Articles

Reading the News as a Spiritual Exercise

We know there is a problem with the way we disseminate, consume, and respond to the news.

We also generally share some sense of where the problem lies. It has something to do with a complex interaction of factors like the structure of digital media, the industries that support those technologies, and our cultural, economic, and political climate. Somehow those factors both foster and are fostered by trends such as narrowing echo chambers, a fractured accountability to diverse publics, comments that fail to respect and engage others, decreasing attention spans, and the exhaustion and despair that fester before the parade of emergencies that counts our days and disciplines our emotions like a liturgical calendar. Something is wrong with how we pursue the truth together in a digital society.

Reasonable suggestions for how to address this problem generally come in two flavors. The first approach emphasizes the structure of our news technologies and the corporations that develop and profit from them. We must fix Google, Facebook, and Twitter through legislation and consumer pressure. The second approach focuses on identifying and cultivating the intellectual habits required for responsible participation in the production and consumption of news. We need critical thinking skills and virtues like impartiality, intellectual courage and sobriety, and an active desire for the truth.[1]

Without a doubt both of these approaches are necessary. In fact, it seems that we are already asking quite a lot from the everyday news consumer given that scarce time and energy are themselves part of the problem. And yet an alternate angle on the problem may simultaneously enrich our overall perspective and help us address the problem of exhaustion.

One way to explain the angle I am suggesting is to begin with Pope Francis’s latest message for World Communications Day, “‘The truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32): Fake news and journalism for peace.”[2] Francis’s response to the problem of fake news in part reinforces our need for the two strategies identified above. However, he also makes a number of points which may initially strike us as obvious but collectively push towards a refreshingly different conversation about digital news.

1.

In line with the “critical theory” approach, Francis focuses on the persons who produce and consume news. “The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies but people” who, among other things, “make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge” (§4). This emphasis encourages us to keep in view the complex forms of agency at work in media use. The structure of our media, along with the cultural forces they express or communicate, do shape our actions in ways that often run ahead of our intentions or conscious awareness. And yet we can form ourselves to become the sorts of people who can push back on those forces in increasingly creative and fruitful ways. Hence the importance of discussing the intellectual virtues.

Interestingly, however, Francis sums up these points by speaking of a “profound and careful process of discernment” (§2). This suggests not only a set of habits but also a practice: a particular way of reading which must itself be described and cultivated.

2.

Building upon a good deal of 20th and 21st century papal and curial statements on media, Francis strives to integrate a focus on truth with a focus on communion. There are more links between truth and communion than we can explore here, but three are especially important for my argument. First, from a theological perspective, truth has an irreducible interpersonal aspect:

The truth is not just bringing to light things that are concealed . . . Truth involves our whole life. In the Bible, it carries with it the sense of support, solidity, and trust, as implied by the root ‘aman, the source of our liturgical expression Amen. Truth is something you can lean on, so as not to fall. In this relational sense, the only truly reliable and trustworthy One . . . is the living God (§3).[3]

Second, in practice we simply cannot separate the process of helping each other towards the truth and that of building up communion and trust: “Truth . . . is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another (§3).”

Third, the particular breakdowns visible in the digital news cycle are commonly failures of justice and charity. We are speaking of “disinformation” that “discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict. Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred (§1).”

A lot more needs to be said, of course, about how Francis’s worry here can be acted on in ways that improve the conversation rather than shield certain parties from necessary criticism. But the broader point seems hard to deny: Our complicity with a destructive cycle of news dissemination is intimately connected with our (understandable but nevertheless problematic) desire to reduce the complexity of ideological others so that we may demonize, instrumentalize, or ignore them—and thus get back to work, catch some sleep, and preserve a sense of sanity and coherence in a world that drains our mental energies and appears increasingly beyond our comprehension. Our dysfunctional news system, then, results from far more than poorly structured technologies and a lack of critical thinking. It has just as much to do with the prevalence of a particular kind of injustice and our general (though not necessarily blameworthy) inability to muster the internal resources necessary for addressing that failure.

3.

