The sin of fake news: The devil is in the details

(COMMENTARY) Christian tradition dictates that we need to be aware of the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Add the distribution of fake news to that list. If Dante were around today, he would certainly add a circle in hell that includes journalists for the way many people perceive that we twist facts and purposely disseminate misinformation to millions upon millions of people each day.

Fake news – and the overuse of the term itself – has become so pervasive that even Pope Francis felt strong enough about it to address the phenomenon plaguing our Facebook feeds and Google searches.

“We need to unmask what could be called the ‘snake-tactics’ used by those who disguise themselves … to strike at any time and place,” the pope wrote in a message put out Wednesday in advance of what the Vatican has designated as the Catholic Church’s World Day of Social Communications, scheduled for May 13.

For those of us who believe in Christ, the process of journalism and the faith we practice each day are often intertwined.

Who is Pope Francis referring to? The pontiff is comparing fake news to Satan, disguised as the serpent from the Garden of Eden, in Genesis was one that got him lots of news coverage and praise. The dissemination of misinformation – call it propaganda, spin or rumors – has been a tool employed by kings and tyrants around the world from Biblical times to the present. The added layer of technology and the changing dynamic within journalism has made this an issue that could have severely negative consequences on our political and economic systems going forward. The real sin isn’t in the journalism we read, but often in the social media tools we rely on for that information. It’s those social networks that give credibility to made-up stories put out by unscrupulous types – be it Russians or teenagers living in the Balkans – and put them on equal footing with legitimate news outlets in our feeds.

Was the 81-year-old pontiff - not shy about speaking his mind on matters including climate change and immigration - calling journalists snakes? Greg Burke, a Vatican spokesman and former Fox News reporter, tried to clarify the pope’s remarks in an interview with Reuters immediately after the comments were made public: “The pope is not saying that all journalists are snakes but he is certainly acknowledging that they can be.”

Journalism is also often referred to as “a calling” - and it’s not lost on us in this business that we have an enormous responsibility to the public.

Fake news is often in the eye of the beholder. That’s the problem we find ourselves at a time when we can’t agree on basic truths. When President Donald Trump dislikes a news story or wants to discredit a media organization, he blasts them as “fake news.” In this instance, Pope Francis is doing a similar thing, conflating journalism with the social media tools that distribute that information. In calling for a journalism that is "truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines,” the pope fell into the same trap as Trump.

During his recent trip to South America, Pope Francis accused victims of Chile’s most notorious pedophile of slander. The pope said that until he sees proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up the sex crimes of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, such accusations against the bishop are defamatory. The Associated Press reported that Karadima’s accusers were credible enough by the Vatican in 2011 and that a Chilean judge also found the victims to be credible, saying she had to drop criminal charges because the statute of limitation had passed. Although the pope never used the words "fake news" to rebuke the victims, his comments did ignore fundamental truths about Barros’ inaction after victims came to him about abuse allegations.

The pope also called for journalists to be “less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts... committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.” Again, his beef here is more with social media than the news accounts that happen to make it into those feeds. It isn’t the role of journalists to control how uncivil the discourse has gotten in our society. Rather, it’s the Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley that have helped these “snakes” foment chaos.  

It’s said that journalism is the first-draft of history. The saying of “shooting the messenger because you don’t like the message” still holds. These days it’s not so much the message (the actual craft of journalism and what reporters produce), but the messengers (social media and people with no journalism experience or interests) who distribute news. Journalism, and the process of attaining information and interpreting it for a digital audience with insatiable appetites for content, has its pitfalls. Most journalists do their best with the tools they have at their disposal, although there are issues with liberal bias in the news coverage of mainstream US-based news outlets.

It was an investigation by The Indianapolis Star into sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics that culminated with the sentencing earlier this week of ex-team doctor Larry Nassar for up to 175 years in prison. It serves as proof that newspapers and local journalism still matter. The Catholic Church’s own day of reckoning about sex abuse within its ranks involving priests was unleashed only after The Boston Globe published a series of stories starting in 2002. Until that point, the Catholic Church had done nothing to stop these abuses in the Archdiocese of Boston.  

For those of us who believe in Christ, the process of journalism and the faith we practice each day are often intertwined. The Society of Professional Journalists, the oldest organization representing journalists in the United States, has a code of ethics that very much mirrors the Ten Commandments. While SPJ is not a religious organization, its code of ethics implores journalists to “seek truth and report it.” Those words sound very familiar to those who regularly attend church or pray each day.

Journalists often call what they do “a mission.” I have heard those words from many former colleagues, who are not at all religious, when I worked at mainstream news outlets such as ABC News and the New York Daily News. Journalists, like Christian missionaries, are there to spread the truth. Journalism is also often referred to as “a calling” – another religious term – and it’s not lost on us in this business that we have an enormous responsibility to the public. What we write or broadcast can indeed impact lives in good and bad ways. Fake news is a real problem, but the devil really is in the details when it comes to who’s really to blame.