(In light of the recent news events demonstrating the danger of false stories, I am reposting this article originally written in 2014. We need to be discerning and prudent in all things media-related.)
There has been a trend developing in our national news media and you have probably noticed it. It is the move from “broad-casting” to “narrow-casting”. Charles Seife, in his book, Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You So, How Do You Know It’s True?, lays it out quite clearly.
“Back when the Big Three ruled the airwaves, the nightly news had to perform a delicate balancing act. A news program had to try to appeal to the entire television audience – it had to be, quite literally, a broad cast – if it was to compete with the other two networks that were taking the same strategy. This meant that the networks couldn’t become too partisan or take an extreme position on anything, for fear of alienating its potential audience…
Then cable and the internet increased our choices. The Big Three kept trying to capture as big a slice of America as possible by staying centrist, but a couple of upstarts – particularly Fox News and MSNBC – realized that there was another possible strategy. Instead of trying to go after the entire American population with a broadly targeted program that appealed to everyone, you could go with a narrowly targeted program that appealed to only a subgroup of the population. Throw in your lot with, say, die-hard Republicans and give them coverage that makes them happy; you alienate Democrats and won’t get them as viewers, but you can more than make up for that loss by gaining a devoted Republican fan base … MSNBC did exactly the reverse …”
“So, what’s the big deal?” one might wonder. Let the conservatives have their Fox News and the liberals their MSNBC then everyone gets what they want. As Charles Seife argues in his book though we need challenges to our assumptions in order for our ideas and understanding to grow and evolve. True information can only be gained through this sometimes difficult but essential process. If all we get when we switch on the news is a presentation that is catered to our particular slant on the world then we get stuck in our own assumptions and we even become more radicalized. We do not get true information. Another quote from Seife’s book,
“With news and data that is tailored to our prejudices, we deprive ourselves of true information. We wind up wallowing in our own false ideas, reflected back to us by the media. The news is ceasing to be a window unto the world; it is becoming a mirror that allows us to gaze only upon our own beliefs.
Couple this dynamic with the microsociety-building power of the hyper-interconnected internet and you’ve got two major forces that are radicalizing us. Not only does the media fail to challenge our preconceptions – instead reinforcing them as media outlets try to cater to smaller audiences – but we all are able to find small groups of people who share and fortify the beliefs we have, no matter how quirky or outright wrong they might be. Ironically, all this interconnection is isolating us…”
Lack of true information, radicalization and isolation – this is a disturbing and dangerous mix that, I would argue, we are witnessing the affects of throughout our world today. That is a larger discussion but my purpose for this reflection is to wonder how much this trend of “narrow-casting” has moved into the life of the Church. I would point to the wide-ranging reactions to the recent preparatory meeting of the upcoming Synod on the Family in Rome as a prime example. The way I read them, reactions posted in journals, on the internet and the blogosphere were often extreme and catered to a particular slant. There was a lot (and continues to be a lot) of noise regarding the preparatory meeting in these pieces but not much true information … at least from my reading.
Call me crazy but I have a hunch that Pope Francis knows what he is doing and that the Holy Spirit is in the midst of the Church. Maybe our United States “American” (I say this because this is the only cultural context I can speak to) tendency to interpret an event (i.e. the Synod on the Family) only by catering to a particular viewpoint is more of a reflection of a deficiency in our culture than a reflection of what actually transpired in Rome? Maybe we have become more conditioned by narrow-casting than we realize?
Pope Francis is not a product of United States “American” culture. I do not think that he has been conditioned by narrow-casting. I think he asked the participants at the meeting in Rome to speak boldly from their hearts because he knows what Charles Seife knows. True information is only gained through the difficult process of having assumptions challenged – if the assumptions are true then they will only grow stronger through this process, if not then they will fall by the wayside. Pope Francis values true discussion because he values true information. Isn’t true information what we want any leader (particular the Pope) to have?
Catholic means “universal”. I do not believe that there is space for narrow-casting in the Church. In fact, I wonder if it might even be a sin against the unity of the Church. Seife lays out the fruits of narrow-casting: lack of true information, radicalization and isolation. All of these harm the Body of Christ.
Come, Holy Spirit and enkindle within us the fire of your love and strengthen your Church that she might be a humble and authentic witness of the gospel!