Ethics in Communications
ETHICS IN COMMUNICATIONS
Pontifical Council for Social Communications
1. Great good and great evil come from the use people make of the media of social
communication. Although it typically is said—and we often shall say here—that "media"
do this or that, these are not blind forces of nature beyond human control. For even
though acts of communicating often do have unintended consequences, nevertheless
people choose whether to use the media for good or evil ends, in a good or evil way.
These choices, central to the ethical question, are made not only by those who receive
communication—viewers, listeners, readers—but especially by those who control the
instruments of social communication and determine their structures, policies, and content.
They include public officials and corporate executives, members of governing boards,
owners, publishers and station managers, editors, news directors, producers, writers,
correspondents, and others. For them, the ethical question is particularly acute: Are the
media being used for good or evil?
2. The impact of social communication can hardly be exaggerated. Here people come
into contact with other people and with events, form their opinions and values. Not only
do they transmit and receive information and ideas through these instruments but often
they experience living itself as an experience of media (cf. Pontifical Council for Social
Communications, Aetatis novae, 2).
Technological change rapidly is making the media of communication even more pervasive
and powerful. "The advent of the information society is a real cultural revolution"
(Pontifical Council for Culture, Toward a Pastoral Approach to Culture, 9); and the
twentieth century's dazzling innovations may have been only a prologue to what this new
century will bring.
The range and diversity of media accessible to people in well-to-do countries already are
astonishing: books and periodicals, television and radio, films and videos, audio
recordings, electronic communication transmitted over the airwaves, over cable and
satellite, via the Internet. The contents of this vast outpouring range from hard news to
pure entertainment, prayer to pornography, contemplation to violence. Depending on how
they use media, people can grow in sympathy and compassion or become isolated in a
narcissistic, self-referential world of stimuli with near-narcotic effects. Not even those
who shun the media can avoid contact with others who are deeply influenced by them.
3. Along with these reasons, the Church has reasons of her own for being interested in the
means of social communication. Viewed in the light of faith, the history of human
communication can be seen as a long journey from Babel, site and symbol of
communication's collapse (cf. Gn 11:4-8), to Pentecost and the gift of tongues (cf. Acts
2:5-11)—communication restored by the power of the Spirit sent by the Son. Sent forth
into the world to announce the good news (cf. Mt 28:19-20; Mk 16:15), the Church has
the mission of proclaiming the Gospel until the end of time. Today, she knows, that
requires using media (cf. Vatican Council II, Inter mirifica, 3; Pope Paul VI, Evangelii
nuntiandi, 45; Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris missio, 37; Pontifical Council for Social
Communications, Communio et progressio, 126-134, Aetatis novae, 11).
The Church also knows herself to be a communio, a communion of persons and
eucharistic communities, "rooted in and mirroring the intimate communion of the Trinity"
(Aetatis novae, 10; cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Some Aspects of the
Church Understood as Communion). Indeed, all human communication is grounded in
the communication among Father, Son, and Spirit. But more than that, Trinitarian
communion reaches out to humankind: The Son is the Word, eternally "spoken" by the
Father; and in and through Jesus Christ, Son and Word made flesh, God communicates
himself and his salvation to women and men. "In many and various ways God spoke of
old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son"
(Heb 1:1-2). Communication in and by the Church finds its starting point in the
communion of love among the divine Persons and their communication with us.
4. The Church's approach to the means of social communication is fundamentally positive,
encouraging. She does not simply stand in judgment and condemn; rather, she considers
these instruments to be not only products of human genius but also great gifts of God and
true signs of the times (cf. Inter mirifica, 1; Evangelii nuntiandi, 45; Redemptoris
missio, 37). She desires to support those who are professionally involved in
communication by setting out positive principles to assist them in their work, while
fostering a dialogue in which all interested parties—today, that means nearly
everyone—can participate. These purposes underlie the present document.
We say again: The media do nothing by themselves; they are instruments, tools, used as
people choose to use them. In reflecting upon the means of social communication, we
must face honestly the "most essential" question raised by technological progress:
whether, as a result of it, the human person "is becoming truly better, that is to say more
mature spiritually, more aware of the dignity of his humanity, more responsible, more
open to others, especially the neediest and the weakest, and readier to give and to aid all"
(Pope John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 15).
We take it for granted that the vast majority of people involved in social communication in
any capacity are conscientious individuals who want to do the right thing. Public officials,
policy-makers, and corporate executives desire to respect and promote the public
interest as they understand it. Readers and listeners and viewers want to use their time
well for personal growth and development so that they can lead happier, more productive
lives. Parents are anxious that what enters their homes through media be in their children's
interests. Most professional communicators desire to use their talents to serve the human
family, and are troubled by the growing economic and ideological pressures to lower
ethical standards present in many sectors of the media.