One way in which Francis’s statement can help us meet that need is by broadening the conversation on the internal habits needed for good news consumption. Fake news grabs our attention not only by “appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices” but also by “exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration” along with our greed and our thirst for power (§1). Thus, the “process of discernment” he seeks involves a deep awareness of our intellectual habits as well as of our current emotional states and how these relate to the activity of news consumption. “Education for truth means teaching people how to discern, evaluate, and understand our deepest desires and inclinations” (§2).

One interesting move on Francis’s part can help us thicken this emphasis on the emotions we bring into our news reading. He interprets the problem of fake news in light of the fall narrative in Genesis 3. The serpent begins with a question that misquotes God’s command, prompting the woman to issue a correction that already plays into the problem because it is “couched in legalistic and negative terms.” Francis’s primary aim here is to highlight how well-placed half-truths can prod us to shift the basic frame of mind we bring to a particular question or subject matter (§2). But equally pertinent to his broader argument is the content of the woman’s paradigm shift: From a vulnerable trust in God’s command to a distant suspicion bred from a fear of being manipulated and an ensuing desire for individual control over the parameters that orient her life. If our collective journey towards the truth requires an environment of mutual trust, then we are sorely in need of a deep awareness and self-discipline with regard to the fears we bring into the act of reading and sharing the news.

*

All of this suggests, I think, at least two further implications worth further consideration:

a. The rampant gullibility we normally associate with our disinformation climate might be more accurately construed as a symptom of a deeper deficiency of trust. Perhaps it works something like this:

We start with the somewhat reasonable judgment that we probably cannot trust most of the people around us as free, intelligent, and earnest potential traveling companions on the journey to truth. We know we should nevertheless make some efforts extending offers of trust across the aisle. But we are short on the time, attention, and emotional energy needed to sort out sincerely the arguments we know will ensue from such engagements. And our sense that we understand the present before us is increasingly tenuous. We therefore consent to and foster aspects of our information-sharing ecology that seem to address that experience. And this may well be a central reason why we are attracted to the echo chambers that groom us to accept a disinformation culture. Maybe it is not just that those echo chambers are relatively comfortable discursive spaces. Maybe it is also that we take our relative agreement with a particular group’s methods and positions as a reliable sign that at least these people can be trusted as allies and true interlocutors in the informational wilderness. At least here, so it seems, we can hope our scarce time and energy will not be wasted. Such publics appear to be worth our time. Hence, the ideological aliens need not always be scapegoated or demonized. All we really need is a convincing explanation for why they are not worth our precious time and harried attention.

If we see it in this way, the process is easy to sympathize with. But it remains part of the problem. It is still true that we are too busy curating our narrow but stable interpretations of the world to truly listen to one another. On the other hand, this interpretation does suggest that we are not likely to improve a disinformation culture until we find better ways to cultivate serious trust in others long before we find ourselves in a comfortable degree of agreement with them. Or, to put it another way, not much is likely to change until we shift from merely calling the other side to conversion to actually wasting our time with them.

We do not currently allow each other much room for such exploration. One hears a good deal from both sides of the theological spectrum that real trust and friendship (and, in some cases, the very possibility of fruitful intellectual engagement) depend on a mutual and genuine affirmation of some set of principles of basic justice and, perhaps, methodology.[4]

Indeed, our best and most important friendships should involve a strong degree of convergence about the way things are, the direction we should be moving toward, and how we can hope to get there. But given the current predicament, it may also be our responsibility to explore when or how these conditions need not be met for certain kinds of secondary but meaningful trust to emerge. Attempts to explore what that trust looks like should be affirmed and supported rather than rejected as obstacles to an honest confrontation with the injustices, untruths, or faulty methodologies with which the other side is complicit.

b. If the challenge is not just one of cultivating individual habits but of identifying a particular practice or way of reading, and if we need a relatively integral self-awareness with regard to the intellectual and emotional habits and states we bring into our news reading, then it may be fruitful to start discussing news reading as a spiritual practice onto itself. We could take this in a descriptive as well as a normative sense.

