by Michael Rizzo
In the 1990s, the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” became a staple at some television stations around the country. Newscasts would focus almost entirely on crime, violence and salacious stories to attract viewers.
That bygone era came to mind when I read Pope Francis’ Jan. 24 message for World Communications Day, which focused on storytelling. It pointedly made me think of how different storytelling, and journalism, could be from that late 20th-century approach.
I tell my journalism students at St. John’s University that journalists are storytellers. They need to make their stories accurate and factual, with context, without bias and written in a proper and engaging way for their audience.
Stories have impact. The impact may be on someone other than ourselves, but well reported stories are, as Pope Francis stated, “A narrative that can reveal the interweaving of the threads which connect us to one another.”
The yearning to be informed, which is called the “awareness instinct” in the book “The Elements of Journalism,” is that we all have a desire to find out about things outside our immediate space. But, in line with the pope’s message, journalists need to be conscious of how that news is communicated.
Pope Francis wrote that today’s focus often seems to be on “destructive and provocative stories” that play on our differences. He reminded us that “unverified information” or “strident and hateful messages” act to “strip others of their dignity.”
I saw in those words the themes of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), including the life and dignity of all persons and the solidarity of the human family. When the pope also wrote that “every human story is, in a certain sense, a divine story,” it reinforced that we have a high, even sacred, calling in journalism and we can practice it well by applying the themes of CST and the ethical standards from organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists: seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable.
“Journalists need to compose stories that are honest and work to benefit humanity,” one student said, after I asked my class to read the pope’s message. Another said the pope was reminding journalists to “write with integrity.” A third said that because people believe what journalists write and say, the pope’s message was that “telling the truth and providing factual information is the key.” Finally, one student added, “Pope Francis is telling journalists, as well as storytellers, to remain truthful among a world of powerful deceit.”
Surveys have shown that there is a distrust of the news media. That’s why journalists need to find facts in a rigorous, defensible and transparent way. That includes thorough research, careful and accurate observation and speaking to people involved in every story. I tell my students that good reporters do interviews, not interrogations, and they dig for facts but don’t write stories with the intent to destroy.
When bad things happen and people do bad things, they need to be reported on. But good journalism does it in a dispassionate, nonjudgmental way.
I believe there was also insight for news consumers in the pope’s message. When he wrote, “We need courage to reject false and evil stories,” and “need patience and discernment to rediscover stories that help us,” I thought of social media habits that all too often spread stories without a thought.
As news consumers, we need to pause before we hit send to be sure we are not distributing falsehoods. We need to support news organizations that adhere to solid standards, embrace fairness, provide space for multiple perspectives and certainly don’t make things up. We also need to read or watch more than just one news outlet so that we are not confined to a single silo of information but are exposed to different views on stories.
Conveying what the pope described as the “tapestry of the days of our life” is the joy I experience when I act as a journalist and write the stories that I cover. Teaching my students how joyful the process can be when it is done right is what I aim for in my classes. Having a message from Pope Francis, that provides a thoughtful reflection on that work helps both efforts.
Rizzo is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Journalism Program at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He is a freelance reporter for The Tablet.