The contents of the countless choices made by all these people concerning the media are
different from group to group and individual to individual, but the choices all have ethical
weight and are subject to ethical evaluation. To choose rightly, those choosing need to
"know the principles of the moral order and apply them faithfully" (Inter mirifica, 4).
5. The Church brings several things to this conversation.
She brings a long tradition of moral wisdom, rooted in divine revelation and human
reflection (cf. Pope John Paul II, Fides et ratio, 36-48). Part of this is a substantial and
growing body of social teaching, whose theological orientation is an important corrective
to "the 'atheistic' solution, which deprives man of one of his basic dimensions, namely the
spiritual one, and to permissive and consumerist solutions, which under various pretexts
seek to convince man that he is free from every law and from God himself" (Pope John
Paul II, Centesimus annus, 55). More than simply passing judgment, this tradition offers
itself in service to the media. For example, "the Church's culture of wisdom can save the
media culture of information from becoming a meaningless accumulation of facts" (Pope
John Paul II, Message for the 33rd World Communications Day, 1999).
The Church also brings something else to the conversation. Her special contribution to
human affairs, including the world of social communication, is "precisely her vision of the
dignity of the person revealed in all its fullness in the mystery of the Incarnate Word"
(Centesimus annus, 47) In the words of the Second Vatican Council, "Christ the Lord,
Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love,
fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling" (Gaudium et Spes,
II. Social Communication that Serves the Human Person
6. Following the Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,
Gaudium et Spes (cf. nos. 30-31), the Pastoral Instruction on Social Communications
Communio et progressio makes it clear that the media are called to serve human dignity
by helping people live well and function as persons in community. Media do this by
encouraging men and women to be conscious of their dignity, enter into the thoughts and
feelings of others, cultivate a sense of mutual responsibility, and grow in personal
freedom, in respect for others' freedom, and in the capacity for dialogue.
Social communication has immense power to promote human happiness and fulfillment.
Without pretending to do more than give an overview, we note here, as we have done
elsewhere (cf. Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Ethics in Advertising,
4-8), some economic, political, cultural, educational, and religious benefits.
7. Economic. The market is not a norm of morality or a source of moral value, and
market economics can be abused; but the market can serve the person (cf. Centesimus
annus, 34), and media play an indispensable role in a market economy. Social
communication supports business and commerce, helps spur economic growth,
employment, and prosperity, encourages improvements in the quality of existing goods
and services and the development of new ones, fosters responsible competition that
serves the public interest, and enables people to make informed choices by telling them
about the availability and features of products.
In short, today's complex national and international economic systems could not function
without the media. Remove them, and crucial economic structures would collapse, with
great harm to countless people and to society.
8. Political. Social communication benefits society by facilitating informed citizen
participation in the political process. The media draw people together for the pursuit of
shared purposes and goals, thus helping to form and sustain authentic political
Media are indispensable in today's democratic societies. They supply information about
issues and events, office holders and candidates for office. They enable leaders to
communicate quickly and directly with the public about urgent matters. They are
important instruments of accountability, turning the spotlight on incompetence, corruption,
and abuses of trust, while also calling attention to instances of competence,
public-spiritedness, and devotion to duty.
9. Cultural. The means of social communication offer people access to literature, drama,
music, and art otherwise unavailable to them, and so promote human development in
respect to knowledge and wisdom and beauty. We speak not only of presentations of
classic works and the fruits of scholarship, but also of wholesome popular entertainment
and useful information that draw families together, help people solve everyday problems,
raise the spirits of the sick, shut-ins, and the elderly, and relieve the tedium of life.
Media also make it possible for ethnic groups to cherish and celebrate their cultural
traditions, share them with others, and transmit them to new generations. In particular,
they introduce children and young people to their cultural heritage. Communicators, like
artists, serve the common good by preserving and enriching the cultural heritage of nations
and peoples (cf. Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists, 4).
10. Educational. The media are important tools of education in many contexts, from
school to workplace, and at many stages in life. Preschoolers being introduced to the
rudiments of reading and mathematics, young people seeking vocational training or
degrees, elderly persons pursuing new learning in their latter years—these and many
others have access via these means to a rich and growing panoply of educational
Media are standard instructional tools in many classrooms. And beyond the classroom
walls, the instruments of communication, including the Internet, conquer barriers of
distance and isolation, bringing learning opportunities to villagers in remote areas,
cloistered religious, the home-bound, prisoners, and many others.
11. Religious. Many people's religious lives are greatly enriched through the media. They
carry news and information about religious events, ideas, and personalities; they serve as
vehicles for evangelization and catechesis. Day in and day out, they provide inspiration,
encouragement, and opportunities for worship to persons confined to their homes or to
Sometimes, too, media contribute to people's spiritual enrichment in extraordinary ways.