Descriptively, every particular way of reading the news can be relevantly analyzed as a specific spiritual practice with its own formative teleology. News sources differ in much more than what events they cover and what interpretive angle they bring to bear on those events. Those different angles correspond to emotional itineraries held out to willing readers along with particular identities the consumption experience is supposed to support. This is true even in the case of responsible journalism that represents a self-giving search for the truth and which respects the reader’s interpretive agency. Such sources may be an obviously better choice than sensationalist publications. But it is still worth admitting that they are selling me a particular reading experience, i.e., one that will leave me feeling less manipulated, better educated, more open-minded, and more responsible. It would be theologically and morally short-sighted to pretend that my desire for such an experience (and for my confirmation in the identity corresponding to that experience) is an unambiguously good thing. It may sometimes simply shore up my sense of superiority over—and dispensation from wasting time with—the scores of brainwashed zombies who do not read the news as responsibly as I do.

Similarly, it may be worth thinking about how we actually access the stories as a particular spiritual practice. What habits towards the world around me am I cultivating by regularly reading my news through a virtually endless feed generated by the Google app on my phone? This is not just a question about echo chambers. The particular speed at which I can scroll through, the random order in which news of varying importance and urgency follow each other, the ease with which I can open up and close the app, and the sense of “having done something” once I click on and bookmark a particular story but never actually read through it—all of these things say something about what kind of act I take “news reading” to be and why I deem that act important. They suggest, e.g., that news reading has principally to do with “feeling informed” (and with enjoying the soothing effect of scrolling through a digital media feed) than with the costly, self-giving work necessary for genuinely understanding what is going on in our world today.

On the other hand, then, we could start working towards a defensible normative account of what kind of spiritual practice news reading ought to be. The language of “spiritual exercises” already points to constructive resources in our own tradition. Such practices have normally involved a particular way of reading the Bible (and a particular kind of attention to how we are reacting to the text). It should not be that difficult, then, to draw the right analogies in filling out what it means to read the news well in our own time.

Scripture and news publications, of course, differ significantly in their form, their content, and the claims they make upon us as readers. There are good theological grounds, however, for seeking a close but ordered integration between reading one text and reading the other. I take it this is partly what is at stake when Gaudium et spes claims that “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (§4). The 12th century canon regular Hugh of St. Victor sought something similar. The reading ethic he outlines in his Didascalicon is not just a program of scriptural exegesis but rather a comprehensive educational process through which what one learns from “secular” texts can be properly integrated with one’s deep appropriation of the Bible.[5] We might rephrase what is at stake here in the following manner: If scripture is primarily to be read so as to open up and illuminate our present and future (rather than simply to ascertain facts about the past), then an ethic of biblical reading itself calls for an account of what it means to take stock of one’s present responsibly. This is not just about bringing theological principles to bear on what we see happening around us. It is about seeing one’s confrontation with the news as an extension of the same process that is already underway when we read and respond to the biblical text.

Our need for a robust ethic of news reading, however, has as much to do with the challenge identified earlier: We must find ways of cultivating the interior resources by which we might wade our way fruitfully through an exhausting and alienating news landscape that coopts our attention and emotions into itineraries that often do not lead where Jesus is going. My own attempts to process the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and the ensuing media storm have confirmed in me what for some time had been merely a half-conscious suspicion: The only alternative to either avoiding these realities or experiencing them as a mere consumer is to approach the act of news reading with the same kind of seriousness and openness to grace that I know I must bring to prayer. I simply do not know how else to confront such a news event—and the interminable series of such events processing before us—without indulging in the comfort of an ideological tribe. I find myself desperately in need of a way to read those news at the foot of the cross. I need a way to confront the present at the place where I can learn how to name sin with accuracy and courage, to love my enemies, and to absorb rather than perpetuate the pain caused by our sins and by our shortsighted attempts to name and deal with those sins.

We could say a lot more about what this reading ethic would involve and what sorts of challenges it would have to address. For now, we can at least close with a list of questions I would propose would need to become more or less habitual for such an ethic to succeed. These all presuppose that the reader is also striving after the intellectual virtues and the exercise of critical reading. None of them are intended as merely rhetorical questions.

