Earlier this month a false report that Italian police had arrested the pope amid a Vatican “blackout” was widely shared on the internet. The report was posted on a Canadian website which had also previously posted a fictitious claim that former U.S. President Barack Obama had been arrested on espionage charges.
In his message, the pope also stressed the internet’s positive qualities.
“Digital technology gives us the possibility of timely first-hand information that is often quite useful,” he said.
“We can think of certain emergency situations where the internet was the first to report the news and communicate official notices. It is a powerful tool, which demands that all of us be responsible as users and consumers.”
“Potentially we can all become witnesses to events that otherwise would be overlooked by the traditional media, offer a contribution to society and highlight more stories, including positive ones.”
The pope signed the message on Jan. 23, the Vigil of the Memorial of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers and journalists.
World Communications Day, established by Pope Paul VI in 1967, will be celebrated in many countries this year on Sunday, May 16. The day will be observed as the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord in places where it is transferred from Thursday, May 13 to Sunday.
In his message, Pope Francis issued an impassioned call to journalists to recommit themselves to “original investigative reporting.”
“Insightful voices have long expressed concern about the risk that original investigative reporting in newspapers and television, radio and web newscasts is being replaced by a reportage that adheres to a standard, often tendentious narrative,” he wrote.
“This approach is less and less capable of grasping the truth of things and the concrete lives of people, much less the more serious social phenomena or positive movements at the grassroots level.”
He continued: “The crisis of the publishing industry risks leading to a reportage created in newsrooms, in front of personal or company computers and on social networks, without ever ‘hitting the streets,’ meeting people face to face to research stories or to verify certain situations first-hand.”
“Unless we open ourselves to this kind of encounter, we remain mere spectators, for all the technical innovations that enable us to feel immersed in a larger and more immediate reality.”
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“Any instrument proves useful and valuable only to the extent that it motivates us to go out and see things that otherwise we would not know about, to post on the internet news that would not be available elsewhere, to allow for encounters that otherwise would never happen.”
Pope Francis suggested specific topics for journalists to investigate.
He said: “We can risk reporting the pandemic, and indeed every crisis, only through the lens of the richer nations, of ‘keeping two sets of books.’ For example, there is the question of vaccines, and medical care in general, which risks excluding the poorer peoples.”
“Who would keep us informed about the long wait for treatment in the poverty-stricken villages of Asia, Latin America and Africa? Social and economic differences on the global level risk dictating the order of distribution of anti-COVID vaccines, with the poor always at the end of the line and the right to universal healthcare affirmed in principle, but stripped of real effect.”
“Yet even in the world of the more fortunate, the social tragedy of families rapidly slipping into poverty remains largely hidden; people who are no longer ashamed to wait in line before charitable organizations in order to receive a package of provisions do not tend to make news.”
The pope also praised the “courage and commitment” of journalists, camera operators, editors, and directors who risk their lives to uncover the truth.