For example, huge audiences around the world view and, in a sense, participate in
important events in the life of the Church regularly telecast via satellite from Rome. And,
over the years, media have brought the words and images of the Holy Father's pastoral
visits to countless millions.
12. In all these settings—economic, political, cultural, educational, religious—as well as
others, the media can be used to build and sustain human community. And indeed all
communication ought to be open to community among persons.
"In order to become brothers and sisters, it is necessary to know one another. To do this,
it is...important to communicate more extensively and more deeply" (Congregation for
Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Fraternal Life in
Community, 29). Communication that serves genuine community is "more than the
expression of ideas and the indication of emotion. At its most profound level, it is the
giving of self in love" (Communio et Progressio, 11).
Communication like this seeks the well being and fulfillment of community members in
respect to the common good of all. But consultation and dialogue are needed to discern
this common good. Therefore it is imperative for the parties to social communication to
engage in such dialogue and submit themselves to the truth about what is good. This is
how the media can meet their obligation to "witness to the truth about life, about human
dignity, about the true meaning of our freedom and mutual interdependence" (Pope John
Paul II, Message for the 33rd World Communications Day, 1999).
III. Social Communication that Violates the Good of the Person
13. The media also can be used to block community and injure the integral good of
persons: by alienating people or marginalizing and isolating them; drawing them into
perverse communities organized around false, destructive values; fostering hostility and
conflict, demonizing others and creating a mentality of "us" against "them"; presenting what
is base and degrading in a glamorous light, while ignoring or belittling what uplifts and
ennobles; spreading misinformation and disinformation, fostering trivialization and banality.
Stereotyping—based on race and ethnicity, sex and age and other factors, including
religion—is distressingly common in media. Often, too, social communication overlooks
what is genuinely new and important, including the good news of the Gospel, and
concentrates on the fashionable or faddish.
Abuses exist in each of the areas just mentioned.
14. Economic. The media sometimes are used to build and sustain economic systems
that serve acquisitiveness and greed. Neoliberalism is a case in point: "Based on a purely
economic conception of man", it "considers profit and the law of the market as its only
parameters, to the detriment of the dignity of and the respect due to individuals and
peoples" (Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, 156). In such circumstances, means
of communication that ought to benefit all are exploited for the advantage of the few.
The process of globalization "can create unusual opportunities for greater prosperity"
(Centesimus annus, 58); but side by side with it, and even as part of it, some nations
and peoples suffer exploitation and marginalization, falling further and further behind in the
struggle for development. These expanding pockets of privation in the midst of plenty are
seedbeds of envy, resentment, tension, and conflict. This underlines the need for "effective
international agencies which will oversee and direct the economy to the common good"
(Centesimus annus, 58).
Faced with grave injustices, it is not enough for communicators simply to say that their job
is to report things as they are. That undoubtedly is their job. But some instances of human
suffering are largely ignored by media even as others are reported; and insofar as this
reflects a decision by communicators, it reflects indefensible selectivity. Even more
fundamentally, communication structures and policies and the allocation of technology are
factors helping to make some people "information rich" and others "information poor" at a
time when prosperity, and even survival, depend on information.
In such ways, then, media often contribute to the injustices and imbalances that give rise
to suffering they report. "It is necessary to break down the barriers and monopolies which
leave so many countries on the margins of development, and to provide all individuals and
nations with the basic conditions which will enable them to share in development"
(Centesimus annus, 35). Communications and information technology, along with
training in its use, is one such basic condition.
15. Political. Unscrupulous politicians use media for demagoguery and deception in
support of unjust policies and oppressive regimes. They misrepresent opponents and
systematically distort and suppress the truth by propaganda and "spin". Rather than
drawing people together, media then serve to drive them apart, creating tensions and
suspicions that set the stage for conflict.
Even in countries with democratic systems, it is all too common for political leaders to
manipulate public opinion through the media instead of fostering informed participation in
the political process. The conventions of democracy are observed, but techniques
borrowed from advertising and public relations are deployed on behalf of policies that
exploit particular groups and violate fundamental rights, including the right to life (cf. Pope
John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, 70).
Often, too, the media popularize the ethical relativism and utilitarianism that underlie
today's culture of death. They participate in the contemporary "conspiracy against life" by
"lending credit to that culture which presents recourse to contraception, sterilization,
abortion and even euthanasia as a mark of progress and a victory of freedom, while
depicting as enemies of freedom and progress those positions which are unreservedly
pro-life" (Evangelium vitae, 17).
