Fifty-three journalists were killed worldwide in 2018. Some died in war, but a shocking number died exposing corruption, covering protests or just doing their job. Time magazine called them and their harassed and persecuted colleagues "Guardians" of truth, and named them collectively "Person of the Year."
In the United States last June, four journalists and another staffer at the Capital Gazette, a local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, were killed by a local man who resented that the newspaper had reported on his harassment of a woman.
The widow of one of the victims said of the press and its importance to society: "A lot of people don’t understand how important what goes on in their community is to them and how it affects their quality of life -- maybe until it’s gone."
This is more than simply a defense of the First Amendment. This has a dollar and cents impact according to a study by three Midwestern researchers titled "Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance."
It looked at the impact of newspaper closures on communities, concluding that communities lacking a newspaper paid higher borrowing costs because insurers worried that corruption and scandal might go too long unexposed:
"Overall, our results indicate that local newspapers hold their governments accountable, keeping municipal borrowing costs low and ultimately saving local taxpayers money."
Newspapers benefit democratic societies in other ways as well: Recent polling by The Washington Post found that of all consumers of media, newspaper readers were least likely to believe political falsehoods. The Post did not offer an explanation, but newspapers have the space to offer context and provide depth to news stories (as opposed to the superficial gloss of network evening news or the ideological opinions of cable).
As Time magazine said in its special issue, "The press always has and always will commit errors of judgment, of omission, of accuracy. And yet what it does is fundamental."
So what does all this have to do with Catholics?
I think that the Catholic press -- while not as threatened by violence and certainly not as well-funded as its secular counterparts -- has an important role to play in the local Catholic community, especially at this present time. Most obviously, a robust Catholic press make "transparency" and "accountability" more than just slogans.
During the recent wave of abuse crises, pollsters have found that Catholics who are reading their Catholic press have a greater awareness not just of what has gone wrong, but of what the Church has been doing to prevent abuse over the past 20 years. While much secular media coverage treats every expose as if it happened yesterday and the Church has done nothing, readers of the Catholic press know better.
Unfortunately, there are fewer of those readers because there are fewer Catholic newspapers. Papers are being shut down. Frequency is declining. Space for news shrinking. Accountants don’t want to pay for them. The result: Most Catholics get news about their Church from secular news sources or perhaps hysterical social media outlets.
Last year, Pope Francis said that the task of the press – both Catholic and secular – is "to inform correctly, to offer everyone a reporting of the facts that conform as closely as possible to reality" and to make complex issues accessible to most people.
A Catholic press that reports the whole truth and its context serves the Church best, especially in this polarized age. Well-funded Catholic media with high journalistic standards and a love for the faith is a resource for educating and informing Catholics that is needed today more than ever.
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at email@example.com.