May I thank Archbishop Lawrence of Lahore, Pakistan and Fr. Josef-Franz Eilers, SVD, his executive secretary in the FABC-OSC, for inviting me to share my thoughts at this seminar.
What I wish to share with you comes from almost 30 years of experience with journalists in my various roles as President of a Philippines Catholic University in Southern Philippines, as a bishop, as a lead person in press conferences given by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines or by the Synod of Bishops in Rome, and recently by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.
A Word to Bishops
If one is interviewed as an individual bishop speaking in his own name, there does not seem to be much of a problem. But when one is interviewed as representing a Bishops’ Conference, or a Synod of Bishops, or a Federation of Episcopal Conferences, one would have to be extremely careful about what to say.
The interviews I dread most are “ambush interviews” especially when a Manila radio or television station would call me up in Cotabato, 500 miles away, and say, “Bishop, in about 10 minutes may we interview you on such and such issues.” In many cases the radio/TV station would tell you to comment about what one bishop or the President of the country has said. In most of these cases I decline to comment on the ground that I have not read nor verified the comment. But the other reason is to avoid being part of the game that some Philippine media seem inclined to play, i.e., to pit one person against another or to show a division of opinion or even conflict in the hierarchy, or between bishops and the government. But the real risk in “ambush interviews” is when there are no written press releases and no time to prepare one’s thoughts about some burning issues. Then I really dread what one or two reporters out of 15 will write for the next day’s papers.
A classic case for me was in 1997 when the Philippine Bishops appointed me to draft a pastoral exhortation on the ethical aspects of the Philippine economy. I was then interviewed by several reporters after the Bishops’ Plenary Assembly. One question was: “Do the Bishops think there are more poor people now than in the last ten years?” I gave a two part answer: “The Bishops do not have the data. Therefore, we do not know. But we will examine the available economic indicators to prepare the CBCP document. The answer could be one of three: yes, no or there is no difference.” The following day all the newspapers reported correctly. But one newspaper the banner headline that trumpeted the idea that: Bishops Say - More Poor Now Under President Ramos. It was simply a case of an erroneous headline that did not reflect the actual content of the report. But naturally the headline was more important than the write-up and this created a political war of words. The political opposition naturally supported the headline. The President requested to see me. At the presidential palace, he and his economic advisers treated me and two other bishops to a power point presentation of the pro-poor achievements and agenda of his government. I clarified the erroneous report. We shook hands, had a good lunch, and became close friends.
In another case five years ago, a newspaper reporter quoted me and after the quote he added what he thought was a logical conclusion. It changed the meaning of the quote. Our CBCP press office (we had a functioning media office at that time) sent a correction to the editor. Instead of simply publishing the correction, the newspaper decided to write a short article with the title, “CBCP flip-flops.” A double whammy on the Bishops!
Through the years I have learned that in any interview, a bishop cannot simply come out with whatever comes to his mind. Things said cannot be erased. When you read the next day’s paper, you might regret what you have said uncritically, even if only as obiter dicta and off the cuff.
In relation to media and media practitioners a Bishop has to consistently reflect the following values:
truth and charity;
clarity and conciseness;
an occasional felicitous quotable phrase;
a sense of humor and a lot of patience.
Beyond gimmicks to have good public relations, these values are most important.
A Word to Journalists
On the other hand, I likewise have some observations and suggestions for journalists who write about the Church.
The basic attitude of the Church towards media and journalists is positive. Media are instruments for the communication of truth, justice, peace and love – the Gospel or Kingdom values that serve as the pillars of society. God is truth. Everything that is true reflects the nature of God.
Media practitioners have more than a profession by which they earn their livelihood. They have a vocation – a vocation that is God given. The communication of deep human values that are values of God’s reign is their vocation. In this they also have a task to help inform and educate, to help form individuals and human society in accordance with these values.
This vocation reflects a God-given dignity, the dignity of sharing in and reflecting the very nature of God, who is Truth, communicating himself to us in space and time through the eternal Word, his own Son Jesus, in the Spirit of Wisdom and Truth. Every communication of truth is an act that is a seed of the Divine.
But media are “human-made” and are utilized by human beings. They, therefore, share likewise – and sadly - - in the evil and weakness that we are all heir to – pride, arrogance, selfishness, inability to see the whole truth, biases and prejudices, one-sidedness, lack of objectivity and perspective.
Therefore, the Church’s attitude to the tools and practitioners of social communication is both positive and also mixed with caution.
