Modern Media Needs Thoughtful Discernment Says Archbishop Chaput

By Patrick B. Craine

COLORADO SPRINGS, July 8, 2009 ( - Archbishop Charles J. Chaput spoke to a meeting of Catholic business executives last Wednesday on the discernment of media in the Catholic life.  The meeting was held by The Legatus Group, an international organization for Catholic business executives founded by Tom Monaghan in 1987. (Read the full text of the speech here)

"America's news media have enormous opinion-shaping power," he told attendees. "Therefore it's vital for Catholics to understand how the media work, and especially how they work on us."

According to the archbishop, the media, though often seen as a "collective," is comprised of "human beings with personal opinions and prejudices," and it is these people who "select and frame the news."

"When we read their newspaper articles or tune in their TV shows," he said, "we engage them in a kind of intellectual intimacy in the same way you're listening to me right now."

He contrasted two different types of media - those who unabashedly express their personal opinion and those who purport to simply impart information.  "We usually know very little about the person who writes an unsigned editorial or the people who create the nightly news," he said. "And that's worth talking about. Here's why. In an information society, the people who shape our information control the public conversation."

"Brightly colored network logos and imposing newspaper mastheads," he said, "carry with them a kind of 'soft imperialism.'  Like it or not, most of us define the 'news' by what receives the most attention from a handful of major media."

The Archbishop highlighted the impact of technology on the media, and its effect on consumers.  "America was born as a nation of readers," he says, pointing to The Federalist Papers as examples of news at its best.  "Unfortunately, if [The Federalist Papers] appeared today, few of us might read them," he said.

"The reason is simple," he continued.  "Reading requires discipline and mental effort.  But for the past 50 years our culture has been shifting away from the printed word to visual communications, which are much more inclined to sensation and passive consumption. This has consequences. When a print culture dies, the ideas, institutions and even habits of public behavior built on that culture begin to weaken."

This technological change has impacted our ability to think about the news, argued Chaput.  Visual media, he says, "thrives on brevity, speed, change, urgency, variety and feelings."  But "thinking takes time."

Chaput says he is not calling for a reversal, however, saying that "we can't wish away breakthroughs in technology any more than we can unlearn the rules of mathematics. Nor should we want to."  New media technology "can also be a very powerful force for publicizing the truth and pursuing justice," he said.

Continuing, he warned about the tendency of the mass media to "confuse fame with significance," pointing as an example to the recent massive coverage of Michael Jackson's death.  Media executives justify such coverage because they are running a business, but, he says, they "can't have it both ways.  They can't claim to be impartial guardians of truth in American political life and then act like celebrity groupies at the same time."

"The appetite for tabloid-style news does not mean anyone should be feeding it," he said.  "And when they do feed it, news organizations undermine the dignity of their profession and lower the seriousness of public debate."

Mainstream media is often guilty too of downplaying or even excluding religion, he said, but "any conversation about important public issues in our country that attempts to exclude religion will be incomplete."

"No major news organization would send reporters to cover politics, the military, sports, the economy or world affairs who lacked a good knowledge of their subject," he elaborated. "But that's exactly what happens, again and again, with news coverage of religion. Most editors and most reporters simply don't take the religion beat seriously."

Concluding, the Archbishop said, "Scripture tells us that the Christian citizen must 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God, the things that are God's.'"

"What we owe Caesar above all is honest, vigorous, public moral witness on abortion and every other vital social issue, whether Caesar likes it or not," he continued. "Our moral witness needs to be formed not by the nightly news, but by learning and living an authentic Catholic faith. And when it is, we'll be the kind of citizens who can appreciate the genuine service our news media provide to society. We'll also be the kind of citizens who demand that our news media act with the sobriety, integrity, fairness and honesty their vocation requires."

The Archbishop's Address:

Catholics and the "Fourth Estate"

Sign up for our FREE pro-life and pro-family newsletter

LifeSite's daily headlines delivered right to your inbox. The best way to stay informed on the issues that matter.

Select Your Edition:

Finished reading? You can make a difference, too!

Support pro-life and pro-family journalism with a donation today!

Share this article