"Never, Never, Never Tell a Lie"
Archbishop Foley´s Advice on Dealing With the Media
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ROME, APR. 26, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Here´s the text of an address given today by Archbishop John P. Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, at the fourth International Conference of Institutional Communications.
The theme of the conference is "Quality Communications between the Church and the Media -- The Press Offices of Dioceses and of Bishops´ Conferences." The event is being held at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.
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Msgr. Clavell, representatives of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, my colleagues in Church communications:
First of all, permit me to apologize for the title of my talk printed in your English-language folders: "The Press Offices of the Church: A Decisive Wager for Information". I don´t know what it means, and so I´m going to share my own experiences in the United States and in Rome in sharing Church-related information.
As you all know, Jesus said: "The truth shall make you free."
I am convinced of the liberating aspect of truth: first, of course, the truth about God, about Jesus, about ourselves that we know in Him and through Him; second, truth in general, because all truth is in some way a reflection of God; third, moral truth, the correlation between what we know and what we say.
It is not for nothing that the devil is known as the father of lies.
Therefore, the first principle of all communication, but especially, of course, communication on behalf of the Church, is -- never, never, never tell a lie.
When you tell the truth, you never have to cover your tracks; you don´t have to think up a new lie consistent with an old one. Literally, the truth will make you free.
Naturally, you have to make sure that what you are saying is the truth and you have to phrase your statement or your response precisely to reflect the truth that you know and not to report rumors or mere opinions.
A habit of truth is also a very liberating one. When one has a reputation for truth, there exists a wonderful atmosphere of credibility, and people are open to what you say because they know you will never deceive them.
I guess you could say that truth is not only morally right; it is politically correct. It establishes an atmosphere of trust.
Have I ever been asked to say something that was not true or have I known someone who has been asked to say something that was not true in Church communications? My answer is "yes." Have I personally ever lied or have I ever counseled anyone to lie? My answer is "no."
I am convinced that those who wanted me to say something that was not completely true did not think they were doing wrong, but thought they were indeed doing what was best for the Church.
When asked why I did not follow instructions to say what I knew was not true, I replied that not only was what I was asked to do morally wrong; it was also dumb. The truth will always come out; perhaps it is already known by those to whom you are communicating. A failure to tell the truth is a scandal, a betrayal of trust and a destroyer of credibility.
So sacred is the responsibility to tell the truth that one must be ready to accept dismissal for refusal to tell a lie.
So important is the responsibility to tell the truth that the effectiveness of all of your work as Church communicators will depend upon your reputation for honesty and integrity, your credibility.
Once such a reputation is established -- that people can believe everything you say -- then people will be open to accept from you what I call "good news" ideas -- ideas about possible feature stories on people and movements in the Church that do extraordinarily good work in the name of Jesus for the poor, the handicapped, the sick, the forgotten.
I mention the latter stories, because I think that many people are hungering for good news; most people want to lead good lives and they are often looking for ideas for how to live such good lives or better lives. How can they live the spiritual and corporal works of mercy? We must be ready with practical examples which will be newsworthy and which will provide inspiration, motivation and encouragement.
However, God knows we have enough bad news in the world and in the Church -- and unfortunately bad news is what often gets the most attention. A television news director once told me that his interest in airports was in crashes, not landings. And so, unfortunately and unfairly, the interest of the media in the Church is often in discovering the weaknesses in an institution which preaches virtue.
One cardinal once asked me, "What is the answer to this interest of the media in scandals within the priesthood?" My answer was: "Virtue -- and, in the absence of virtue, candor -- which is another form of virtue."
I am in no way implying that the media are always right. They can and do make mistakes, and their mistakes can ruin reputations.
I recall the case of the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago who had been accused of immoral activity by a young man who had been a seminarian.
The cardinal was exemplary in the manner in which he responded. He called a press conference and said that he had never betrayed his vows of chastity and that he was not guilty of the action with which he was accused -- but he said that he forgave his accuser.
Later, the young man retracted the charge, and the cardinal travelled more than 1,000 miles to express his forgiveness to the young man.
While the young man had been guilty of a serious fault of calumny and while the young man had perhaps been misled by a lawyer, I have always felt that much of the blame rested with those in the media who were irresponsible.
In fact, I met with those responsible for such decisions in CNN and asked: "How could you accept the word of a young man who was an admitted drug addict and male prostitute and who said that he had suppressed the memory of a sexual encounter with a cardinal only to have it recalled years later by a psychologist? How could you not investigate further before ruining the reputation of one of the best known and most respected churchmen in the United States?"
They admitted that they were wrong -- and they said that they were sorry. I hope that the incident has made them more careful in reporting accusations.
When I asked Cardinal Bernardin himself why he did not sue for libel those news organizations which had published or broadcast the charges against him, he said that his idea of forgiveness was not only to forgive the young man but also those who had published the false reports as long as they had admitted their error. Any other action, he said, would only prolong coverage of the calumny and distract the Church from its primary responsibility to preach the Gospel.
Just a short time later, Cardinal Bernardin gave outstanding example not only of resignation but of pastoral service during his terminal illness. He publicly announced that he had incurable cancer and he reached out to others suffering from the disease and ministered to them through visits and over the telephone to give them, insight into the meaning of their suffering and into the reality of eternal life with Christ.
While Cardinal Bernardin had led an extraordinary life of leadership in the Church, perhaps nothing better reflected his spiritual strength than his response to false accusation and his acceptance of suffering in his final illness.
For press offices in the Church and for leaders in the Church, perhaps nothing better exemplifies the truth of what St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans: "Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
What is the challenge for those involved in Church communications?
-- First of all, finding out the truth in crisis situations and reporting it accurately and fairly;
-- Second, preparing reports on Church activities and initiatives that will be accurate and informative and will help the media and the public to understand what the Church is doing and why it is doing it;
-- Third, to have ready an inexhaustible source of story ideas -- of "good news" ideas -- which the media can use on slow news days or on seasonal occasions, and which they will be ready to accept because they know they can trust you and because they know you are trying to help them and their readers and not to use them for your own or even for the Church´s advantage. People don´t mind being helped; they resent being used or exploited.
I began by recalling the words of Jesus: "The truth will make you free."
Truth is indeed liberating; it is sin that brings slavery -- the slavery of vice and deceit.
Jesus called Himself "the light of the world."
If we are to help in the ministry of the Church to bring the light of Christ to the world, the true light that dispels the darkness, then we ourselves must be models of integrity and of truth. The light is never served by a lie; Jesus is never served by falsehood.
Jesus is not only the light; He is the way, the truth and the life.
What a wonderful privilege it is to share with Him in the ministry of bringing light and truth to the world!
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To contact the Department of Social Institutional Communication at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross:
Piazza di Sant´Appollinare n.49
00186 Rome, Italy
Telephone: 06681641- Fax: 0668164400