16. Cultural. Critics frequently decry the superficiality and bad taste of media, and
although they are not obliged to be somber and dull, they should not be tawdry and
demeaning either. It is no excuse to say the media reflect popular standards; for they also
powerfully influence popular standards and so have a serious duty to uplift, not degrade,
The problem takes various forms. Instead of explaining complex matters carefully and
truthfully, news media avoid or oversimplify them. Entertainment media feature
presentations of a corrupting, dehumanizing kind, including exploitative treatments of
sexuality and violence. It is grossly irresponsible to ignore or dismiss the fact that
"pornography and sadistic violence debase sexuality, corrode human relationships, exploit
individuals—especially women and young people, undermine marriage and family life,
foster anti-social behaviour and weaken the moral fibre of society itself" (Pontifical
Council for Social Communications, Pornography and Violence in the
Communications Media: A Pastoral Response, 10).
On the international level, cultural domination imposed through the means of social
communication also is a serious, growing problem. Traditional cultural expressions are
virtually excluded from access to popular media in some places and face extinction;
meanwhile the values of affluent, secularized societies increasingly supplant the traditional
values of societies less wealthy and powerful. In considering these matters, particular
attention should go to providing children and young people with media presentations that
put them in living contact with their cultural heritage.
Communication across cultural lines is desirable. Societies can and should learn from one
another. But transcultural communication should not be at the expense of the less
powerful. Today "even the least-widespread cultures are no longer isolated. They benefit
from an increase in contacts, but they also suffer from the pressures of a powerful trend
toward uniformity" (Toward a Pastoral Approach To Culture, 33). That so much
communication now flows in one direction only—from developed nations to the
developing and the poor—raises serious ethical questions. Have the rich nothing to learn
from the poor? Are the powerful deaf to the voices of the weak?
17. Educational. Instead of promoting learning, media can distract people and cause
them to waste time. Children and young people are especially harmed in this way, but
adults also suffer from exposure to banal, trashy presentations. Among the causes of this
abuse of trust by communicators is greed that puts profits before persons.
Sometimes, too, media are used as tools of indoctrination, with the aim of controlling
what people know and denying them access to information the authorities do not want
them to have. This is a perversion of genuine education, which seeks to expand people's
knowledge and skills and help them pursue worthy purposes, not narrow their horizons
and harness their energies in the service of ideology.
18. Religious. In the relationship between the means of social communication and religion
there are temptations on both sides.
On the side of the media, these include ignoring or marginalizing religious ideas and
experience; treating religion with incomprehension, perhaps even contempt, as an object
of curiosity that does not merit serious attention; promoting religious fads at the expense
of traditional faith; treating legitimate religious groups with hostility; weighing religion and
religious experience by secular standards of what is appropriate, and favoring religious
views that conform to secular tastes over those that do not; trying to imprison
transcendence within the confines of rationalism and skepticism. Today's media often
mirror the post-modern state of a human spirit "locked within the confines of its own
immanence without reference of any kind to the transcendent" (Fides et Ratio, 81).
The temptations on the side of religion include taking an exclusively judgmental and
negative view of media; failing to understand that reasonable standards of good media
practice like objectivity and even-handedness may preclude special treatment for
religion's institutional interests; presenting religious messages in an emotional, manipulative
style, as if they were products competing in a glutted marketplace; using media as
instruments for control and domination; practicing unnecessary secrecy and otherwise
offending against truth; downplaying the Gospel's demand for conversion, repentance,
and amendment of life, while substituting a bland religiosity that asks little of people;
encouraging fundamentalism, fanaticism, and religious exclusivism that foment disdain and
hostility toward others.
19. In short, the media can be used for good or for evil—it is a matter of choice. "It can
never be forgotten that communication through the media is not a utilitarian exercise
intended simply to motivate, persuade or sell. Still less is it a vehicle for ideology. The
media can at times reduce human beings to units of consumption or competing interest
groups, or manipulate viewers and readers and listeners as mere ciphers from whom
some advantage is sought, whether product sales or political support; and these things
destroy community. It is the task of communication to bring people together and enrich
their lives, not isolate and exploit them. The means of social communication, properly
used, can help to create and sustain a human community based on justice and charity;
and, in so far as they do that, they will be signs of hope" (Pope John Paul II, Message for
the 32nd World Communications Day, 1998).
IV. Some Relevant Ethical Principles
20. Ethical principles and norms relevant in other fields also apply to social
communication. Principles of social ethics like solidarity, subsidiarity, justice and equity,
and accountability in the use of public resources and the performance of roles of public
trust are always applicable. Communication must always be truthful, since truth is essential
to individual liberty and to authentic community among persons.
