The common good of society and the good of each individual make fundamental ethical demands on the media of mass communications. The media are charged to promote these goods—not to act against them. However, the evidence of gratuitous portrayals of sex on television and in movies, caustic and demeaning radio programming, pornographic sites on the Internet, and graphically violent video games show that much of media is all too willing to ignore these ethical demands if we do nothing to call them to account. Our Catholic faith urges us to take action not only to stop such assaults on our families and our society but also to encourage the media to strive to be of the highest quality in the service of humanity.
In our society, a good way to take action is to form a media watch group within your parish.
Why Establish a Parish Media Watch Group?
The people who own and manage media companies, the creative people who produce the programming and content we see, and the advertisers who pay for that programming need to hear from "ordinary" people about their likes and dislikes. In Renewing the Mind of the Media, the bishops remind us that the media are not beyond the reach of our influence. Every call, letter, and e-mail is important—and makes a difference.
By organizing like-minded people in your parish, you can have an impact at two levels: local and national. Locally, you may be able to influence the licensing of local broadcasters or the zoning of "adult" businesses. Having many people work and speak collectively will help you to be more alert to developments in your local community and more successful in effecting change. Nationally, you will be part of a growing effort to pressure those who control the media to be more respectful of the common good by producing and offering programming suitable for families.
Those who work in the media are not the only ones who need to hear from ordinary citizens, though. Elected officials are acutely sensitive to the concerns of their constituents and often are in a position to offer some assistance. The First Amendment limits what the government may do with respect to the media, but its protections are not absolute. There are many areas in which the government can act to protect decency and the common good. A media advocacy group could be the necessary catalyst in organizing parishioners to contact their elected officials about particular concerns about the media.
How to Establish a Parish Media Watch Group
- Discuss the idea of establishing a parish media watch group among parish staff and the leadership of important lay Catholic organizations within the parish (e.g., Knights of Columbus, home and school associations, youth/young adult groups, parish council of Catholic women). Unfortunately, due in part to the media's own distorted portrayal of their critics, media watch groups can have a reputation of comprising closed-minded censors. So it is important that people who are familiar with the media, understand how they operate, will avoid stereotypical complaints, and be willing to praise what is positive in the media be actively recruited to lead such groups.
- Sit down with the selected leaders and plan the goals and objectives of the media watch group, including what issue(s) it will address (several suggestions follow).
- Discuss the importance of ensuring a positive message.
- Organize a meeting open to all interested parishioners, announcing it in the bulletin and other appropriate venues.
For those civic-minded citizens who seek an issue for which to advocate, the communications media offer a wealth of intriguing possibilities! Issues in the public policy arena include broadcasters' public interest obligations to the communities they serve and the consolidation of ownership of the media, among others. On the cultural or social side are the concerns about the quality and types of programs appearing during the traditional "family hour," the exploitation of sex and violence across the media, bias in news reporting, manipulation by advertisers, and so on.
Following are several issues—both in the public policy and in the social arenas—that might appeal to a parish media watch group. Manpower and other resources might allow for you to adopt more than one issue, but taking on just one is perfectly acceptable. With the Renewing the Mind of the Media Campaign, the nation's bishops simply want Catholics to play a more active and engaged role in shaping the media landscape.
Online Information/Idea Clearinghouse
If your parish has its own website, suggest to the pastor that a "media review" page be set up. Parishioners could use the page to post their constructive commentary about television programs or movies they've seen, good websites they've visited, or video games they would recommend. By promoting the page in the parish bulletin, parents could share programs they liked or disliked. Teachers could use the page to post the addresses of good children's websites for research or schoolwork. You could also include a link to the movie reviews produced by the bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting (www.usccb.org/movies).
This media page must be governed by principles of participation that rule out insulting, abusive, and threatening language or libelous statements. It must be monitored.
If your parish does not have a website, suggest to the pastor that one be established and promoted within the parish. A number of commercial sites offer parish websites for free.
Public Interest Obligations/Station Licensing
What is the relationship between the owners of television stations and the public? Most of us think of ourselves as consumers of television, but in fact we are much more. We are citizen-owners of the resources that make broadcasting possible.
The valuable airwaves used by the broadcasters to send programs to our TVs belong to the people. Those airwaves are only licensed to the broadcasters, and the broadcasters get that license for free. And, for free, the government protects the broadcasters' exclusive use of the frequencies they are assigned. In return for this free use and protection, the broadcasters are supposed to serve "the public interest." That's the deal the broadcasters argued for and won in the early days of broadcast regulation.
A few broadcasters still honor this deal. Others do not. Some broadcasters have argued that the "public interest" is only what the public is interested in. That is not what the term "public interest" originally meant—or should mean today. "Acting in the public interest" is an old phrase for acting in the public good.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not regulate the specific content of programs or commercials. However, the longstanding television broadcasters ("analog" broadcasting, as opposed to the new "digital" broadcasting) have some basic public interest obligations. For example, they must broadcast a minimum of three hours of children's programming each week, and advertising during television programs aimed at children is to be limited. Also, local stations must maintain a "public file" that may be inspected by the public during regular business hours.
