I suspect that if a serious study were done of vocations to the media, it would find that most professional communicators chose their profession because they believe the media changes things.
In the book of Isaiah, the Lord proclaims, "My word that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty. It shall . . . succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (55:11). A writer expects the same thing. He or she anticipates that the written word or the word broadcast on radio or TV will accomplish a purpose. Otherwise, why bother?
Still, it is strange to see TV networks, on one hand, telling large businesses that the hundreds of thousands of dollars they spend for a 15-second prime-time commercial will lead people to buy their products and, on the other hand, arguing vociferously that repeated acts of sex and violence on feature programs have nothing to do with the proliferation of those acts in society.
Which is it? The only honest answer, in my opinion, is the former. Advertising does sell products and the media do contribute to the amount of sex and violence in society.
Sometimes the media presentation of sex and violence is rationalized by society's need for freedom of self-expression. Recently, we have had a court in British Columbia rule that laws barring the possession of child pornography are an unwarranted restriction on freedom of self-expression.
The judge who made the ruling agreed that allowing people to possess child pornography would have numerous deleterious effects on society and children. But freedom, he maintained, is more important.
In the Church's view, this is a distorted and idolatrous view of freedom. Such a court judgment is not rooted in respect for freedom but in a failure to respect truth and solidarity. True freedom, according to the teaching of the Church, is always rooted in truth.
In a 1971 document, the Vatican's council for social communications challenged the view that the role of the media is essentially to be a forum for self-expression. "Communications is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion," it said. "At its most profound level, it is the giving of self in love."
If the criterion for good media is "the giving of self in love," how does the glamourization of sex and violence measure up?
Not very well, I submit. Sex and violence in the media amount to an abuse of the media and an exploitation of the passions of the audience. Such exploitation can lead to a distortion of our moral conscience. A malformed conscience is less able to prevent us from performing immoral acts ourselves.
More is off-kilter in the Western media than their emphasis on sex and violence. It can be argued that rather than stimulating informed mass debate on public issues, the media inhibit such debate. Partly this is because of a tendency to focus on personalities rather than issues and partly it is because of the growth of so-called objective journalism.
It is more than coincidental that the heyday of public democracy was the 19th century before the attempt to provide objective journalism arose. Newspapers then were fiercely partisan, eagerly putting forward a point of view on various issues, giving reasons to support that point of view and criticizing those who disagreed.
Public debate has eroded in part because of the growth of the view among educated elites that government is a science, not an art, and that public debate only injects emotions into matters which can better be resolved by experts. Newspapers and other media have thus come to see themselves more as chroniclers of facts rather than partisan voices.
Mainstream media, while having worked hard to overcome blatant bias in their reporting, are far from being neutral observers.
In examining the role of the media, the Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to be seeking a third way beyond the fiery partisanship of the past and the supposed Olympian dispassion of today's practitioners. It uses terms such as service to the truth, "respect for others" and "moderation and discipline."
The media does change things. It can change them for ill or for good. Ideologies such as freedom of expression are sometimes a cover for a lack of media responsibility.
But when we view communication in terms of "the giving of self in love," we begin to gain glimpses of how the media might better contribute to respect for truth and openness and how they might help to build a healthier and more hopeful society.
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