Ethics in social communication is concerned not just with what appears on cinema and
television screens, on radio broadcasts, on the printed page and the Internet, but with a
great deal else besides. The ethical dimension relates not just to the content of
communication (the message) and the process of communication (how the communicating
is done) but to fundamental structural and systemic issues, often involving large questions
of policy bearing upon the distribution of sophisticated technology and product (who shall
be information rich and who shall be information poor?). These questions point to other
questions with economic and political implications for ownership and control. At least in
open societies with market economies, the largest ethical question of all may be how to
balance profit against service to the public interest understood according to an inclusive
conception of the common good.
Even to reasonable people of good will it is not always immediately clear how to apply
ethical principles and norms to particular cases; reflection, discussion, and dialogue are
needed. We offer what follows with the hope of encouraging such reflection and
dialogue—among communication policy makers, professional communicators, ethicists
and moralists, recipients of communication, and others concerned.
21. In all three areas—message, process, structural and systemic issues—the fundamental
ethical principle is this: The human person and the human community are the end and
measure of the use of the media of social communication; communication should be by
persons to persons for the integral development of persons.
Integral development requires a sufficiency of material goods and products, but it also
requires attention to the "inner dimension" (Sollicitudo rei socialis, 29; cf. 46).
Everyone deserves the opportunity to grow and flourish in respect to the full range of
physical, intellectual, emotional, moral, and spiritual goods. Individuals have irreducible
dignity and importance, and may never be sacrificed to collective interests.
22. A second principle is complementary to the first: The good of persons cannot be
realized apart from the common good of the communities to which they belong. This
common good should be understood in inclusive terms, as the sum total of worthy shared
purposes to whose pursuit community members jointly commit themselves and which the
community exists to serve.
Thus, while social communication rightly looks to the needs and interests of particular
groups, it should not do so in a way that sets one group against another—for example, in
the name of class conflict, exaggerated nationalism, racial supremacy, ethnic cleansing,
and the like. The virtue of solidarity, "a firm and persevering determination to commit
oneself to the common good" (Sollicitudo rei socialis, 38), ought to govern all areas of
social life—economic, political, cultural, religious.
Communicators and communication policy makers must serve the real needs and interests
both of individuals and of groups, at all levels and of all kinds. There is a pressing need for
equity at the international level, where the maldistribution of material goods between
North and South is exacerbated by a maldistribution of communication resources and
information technology upon which productivity and prosperity greatly depend. Similar
problems also exist within wealthy countries, "where the constant transformation of the
methods of production and consumption devalues certain acquired skills and professional
expertise" and "those who fail to keep up with the times can easily be marginalized"
(Centesimus annus, 33).
Clearly, then, there is a need for broad participation in making decisions not only about
the messages and processes of social communication but also about systemic issues and
the allocation of resources. The decision makers have a serious moral duty to recognize
the needs and interests of those who are particularly vulnerable —the poor, the elderly
and unborn, children and youth, the oppressed and marginalized, women and minorities,
the sick and disabled—as well as families and religious groups. Today especially, the
international community and international communications interests should take a generous
and inclusive approach to nations and regions where what the means of social
communication do—or fail to do—bears a share of the blame for the perpetuation of evils
like poverty, illiteracy, political repression and violations of human rights, intergroup and
interreligious conflicts, and the suppression of indigenous cultures.
23. Even so, we continue to believe that "the solution to problems arising from
unregulated commercialization and privatization does not lie in state control of media but
in more regulation according to criteria of public service and in greater public
accountability. It should be noted in this connection that, although the legal and political
frameworks within which media operate in some countries are currently changing
strikingly for the better, elsewhere government intervention remains an instrument of
oppression and exclusion" (Aetatis novae, 5).
The presumption should always be in favor of freedom of expression, for "when people follow
their natural inclination to exchange ideas and declare their opinions, they are not merely
making use of a right. They are also performing a social duty" (Communio et
progressio, 45). Still, considered from an ethical perspective, this presumption is not an
absolute, indefeasible norm. There are obvious instances—for example, libel and slander,
messages that seek to foster hatred and conflict among individuals and groups, obscenity
and pornography, the morbid depiction of violence—where no right to communicate
exists. Plainly, too, free expression should always observe principles like truth, fairness,
and respect for privacy.
Professional communicators should be actively involved in developing and enforcing
ethical codes of behavior for their profession, in cooperation with public representatives.
Religious bodies and other groups likewise deserve to be part of this continuing effort.
24. Another relevant principle, already mentioned, concerns public participation in making
decisions about communications policy. At all levels, this participation should be
organized, systematic, and genuinely representative, not skewed in favor of particular
groups. This principle applies even, and perhaps especially, where media are privately
owned and operated for profit.
In the interests of public participation, communicators "must seek to communicate with
people, and not just speak to them. This involves learning about people's needs, being
aware of their struggles and presenting all forms of communication with the sensitivity that
human dignity requires" (Pope John Paul II, Address to Communications Specialists, Los
Angeles, September 15, 1987).