  1. Am I willing and able to give the time and energy required for an earnest confrontation with this news article and with the event to which it refers?
  2. If not, then what accounts for the attraction or sense of urgency that makes the choice to give a merely superficial reading feel so natural? What does this article want me to assume is urgent? Are those things truly urgent?
  3. Why am I looking at the news in the first place? Have I thoughtfully given this act a place in my day? I am doing this for amusement, relaxation, distraction, an energy boost, or any other combination of neurochemical, cognitive, or emotional functions that seem to address my condition as a harried, busy, and bewildered member of a digital society? Have I evaluated where such acts do or do not fit into my pursuit of God?
  4. What am I afraid of with respect to this subject matter? Does this article tug on those fears? How else do my fears or insecurities shape the way I am reading and responding to this text? Why am I afraid of those things? What am I doing with those fears?
  5. What other emotions or memories does this subject matter and text call forward? How does this shape my response to the text? What am I prepared to do about that?
  6. Which two to four people do I most want to discuss this article with? Will those people help me get at the truth of things? Are they prepared to challenge me when necessary? Or will the conversation focus mainly on shoring up our sense of identity within the political, cultural, or theological landscape?
  7. What borders of identity or perspective lie between the author and me? Is this causing me to read this article mainly with a view to spotting why this person must be wrong in some way or another?
  8. Whose suffering does this text draw my attention to? Whose suffering does this article treat as unimportant?
  9. If I normally care about the people whose suffering was ignored by that text, do my current thoughts and feelings fully honor the fact that the author of this text is also a human being who suffers, is wounded, and whom Christ loves?
  10. Who is my enemy here? How can I better love my enemy? How can I still share in the joys, hopes, griefs, or anxieties of that person?
  11. What must I pray for, either in myself or in the world, with regard to this subject matter and the audience(s) addressed by this text? What kinds of strength do I need to read this text properly?
  12. Is there anyone in my life who resides across the borders drawn by this article and with whom I could strive to build trust even if I do not even agree with that person with respect to really important questions—and even if that person does not strictly deserve my time or energy?
  13. Where do the events described in this article fit into God’s history with creation? Where is Christ?
  14. Am I still willing to die for the truth? If I am willing to die for the truth, can I also suffer the pain caused by the collective wounds we continue creating out of fear and exhaustion? Can I participate in Christ’s bearing of these wounds? Am I allowing Christ to share in mine?

SEE ALSO:

Vatican I: Loss and Gain in the Governance of the Catholic Church

Featured Image: Untitled; Source: Pixabay, CC0.

[1] Matthew Shadle, “Fake News and the Intellectual Virtues,” Catholic Moral Theology, November 21, 2016, https://catholicmoraltheology.com/fake-news-and-the-intellectual-virtues/

[2] Pope Francis, “Message for the 52nd World Communications Day: ‘The truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace,” January 24, 2018, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20180124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html. By ‘fake news,’ Francis means “false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader” (§1). See also Stephen Okey, “Fake News and the Good News,” Daily Theology, January 24, 2018, https://dailytheology.org/2018/01/24/fake-news-and-the-good-news/

[3] See also the classic treatment of this point in Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, trans. J.R. Foster (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 47-52 and 69-81.

[4] How am I supposed to pretend I am in mutual pursuit of the truth with someone who is complicit in a blameworthy way with some aspect of our world that my worldview exposes as a structure of sin—especially when that structure of sin directly affects me or my loved ones?

[5] See, especially, Franklin Harkins, Reading and the Work of Restoration: History and Scripture in the Theology of Hugh of St. Victor (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2009).

Luis Vera

Luis Vera teaches at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland and explores the links between fundamental moral theology, technology ethics, and Catholic Social Teaching. He is currently preparing a book about memory as a fruitful focus point for interpreting and evaluating digital media as well as for conversing with the Catholic tradition on the ethics of media use. He also focuses on theologies of revelation, spatial ethics, and moral questions surrounding childhood, parenting, and education.