The Jan. 24 feast day of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists, falls around the same time the spring semester begins at St. John’s University. This year, as in the past, I introduced my students to this French priest, and Bishop of Geneva, who lived from 1567-1622. They learned he was not a journalist like we think of one today, but he was a passionate communicator who wrote about events and explained the faith.
So how can journalism follow its patron saint in 2021?
St. Francis was believed to have written more than 20,000 letters in his lifetime. Think of these as equivalents of modern newspaper columns. Some letters gave advice, some taught about Catholicism and some were accounts of what was happening in his diocese like a local news report. So, just as St. Francis invested in prolific writing, we need to invest in more journalism.
Good journalism cuts through the noise to make sense of the world. It should tell stories that are relevant to our lives. It’s no secret that business pressures and COVID-19 have adversely affected some news organizations. But we need to keep good journalism alive.
As dedicated journalists try to fill voids left by disappearing news organizations, let’s support the outlets, old and new, who work at properly reporting the news. Let’s honor those journalists who adhere to good standards and report facts fairly and without bias. Let’s commit to freedom of the press to allow for coverage of persons, events and issues without censorship, bans or threats against journalists for doing their jobs.
St. Francis’ letters did not shy away from controversy. He wrote of pastors not properly serving their parishes, church members forgetting the needs of the poor and political leaders unjustly stirring divisions among people. But his writing also respected the person he was addressing.
Good journalism should show respect for the persons reported on as well as the ethics that journalists should follow. Let’s see more journalists that don’t rush to post or report a story just to be first. Instead, let’s embrace journalism ethics that call for confirming the facts and seeking out different perspectives for a full accounting of any story.
Respect also connects with Catholic Social Teaching (CST). I tell my students that among the things CST focuses on is the dignity of each person and the solidarity of humankind. Journalism should not be sensational or confrontational to attract readers or get more views. Let’s have a respectful journalism that’s not salacious but is still strong enough to ask tough questions and find details that reveal the stories behind stories.
For the 55th World Day of Social Communications coming up in May, Pope Francis has made the theme “Come and see,” communicating, encountering people as and where they are. It’s based on the Gospel of St. John when the apostle Philip told his fellow disciples to “come and see” Jesus of Nazareth as the prophet that Moses foretold.
Pope Francis’ reminder in this theme is that “communication can enable the closeness that is necessary to recognize what is essential, and to truly understand the meaning of things.”
In speaking to journalists in 2000, Saint Pope John Paul II told them that they are part of a “sacred” task to be carried out with the awareness that the powerful means of communication are entrusted to you for the common good.
This coming year will undoubtedly be challenging on many fronts. In the model of St. Francis de Sales, and with the sanctity of journalism in mind, good journalism in 2021 can be a community builder that joins us in the common knowledge of what is happening, what to believe and how to move forward.
Michael Rizzo is the Director of the Journalism Program at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y. and a freelance reporter for The Tablet.