Circulation, broadcast ratings, and "box office", along with market research, are
sometimes said to be the best indicators of public sentiment—in fact, the only ones
necessary for the law of the market to operate. No doubt the market's voice can be
heard in these ways. But decisions about media content and policy should not be left only
to the market and to economic factors—profits—since these cannot be counted on to
safeguard either the public interest as a whole or, especially, the legitimate interests of
To some extent, this objection may be answered by the concept of the "niche", according
to which particular periodicals, programs, stations, and channels are directed to particular
audiences. The approach is legitimate, up to a point. But diversification and
specialization—organizing media to correspond to audiences broken down into
ever-smaller units based largely on economic factors and patterns of
consumption—should not be carried too far. Media of social communication must remain
an 'Areopagus' (cf. Redemptoris missio, 37)—a forum for exchanging ideas and
information, drawing individuals and groups together, fostering solidarity and peace. The
Internet in particular raises concerns about some of the "radically new consequences it
brings: a loss of the intrinsic value of items of information, an undifferentiated uniformity in
messages that are reduced to pure information, a lack of responsible feedback and a
certain discouragement of interpersonal relationships" (Toward a Pastoral Approach To
25. Professional communicators are not the only ones with ethical duties.
Audiences—recipients—have obligations, too. Communicators attempting to meet their
responsibilities deserve audiences conscientious about theirs.
The first duty of recipients of social communication is to be discerning and selective. They
should inform themselves about media—their structures, mode of operation,
contents—and make responsible choices, according to ethically sound criteria, about
what to read or watch or listen to. Today everybody needs some form of continuing
media education, whether by personal study or participation in an organized program or
both. More than just teaching about techniques, media education helps people form
standards of good taste and truthful moral judgment, an aspect of conscience formation.
Through her schools and formation programs the Church should provide media education
of this kind (cf. Aetatis novae, 28; Communio et progressio, 107). Directed originally
to institutes of consecrated life, the following words have a broader application: "A
community, aware of the influence of the media, should learn to use them for personal and
community growth, with the evangelical clarity and inner freedom of those who have
learned to know Christ (cf. Gal 4:17-23). The media propose, and often impose, a
mentality and model of life in constant contrast with the Gospel. In this connection, in
many areas one hears of the desire for deeper formation in receiving and using the media,
both critically and fruitfully" (Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies
of Apostolic Life, Fraternal Life in Community, 34).
Similarly, parents have a serious duty to help their children learn how to evaluate and use
the media, by forming their consciences correctly and developing their critical faculties (cf.
Familiaris Consortio, 76). For their children's sake, as well as their own, parents must
learn and practice the skills of discerning viewers and listeners and readers, acting as
models of prudent use of media in the home. According to their age and circumstances,
children and young people should be open to formation regarding media, resisting the
easy path of uncritical passivity, peer pressure, and commercial exploitation.
Families—parents and children together—will find it helpful to come together in groups to
study and discuss the problems and opportunities created by social communication.
26. Besides promoting media education, the institutions, agencies, and programs of the
Church have other important responsibilities in regard to social communication. First and
foremost, the Church's practice of communication should be exemplary, reflecting the
highest standards of truthfulness, accountability, sensitivity to human rights, and other
relevant principles and norms. Beyond that, the Church's own media should be committed
to communicating the fullness of the truth about the meaning of human life and history,
especially as it is contained in God's revealed word and expressed by the teaching of the
Magisterium. Pastors should encourage use of media to spread the Gospel (cf. Code of
Canon Law, Canon 822.1).
Those who represent the Church must be honest and straightforward in their relations
with journalists. Even though the questions they ask are "sometimes embarrassing or
disappointing, especially when they in no way correspond to the message we have to get
across", one must bear in mind that "these disconcerting questions are often asked by
most of our contemporaries" (Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, 34). For the
Church to speak credibly to people today, those who speak for her have to give credible,
truthful answers to these seemingly awkward questions.
Catholics, like other citizens, have the right of free expression, including the right of access
to the media for this purpose. The right of expression includes expressing opinions about
the good of the Church, with due regard for the integrity of faith and morals, respect for
the pastors, and consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons (cf.
Canon 212.3; Canon 227). No one, however, has a right to speak for the Church, or
imply he or she does, unless properly designated; and personal opinions should not be
presented as the Church's teaching (cf. Canon 227).
