position adopted by many in the church arises out of fear, a paralysing agent if we are to be yeast and salt; instruments of change.

Where the rule of law, natural justice and fundamental human rights cease to exist as a result of political, economic, social or military pressures, the truth, starting with the truth of love often mediated through traditional and social media, can set us free.

The world rests on three pillars, truth, justice and peace. The three are one. If justice is realised, truth is vindicated and peace results.

Peter Thomas