Truth and the Media

REV. KENNETH BAKER, S.J.

The moral obligation to speak the truth applies to newspaper reporters, columnists, radio and television announcers just as much as it applies to the individual in his or her personal relationships with others.

My treatment of the Eighth Commandment will conclude with a few observations on the communications media. The moral obligation to speak the truth applies to newspaper reporters, columnists, radio and television announcers just as much as it applies to the individual in his or her personal relationships with others.

God created man with an intelligence or mind that naturally seeks the truth. The desire of the human mind for truth is just as strong as the urge of the hungry man for food or the need of the fish for water. Thus man has a natural right to the truth and since he is a social being and lives in society it follows that society also has a right to truthful information. If that is true for all men, it is especially so in a free society such as a democracy, since the citizens need accurate, reasonably complete information in order to vote wisely and fulfill their civic duties.

For every right there is also a corresponding duty. This means in the present context that those who manage and conduct the media in our society have a very serious obligation to keep the people well informed, especially in those matters of greater concern to the well-being of society. Above all, they must tell the truth to the best of their ability. Also, in selecting what to report and what to omit out of the vast amount of information available each day they must keep in mind the common good rather than some short-term gain for a favored group or individual.

The right to information, however, like all human rights, is not absolutely unlimited, since it can come into conflict with other and higher rights of others. Thus, in some cases the right of privacy and the right of secrecy of individuals or groups will require that some "news" be either totally suppressed or delayed to a more opportune time. The validity of such limitations on the right to know is obvious to all in crisis situations, such as terrorist highjackings, when, if certain confidential information were leaked to the press, the lives of hundreds of people would be endangered.

The traditional understanding of the Eighth Commandment saw it directed almost exclusively to the speaker or communicator. In our day, when there is so much communication, news and entertainment available via press, radio and television on a 24-hour a day basis, new dimensions of the Commandment can be discerned. Thus, responsibility for truth and accuracy in the media falls not just on the authors but also on the "consumers" — on those who read, listen and watch.

In a certain sense we should all be "watchdogs" for errors, abuses and distortions in the media. Much can be done to maintain high standards in the media if the "recipients" write letters, telephone and in general let the communicators know what they think of their performance. Many people do not seem to realize it, but letters to the editor, for example, can often have much influence on business and public officials.

The Eighth Commandment also concerns our use of the media. Moderation is to be striven for in all dimensions of human living. This is certainly true of our use of the mass media. Many people waste precious hours reading, listening to or watching useless trash. The evidence seems to be mounting that excessive television viewing on the part of American children is contributing to the steady decline in academic performance. By its very nature television watching is mostly passive. In the area of creativity in children, there is a big difference between watching a television show and playing games. I am reminded here of a family I once visited in Vancouver, B.C. They had two teenage daughters. They did not spend very much time looking at television, but when they did it was to see a particular program that had been carefully selected in advance. After the program, the set was turned off and they would then discuss the show, asking such questions as: What idea was the show trying to convey? what were the unstated assumptions? did they achieve their objective? was the program successful?

After a lifetime of such critical reflection and judgment, you can just imagine how sharp those girls must have been. I conversed with them for a few hours and can testify that they were very critical and very intelligent. In that case, the family dominated the media instead of being a slave to them.

There is immense power for good and evil in the mass media today. We Catholics should be aware of that power and do what we can to influence it in the direction of truth and completeness.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Kenneth Baker, S.J. "Truth and the Media." In Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1 Chapter 53 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 276-279.

This article reprinted with permission from Father Kenneth Baker, S.J.

THE AUTHOR

Rev. Kenneth Baker, S.J., has served for the past thirty years as editor of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1947. In 1970 he served as president of Seattle University and in 1971 became editor of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. In 1973 he published his translation of the Philosophical Dictionary and adapted it to American usage. In 1975 he became president of Catholic Views Broadcasts, Inc., which produces a weekly 15-minute radio program that airs on 50 stations across the United States. He has built and run three community television stations. In 1983 he published a three-volume explation of the faith called Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1, Creed and Commandments; Vol. 2, God, Trinity, Creation, Christ, Mary; and Vol. 3, Grace, the Church, the Sacraments, Eschatology.

Copyright © 1995 Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.


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