The Church would be well served if more of those who hold offices and perform
functions in her name received communication training. This is true not only of
seminarians, persons in formation in religious communities, and young lay Catholics, but
Church personnel generally. Provided the media are "neutral, open and honest", they offer
well-prepared Christians "a frontline missionary role" and it is important that the latter be
"well-trained and supported". Pastors also should offer their people guidance regarding
media and their sometimes discordant and even destructive messages (cf. Canon 822.2,
Similar considerations apply to internal communication in the Church. A two-way flow of
information and views between pastors and faithful, freedom of expression sensitive to the
well being of the community and to the role of the Magisterium in fostering it, and
responsible public opinion all are important expressions of "the fundamental right of
dialogue and information within the Church" (Aetatis novae, 10; cf. Communio et
The right of expression must be exercised with deference to revealed truth and the
Church's teaching, and with respect for others' ecclesial rights (cf. Canon 212.1, .2, .3,
Canon 220). Like other communities and institutions, the Church sometimes needs—in
fact, is sometimes obliged—to practice secrecy and confidentiality. But this should not be
for the sake of manipulation and control. Within the communion of faith, "holders of
office, who are invested with a sacred power, are, in fact, dedicated to promoting the
interests of their brethren, so that all who belong to the People of God, and are
consequently endowed with true Christian dignity, may through their free and
well-ordered efforts toward a common good, attain to salvation" (Lumen gentium, 18).
Right practice in communication is one of the ways of realizing this vision.
27. As the third millennium of the Christian era begins, humankind is well along in creating
a global network for the instantaneous transmission of information, ideas, and value
judgments in science, commerce, education, entertainment, politics, the arts, religion, and
every other field.
This network already is directly accessible to many people in their homes and schools and
workplaces—indeed, wherever they may be. It is commonplace to view events, from
sports to wars, happening in real time on the other side of the planet. People can tap
directly into quantities of data beyond the reach of many scholars and students just a short
time ago. An individual can ascend to heights of human genius and virtue, or plunge to the
depths of human degradation, while sitting alone at a keyboard and screen.
Communication technology constantly achieves new breakthroughs, with enormous
potential for good and ill. As interactivity increases, the distinction between
communicators and recipients blurs. Continuing research is needed into the impact, and
especially the ethical implications, of new and emerging media.
28. But despite their immense power, the means of communication are, and will remain,
only media—that is to say: instruments, tools, available for both good and evil uses. The
choice is ours. The media do not call for a new ethic; they call for the application of
established principles to new circumstances. And this is a task in which everyone has a
role to play. Ethics in the media is not the business only of specialists, whether they be
specialists in social communication or specialists in moral philosophy; rather, the reflection
and dialogue that this document seeks to encourage and assist must be broad and
29. Social communication can join people in communities of sympathy and shared
interest. Will these communities be informed by justice, decency, and respect for human
rights; will they be committed to the common good? Or will they be selfish and
inward-looking, committed to the benefit of particular groups—economic, racial, political,
even religious—at others' expense? Will new technology serve all nations and peoples,
while respecting the cultural traditions of each; or will it be a tool to enrich the rich and
empower the powerful? We have to choose.
The means of communication also can be used to separate and isolate. More and more,
technology allows people to assemble packages of information and services uniquely
designed for them. There are real advantages in that, but it raises an inescapable question:
Will the audience of the future be a multitude of audiences of one? While the new
technology can enhance individual autonomy, it has other, less desirable implications.
Instead being a global community, might the 'web' of the future turn out to be a vast,
fragmented network of isolated individuals—human bees in their cells—interacting with
data instead of with one another? What would become of solidarity—what would
become of love—in a world like that?
In the best of circumstances, human communication has serious limitations, is more or less
imperfect and in danger of failing. It is hard for people consistently to communicate
honestly with one another, in a way that does no harm and serves the best interests of all.
In the world of media, moreover, the inherent difficulties of communicating often are
magnified by ideology, by the desire for profit and political control, by rivalries and
conflicts between groups, and by other social ills. Today's media vastly increase the
outreach of social communication—its quantity, its speed; they do not make the reaching
out of mind to mind and heart to heart any less fragile, less sensitive, less prone to fail.
30. As we have said, the special contributions which the Church brings to the discussion
of these matters are a vision of human persons and their incomparable dignity and
inviolable rights, and a vision of human community whose members are joined by the
virtue of solidarity in pursuit of the common good of all. The need for these two visions is
especially pressing "at a time when we are faced with the patent inadequacy of
perspectives in which the ephemeral is affirmed as a value and the possibility of
discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt"; lacking them, "many people
stumble through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where they are going"
(Fides et ratio, 6).
In the face of this crisis, the Church stands forth as an "expert in humanity" whose
expertise "leads her necessarily to extend her religious mission to the various fields" of
human endeavor (Sollicitudo rei socialis, 41; cf. Pope Paul VI, Populorum
progressio, 13). She may not keep the truth about the human person and the human
community to herself; she must share it freely, always aware that people can say no to the
truth—and to her.
