by Michael Rizzo
THE START OF the spring semester at St. John’s University, Jamaica, brought with it new classes, students returning to campus and for journalism majors, a day related to their area of study that is often overlooked.
St. Francis de Sales’ feast day is Jan. 24 and he is the patron saint of journalists, but I got mostly blank stares when I asked my Introduction to Journalism class what they knew about this priest, bishop and prolific writer from the 16th and 17th centuries. It presented not only an opportunity to teach, but also a chance for students to consider and offer their understanding on how this saint still connects to journalists today.
Journalism is facing challenging times. From being called “enemies of the people” to conducting investigative reporting like those that brought down titans in Hollywood over charges of sexual misconduct, the news media has increasingly been in the spotlight themselves. More and more they face scrutiny over following the basic tenets of good journalism like accuracy, fairness, balance and transparency to name a few. The combativeness between some reporters and those they cover is not necessarily new in our nation’s history. But social media and technology have amplified the passionate feelings of those for and against the work of the fourth estate.
After researching who St. Francis de Sales was and what he wrote, my students saw a man with great passion as well. He was dedicated to informing his flock and fostering the Catholic community. Providing information and creating a forum of knowledge for discussion are two fundamental elements that journalism can offer.
He was unafraid to be independent and to be a communicator who connected with people in all strata of society. Good journalists need to be independent and they need to make the stories they deliver interesting and relevant to their audiences.
St. Francis de Sales is known for his thousands of letters as well printing pamphlets of his sermons. They focused on the truths of the Catholic faith in the face of Protestant leaders who wanted to shut it out of areas like Geneva, Switzerland.
“He was for the people he wrote to,” one student observed, connecting the concept in journalism that information helps people to be free. Another described him as loyal to the public he served. A third spoke of the saint’s “Introduction to the Devout Life” in which he espouses humility and reminds readers of the evils of gossip and half-truths.
One class is not enough to delve deeply into the message of St. Francis de Sales for journalists. But it does allow us to focus on the special – and powerful – role that journalism plays in society. St. John Paul II told journalists in 2000 that their work was a “sacred” task.
In his letter to the faithful a year ago for World Communications Day, Pope Francis reminds us that “the best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people” and journalism is not just a job but a “mission.”
“Informing others means forming others; it means being in touch with people’s lives,” the Holy Father wrote. “That is why ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace.”
As a professional journalist, still active in my work for The Tablet, and as an educator of the work I’ve done for so much of my life, I see journalism as a special calling. We are storytellers and the so-called first drafters of history. Through reporting, we bring people to events that they cannot attend. We bring insights about other people to interested audiences through the words that describe our story subjects. That special calling also means having a mindset that while we need to dig for the facts, we need to respect the people we report on and adhere to the ethics of the work we do.
Neither I nor my students believe that St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of journalism because he could craft a great “lead” or “close.” Those are writing techniques that can be taught from textbooks and through practice. Instead, he still resonates for reporters as a man of giving: giving of himself to write and giving his readers knowledge of the “good news” and the solidarity of the human family we all belong to.
Rizzo, director of the journalism program and an assistant professor at St. John’s University, previously worked at ABC News Radio, ABC Sports Radio, ABC-TV News, Fios1 News and News12.