MILWAUKEE (June 16, 2000) -- The U.S. Bishops unanimously called for civil discourse in both Catholic and secular media June 16, when they unanimously endorsed a statement titled "Civility in Media" at their annual spring meeting in Milwaukee.
The statement was proposed by the Bishops' Committee on Communications, headed by Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida.
The statement provides a baseline for offering constructive criticism of media behavior.
The statement follows.
A Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops
Throughout the history of our nation, the citizens of the United States have enjoyed a dynamic and varied media, including Catholic media. Journalists have sought to inform and educate. Catholic journalists have helped their fellow believers to understand the Church's beliefs, appreciate the activities of the Church, and see the world at large through the eyes of faith. The press in our country, including the Catholic press, have robustly engaged the issues and participated in the debates of their time, and this continues to be true today.
In the case of religious belief, which is central to who we are, such debates are deeply felt and, on occasion, passionately argued. This is nothing new in the Church, as the debates recorded in the Acts of the Apostles attest. While at times such disagreements can be frustrating and hurtful, good can also come from thorough and balanced expositions of different positions, so long as the teaching of the Church on the matter being reported is clearly and fairly presented.
In our contemporary world, the means of mass communication increasingly appear to be as likely to divide people as to bring them together. Some in the media seem interested in defending human dignity, while others appear interested in simply demeaning people. In this situation, professional Catholic media and journalism can provide, in their specific field of competence, what the whole Church provides: the offer of an alternative to the way of the world.
However, in a secular media environment such as ours, even some in Catholic media may be tempted to follow the example of some of their secular counterparts, as if the corrosive cynicism sometimes found there were an essential part of media professionalism.
With this in mind, we Catholic bishops of the United States find it appropriate to offer a reminder about the importance of civility in media discourse within and outside the Church. When tactics like those listed below are employed, a disservice is done to those subjected to them, to the church community or to society at large, and ultimately to those who engage in such tactics. This happens when the media encourage disagreements on policy to degenerate into personal hostility or when they allow the ad hominem attack to replace discussion of issues. Within the church community, this disservice occurs, above all, when not only the positions held by others are questioned, which may be legitimate, but also persons' characters and their fidelity to our common beliefs.
Persons in both the secular and church media ought to conduct themselves with a regard for the worth and dignity of every person. Church media have the additional responsibility of contributing, according to their proper mission, to the unity that is essential to the Church's effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel.
Among the behaviors that demonstrate a lack of civility are
- Elevating rumor to fact
- Distorting the words or opinions of others, in particular by taking them out of context or putting them into a context for which they were not intended
- Presuming deceitful and mendacious motives on the part of others
- Engaging in personal attacks that not only belittle or defame the individuals involved but also risk spreading scandal, confusion, and doubt
- Checking facts with the persons or institutions reported on
- Accurately reporting their words and opinions
- Making no presumption about motives without evidence
- Concentrating on issues and avoiding ad hominem attacks
The ministry of unity for which we bishops, in communion with the pope as the Successor of Peter, are responsible has great bearing on this matter. As bishops, we have an obligation to offer leadership when open debate, which is an important and legitimate dimension of the media, threatens to go beyond the bounds of civil discourse and fosters division between us and those we lead, among ourselves, or even between us and the Holy See. We acknowledge that our role in the Church inevitably puts us in a position in which we may be criticized for some actions. Catholic media have the right to engage in such criticism carried on in the spirit of civility already described.
A vocation to work in the media is a vocation to serve the truth, to promote knowledge and understanding, and to show the charity and respect due the dignity of each person. We bishops happily acknowledge the work of a vast number of Catholic journalists and many other media professionals who are faithful to this vocation. We hope that this situation will continue into the future, and we urge the media, both Catholic and secular: Search for the truth, report the truth, and respect the human dignity of those about whom you report, whether you find them worthy of praise or blame.
Civility in Media is available in a print edition and may be ordered by telephoning (800) 235-8722. Ask for publication number 5-382; the cost is $0.50 for a single copy, plus shipping and handling.