Attempting to foster and support high ethical standards in the use of the means of social
communication, the Church seeks dialogue and collaboration with others: with public
officials, who have a particular duty to protect and promote the common good of the
political community; with men and women from the world of culture and the arts; with
scholars and teachers engaged in forming the communicators and audiences of the future;
with members of other churches and religious groups, who share her desire that media be
used for the glory of God and the service of the human race (cf. Pontifical Council for
Social Communications, Criteria for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Cooperation in
Communications); and especially with professional communicators—writers, editors,
reporters, correspondents, performers, producers, technical personnel—together with
owners, administrators, and policy makers in this field.
31. Along with its limitations, human communication has in it something of God's creative
activity. "With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist"—and, we
might say, to the communicator as well—"a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling
him to share in his creative power"; in coming to understand this, artists and
communicators "come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their
mission" (Letter to Artists, 1).
The Christian communicator in particular has a prophetic task, a vocation: to speak out
against the false gods and idols of the day—materialism, hedonism, consumerism, narrow
nationalism, and the rest—holding up for all to see a body of moral truth based on human
dignity and rights, the preferential option for the poor, the universal destination of goods,
love of enemies, and unconditional respect for all human life from conception to natural
death; and seeking the more perfect realization of the Kingdom in this world while
remaining aware that, at the end of time, Jesus will restore all things and return them to the
Father (cf. 1 Cor 15:24).
32. While these reflections are addressed to all persons of good will, not just Catholics, it
is appropriate, in bringing them to a close, to speak of Jesus as a model for
communicators. "In these last days" God the Father "has spoken to us by a Son" (Heb
1:2); and this Son communicates to us now and always the Father's love and the ultimate
meaning of our lives.
"While he was on earth Christ revealed himself as the perfect communicator. Through his
incarnation, he utterly identified himself with those who were to receive his
communication, and he gave his message not only in words but in the whole manner of his
life. He spoke from within, that is to say, from out of the press of his people. He preached
the divine message without fear or compromise. He adjusted to his people's way of
talking and to their patterns of thought. And he spoke out of the predicament of their
time" (Communio et progressio, 11).
Throughout Jesus' public life crowds flocked to hear him preach and teach (cf. Mt 8:1,18;
Mk 2:2,4.1; Lk 5:1, etc.), and he taught them "as one who had authority" (Mt 7:29; cf.
Mk 1:22; Lk 4:32). He told them about the Father and at the same time referred them to
himself, explaining, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6) and "he who has
seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9). He did not waste time on idle speech or on
vindicating himself, not even when he was accused and condemned (cf. Mt 26:63,
27:12-14; Mk 15:5, 15:61). For his "food" was to do the will of the Father who sent him
(Jn 4:34), and all he said and did was spoken and done in reference to that.
Often Jesus' teaching took the form of parables and vivid stories expressing profound
truths in simple, everyday terms. Not only his words but his deeds, especially his miracles,
were acts of communication, pointing to his identity and manifesting the power of God (cf.
Evangelii nuntiandi, 12). In his communications he showed respect for his listeners,
sympathy for their situation and needs, compassion for their suffering (e.g., Lk 7:13), and
resolute determination to tell them what they needed to hear, in a way that would
command their attention and help them receive the message, without coercion or
compromise, deception or manipulation. He invited others to open their minds and hearts
to him, knowing this was how they would be drawn to him and his Father (e.g., Jn
Jesus taught that communication is a moral act: "For out of the abundance of the heart the
mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man
out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render
an account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and
by your words you will be condemned" (Mt 12:34-37). He cautioned sternly against
scandalizing the "little ones", and warned that for one who did, "it would be better... if a
great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea" (Mk 9:42; cf.
Mt 18:6, Lk 17:2). He was altogether candid, a man of whom it could be said that "no
guile was found on his lips"; and further: "When he was reviled, he did not revile in return;
when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly" (1 Pt
2:22-23). He insisted on candor and truthfulness in others, while condemning hypocrisy,
dishonesty—any kind of communication that was bent and perverse: "Let what you say
be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil" (Mt 5:37).
33. Jesus is the model and the standard of our communicating. For those involved in
social communication, whether as policy makers or professional communicators or
recipients or in any other role, the conclusion is clear: "Therefore, putting away falsehood,
let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another... Let
no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the
occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear" (Eph 4:25,29). Serving the human
person, building up human community grounded in solidarity and justice and love, and
speaking the truth about human life and its final fulfillment in God were, are, and will
remain at the heart of ethics in the media.
Vatican City, June 4, 2000,
World Communications Day,
Jubilee of Journalists.
John P. Foley
Weekly Edition in English
7 June 2000, special insert
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