With the above presuppositions, these are some suggestions:
It is necessary for journalists to understand the Church from its own perspective. That perspective is fundamentally religious, spiritual and ethical. This dimension is its very nature and mission in the world. Although it may be seen by secular society as a political force, the Church does not engage society in terms of a political agenda or political motivation. Therefore, to interpret the Church from a political angle and to speculate on possible political motivations for its various positions on burning issues of the day is to grossly misinterpret the Church. For instance, a close reading of the CBCP statements of July 2005, January 2006 and July 2006 on the issues of presidential resignation and impeachment would provide discerning readers the moral reasons for their stand. But it is unfortunate that media in general only presented the CBCP stand without really delving into the moral reasons for it. Instead the possible political motivations were discussed by many journalists. I believe this is because many fail to interpret the Church from its own perspective as a moral and religious force.
Armed with the proper perspective regarding the Church, journalists can be better equipped to follow their vocation – to communicate Truth. Truth requires fairness, accuracy, and objectivity.
However, the pursuit and communication of truth has to hurdle many obstacles. We all know that truth is not served:
by distorting information -- and truth is distorted by omitting essential information or disregarding context;
by using misleading and even erroneous headlines or illustrations;
by not differentiating between advocacy and news reporting;
by misrepresenting fact or context (all the above, from Society of Professional Journalists, “Code of Ethics,” 1996, Indianapolis);
by improper emphasis (see Philippine Press Institute and National Press Club, “Journalist’s Code of Ethics”);
by not verifying alleged facts (later corrections not being given proper space);
by mixing speculation with facts.
It is for the above reasons that in Philippine media one needs to be very careful about information “according to a reliable source.” The source might not at all be reliable.
For instance in one classic case, someone had interviewed an “anonymous bishop.” He allegedly told the reporter that the Bishops received a “tongue lashing” from the Papal Nuncio before they wrote their statement in July 2005 on the issue of presidential resignation. According to the newspaper report, the Nuncio had “scolded” the Bishops regarding their alleged past political “interference.” So, when the Bishops issued a statement that seemed like a “neutral position” to some in the face of the call by the political opposition for the President of the country to resign, the alleged “scolding” by the Papal Nuncio was considered a reason. Much of this was a fallacious argument, “post hoc, ergo propter hoc”, since the statement came after the scolding, then the kind of statement that the Bishops issued must have been because of the “scolding.”
I received many local and foreign inquiries about what really happened. Did the Nuncio really give us a “tongue lashing”? Did Rome really impose its will on us? I simply had to tell them that the main consensus points had been written out the night before the talk of the Papal Nuncio. His talk could in no way be called “tongue-lashing” nor even a mild “scolding.” It was simply a calm objective review of church teachings that all the bishops already knew. Hence, the Bishops did not make the slightest deviation from the general consensus points that they had already reached the night before. In fact the rest of the day was spent refining the consensus points and discussing how to write them in as clear a language as possible. This was especially so since many people regarded as simply “black and white” what, indeed, was a very complex political situation with many debatable legal issues. The bottom line – the reporter picked out the wrong bishop for his “reliable source” and as we say in the Philippines “nakuryente siya”; he got burned. But unfortunately the report also damaged the credibility of the Bishops as an independent body.
Or take the case of “improper emphasis” that distorts the truth. Here in the Philippines an example is the difference between “imperial Manila” and the provinces outside Metro Manila. Emphasis seems to be placed by media by what is happening in Manila. But what is true is the fact that the sentiments of many in Manila may not necessarily be the sentiments of the rest of the country. It is the sentiment of the rest of the country that the Bishops in the different dioceses carry with them to their plenary assemblies. At the peak of all the political opposition rallies in Manila, there was no similar general reaction in the provinces. The rest of the Philippines perceive things differently. Morally what may be simply black and white to some may be tinged with a lot of debatable grey to many others.
Finally, it is the moral perspective that impels the bishops to take seemingly contrary positions on some political issues: their position regarding the resignation and impeachment of the President may seem to be supportive of the President; but their position on constitutional change very clearly does not support the President’s own position.
Again, it is absolutely necessary to interpret the bishops’ positions on political issues from the moral perspective rather than from within a political framework.
Philippine journalism is a mixed bag of freedom and responsibility; fairness, accuracy, and objectivity. I sometimes think that the freewheeling type of news reporting and opinion-making in Philippine media is a reflection of the free-wheeling type of politics that we have. I have often wondered how two reporters at the same CBCP press conference could report the same event so differently. A veteran journalist explained to me that the two papers they write for represent two different political perspectives. As they say, “meron angulo na politika” – they have a political angle.
My own expectation then of journalists is quite simple:
Be true to your vocation as vehicles of truth. Tell the truth and do it charitably.
God through His Spirit of wisdom and Truth ceaselessly communicates his gift to humanity – God’s eternal Word -- who is Jesus the Truth.
When you tell the truth and do it charitably, you share in this divine communication.
+Orlando B. Quevedo, O.M.I.
FABC-OSC Communications Seminar
Bukal ng Tipan, Antipolo, Rizal (Philippines)
November 22, 2006