Part of our job as responsible citizen-owners is to protect our public property by keeping tabs on how local TV stations are living up to their minimal public interest obligations and by telling the FCC and Congress what we think is in the public good.
Practical actions a parish media watch group could take in this area include:
- Monitor children's programming. Inquire of your local television stations what programs they air to meet the requirement that they broadcast a weekly minimum of three hours of educational or informational programming for children. Watch those programs and judge for yourself whether they are "educational or informational." Share your thoughts with the station manager and elected officials.
- Monitor local broadcasters' compliance with public interest obligations. Inspect the public file of local television stations to see if it is being kept current and whether the information it contains is accurate. As already indicated, maintaining such a file is an obligation, so if a station says that it does not have one, that can be reported to the FCC. Check to see if letters of complaint and praise you've sent to the station are included. Schedule a meeting with the station's general manager to discuss what you've found. For more information on how to visit a television station and inspect the public file, go to www.bettertv.org/visitstation.htm.
Years ago the connection between advertisers and particular programs on television and radio were obvious. For example, on the popular 1950s television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the author himself would appear at an appropriate, suspenseful break in the story to crack jokes about the advertiser whose commercial was about to appear. Today it is not obvious at all that advertisers of a particular television show, for example, are in fact paying to put that show on the air.
Advertisers are critical decision makers in Hollywood, and they play a key role in determining what television programs you see. If you see a program to which you take exception and about which you'd like to comment, call, mail, or e-mail the advertisers. Likewise, if you see an ad that on its own merits is objectionable, contact the advertiser. Contact information for many television advertisers is available from the Parents Television Council, listed under "Resources for a Parish Media Watch Group," on the next page.
Network executives, along with advertisers, are the key decision makers in Hollywood, and they decide what options you'll have in television programming. The bishops note that the media are not beyond the reach of our influence, but they need to know what we're thinking. Encourage Hollywood decision makers to restore the "family hour" and provide more family-friendly programming. Do this by writing a short note, calling, or sending an e-mail to the network and prime time show(s) for which you wish to comment. Every telephone call, letter, and e-mail really does make a difference! For contact information, please see "Resources for a Parish Media Watch Group" on the next page.
What do you tell them?
- The name of the show
- Whether you approve or disapprove of the show
- The reasons why
- If you will or will not watch the show
- That you are also contacting the advertisers
You might also consider contacting government officials. You can find contact information for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives on the web at www.senate.gov and www.house.gov or by writing to the following addresses:
The Honorable [Name of Senator]
Washington, DC 20510
The Honorable [Name of Representative]
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
If you know the name of your senators and/or representative, you can also reach their offices by
calling the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121.
The members of the Federal Communications Commission should also be made aware of your concerns. They can be reached at the following address:
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street SW
Washington, DC 20554
Collaboration with Other Media Watch Groups in Your Area
Concern about media issues cuts across society. Churches, schools, parent groups, and others have taken up the effort. Consider contacting other churches or synagogues in your area to work in concert with efforts they may already have in place.
Resources for a Parish Media Watch Group
The following organizations provide balanced, non-partisan analysis of communications policy issues:
- Department of Communications, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 3211 Fourth Street NE, Washington, DC 20017; phone: 202-541-3200; fax: 202-541-3173; website: www.usccb.org/comm. To receive e-mail updates on developments in communications public policy, action alerts, notifications of recent studies on media issues, and other related information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Media Access Project, 1625 K Street NW, Ste. 1118, Washington, DC 20006; phone: 202-232-4300; fax: 202-466-7656; e-mail: info@media access.org; website: www.media access.org. Media Access Project is a non-profit, public interest law firm that promotes the public's First Amendment right to hear and be heard on the electronic media of today and tomorrow.
- Benton Foundation, 1625 K Street NW, 11th Floor, Washington, DC 20006; phone: 202-638-5770; fax: 202-638-5771; e-mail: email@example.com; website: www.benton.org. The Benton Foundation seeks to articulate a public interest vision for the digital age and to demonstrate the value of communications for solving social problems.
- Center for Media Education, 2120 L Street NW, Washington, DC 20037; phone: 202-331-7833; website: www.cme.org. The Center for Media Education is a national non-profit organization dedicated to creating a quality electronic media culture for children and youth, their families, and the community.
- People for Better TV, 818 18th Street NW, Ste. 505, Washington, DC 20006; phone: 888-374-7288; website: www.bettertv.org. People for Better TV is a coalition of more than 100 groups formed to educate and empower the public to get something in return for broadcasters' free use of the electronic spectrum.
- Parents Television Council (PTC), 707 Wilshire Boulevard #1950, Los Angeles, CA 90017; phone: 213-629-9255; website: www.parentstv.org. The Parents Television Council challenges actors, writers, producers, musicians, game-makers, and advertisers to take seriously the vital role they play in shaping America's culture. At the same time, the PTC acknowledges that parents have the greatest responsibility when it comes to monitoring the viewing habits of their children.