In 1605, Johann Carolus printed the first weekly newspaper in Antwerp. However, his was not the first effort to keep the public informed. In 1556, the government of Venice was already publishing monthly news reports. These reports sold for one gazetta, one of the smallest Venetian coins of the day. Other countries in Europe soon began publishing their own newspapers, calling them “gazettes.”
As early as the first century before Christ, the Romans had organized a system for reporting the news. Each day, they would circulate handwritten news sheets called acta. They contained the news about politics, wars, executions and scandals. In every age and culture, people are naturally curious about the world in which they live. For this reason, communicating information is an essential task in any society.
Journalists who report the events, people, facts and ideas of the day do more than simply pass on information. They educate, entertain, influence, convince and comfort their audience. According to Pope Francis, there are few professions that have “so much influence on society like that of journalism.” Journalists give us what Pope Francis has called “the first draft of history.”
People everywhere depend on journalists to keep them updated on what is happening in our world. Before television, there were many daily newspapers in the United States. Major cities had both morning newspapers and evening newspapers. Today, many people hear or read the news on the internet, even as it happens. With the technological advances in our day, journalists have a wider and more immediate impact on us than in the past. Consequently, journalists need to report the news, not create the news.
Journalists have the sober duty of fostering dialogue and debate in a civil manner so that the ideas can be vetted and sound decisions be made for the common good. When reporting, they are to act objectively, not surreptitiously presenting their own personal opinions or those of their employers. Cato the Elder’s wise description of an orator equally applies to the journalist. Every journalist needs to be vir bonus dicendi peritus (an honest person skilled in communicating). By its very nature, communicating with others needs grounding in truth.
Although modern technology has gifted journalists with diverse means to report the news and provide commentaries on events and positions on policies, their moral obligation to follow ethical norms in their work does not change. The art of communication is, by its nature, linked to truth. The vitriol of political rhetoric and strident partisan disagreement should never guide the journalist’s pen.
In his 2008 Message for the 42nd World Communications Day, Pope Benedict XVI issued a needed call for a new discipline of “info-ethics.” Those in health care professions have medical ethics. Those in scientific research dealing with life have bio-ethics. So also those engaging in journalism should have information ethics as a solid foundation for their work. There will be times when criticism is warranted. There will be times when evil must be denounced. Nonetheless, those who legitimately criticize others or the government or publicly denounce an evil must always act responsibly, truthfully and with a serious concern for the privacy of individual persons.
When journalists, unimpeded by external influences, share information with a firm commitment to truth, they help individuals of diverse cultures and ideologies understand each other. They enable others to make sound judgments and responsible choices and, thereby, promote the common good. Reporting the news truthfully, in the words of Pope Francis, is “a cornerstone, a fundamental element for the vitality of a free and pluralistic society.”
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.