Up Front and Personal

A Saintly Role Model For Modern Journalism Students

By Michael Rizzo

The spring 2022 semester at St. John’s University will be another opportunity to introduce my students to the patron saint of journalism, St. Francis De Sales, whose feast day is Jan. 24, and my ongoing goal to make this 17th century Bishop relatable to 21st century students. 

News coverage today seems dominated by controversy, sensationalism, and salacious stories. That’s not to say some of these are not newsworthy. We want our journalists to be watchdogs for us over those in power and to tell us what is relevant, unique, and unusual. But it’s no secret that the public’s trust in the news media is eroding.   

It does seem like some headlines are just click-bait to get us to read a story. Cable news shows seem more about taking sides instead of telling facts. It also seems a lot of news coverage is often negative, with little room for uplifting stories or those with a thoughtful perspective. 

My aim is to help students see another way to do good journalism and incorporate St. Francis into that discussion.

I start, as always, with the fundamentals of being accurate and fair, writing well, providing context, and behaving ethically. My classes discuss how journalists need to be more than “infotainers” — who seem to try to just entertain and not inform. Those reporters make the story about themselves and not the persons in, and affected by, the story. That’s where St. Francis comes in.

I explain to my students, as I’ve written in past columns, that he is not the kind of journalist we know today. There were no newspapers in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1600s. But St. Francis serves as journalism’s patron saint because he was a great communicator. St. Francis kept people informed about the challenges his Church faced. He wrote thousands of letters explaining the faith. He also produced numerous pamphlets combating disinformation against Catholicism. He took his writing seriously, personalizing his messages to the different audiences he wrote for and treating those who opposed the messages he delivered with respect.

St. Francis’ attributes of dedication to sharing information and finding truths that could be revealed are qualities worthy of good journalists today. He showed fearlessness in the face of threats. These are traits that connect with the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics:

To be honest and courageous gatherers and re- porters of information, to treat sources, subjects, colleagues, and members of the public as human beings, and to be journalists who serve the public and take responsibility for their work.

I also link St. Francis and journalism with Catholic Social Thinking, whose tenets include the solidarity of the human family, the dignity of all persons, and our responsibility to each other.

The message to my students is to think about the sacredness of journalism, as St. John Paul II described it, in getting stories right before rushing to report, in writing stories dispassionately instead of advocating an agenda, and in working hard to find the perspective that reveals the true impact and relevance of the story instead of a superficial report that doesn’t dig for the facts the public really needs.

This semester I’ll also speak of changes that could be promising for how news is covered, changes that could be for the better for journalism.

A report earlier this month by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism predicted we could see more constructive, solution-oriented stories as alternatives to “confrontational talk shows” and the traditional negative news cycle.

If those story formats are fostered broadly, perhaps they could be the new embodiment of journalism as the resource it is meant to be. It would be what St. Francis embodied in his own writings: to empower the public with facts to make informed decisions.

“All of us can attain to Christian virtue and holiness, no matter in what condition of life we live and no matter what our life work may be,” St. Francis wrote.

This semester I’ll remind my students that those words of St. Francis are good words they can apply to journalism as well.

Michael Rizzo is an Associate Professor and Director of the Journalism Program at St. John’s University, Queens