The Role of the Media in a Just Society, By Robert Chase

Posted on August 18th, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, Faith and Politics, In Print: New Books, InterViews

This article was originally featured on the blog of Intersections International, where The Rev. Robert Chase serves as Executive Director.

I recently returned from Caux, Switzerland-an amazing retreat center in the Swiss Alps-where I was asked to make a presentation at a conference for global leaders on "Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy." My topic: the role of the media in rebuilding an economy that is trustworthy, honest and inspirational.

As one of the few Americans in attendance-and the only US representative to speak-it is always striking (and humbling) to be in a setting where the US view does not dominate, to see how our issues line up with the world's concerns and to offer solutions to problems that cut across national boundaries.

I built my remarks on two premises.

Premise one: we can't have an honest, trustworthy and just world WITHOUT the media. So, if we hope to build an ethical economic model for ourselves and our children, we must include the media. I cited Pope John Paul II, who said shortly before his death that, "if you are not on television, you don't exist." (and perhaps if the Pope were alive today, he'd say the same thing about being on-line). Right or wrong, this is true. But, there are so few gatekeepers controlling what we see and hear that it is difficult to have a diversity of voices. Unless we lift up diverse voices in the media, we risk bland homogeneity or strident extremism, so any ethic we devise must find a way that makes room for diverse voices.

Second premise: we are in the midst of a media revolution-having moved from the age of mass media to the era of participatory media. The line between content consumer and content producer has blurred. Communication has shifted from one-to-many to one-to-one. They used startling statistics, documented by reliable sources: Research shows that 57% of American teenagers create content for the internet. 31 billion emails are sent each day. A new blog is created every second of every day.

YouTube has passed 150 million monthly visitors, with more than 100 million videos viewed every day. There are 2 billion google searches each day. Wikipedia has 2,700,000 articles in English-10 million altogether in 260 languages. 75,000 active contributors, and in 2008, Wikipedia had 684 million visitors.

Facebook has more than 200 million active users in 170 countries. Half visit the site every day and people spend an average of 20 minutes on the site. Twitter has had more than 3.1 billion tweets.

The social implications of this reality are exemplified by the recent war in Gaza. The Israeli army wouldn't let journalists in, but images were flashed from cell phones and computers by citizen journalists to get the story out. Perhaps, the implications are best symbolized by Neda's story. (See my blog about Neda here)

So what elements should be included in an ethic for this new era?

First, we must acknowledge that new technology exists. We should not shrink from it, belittle it or condemn it, but try to understand it, especially through the eyes of young people for whom this is a natural way of communicating and explore ways to use new technology how it can be used to enhance the human condition.

Second: the ethic must promote the public interest including responsible dissemination of information by individuals, enlightened regulation by governments, social entrepreneurship by media producers, and corporate and foundation subsidies as stewards of a public trust.

Third: dispel the myth of the level playing field. In a globalized economy, with huge disparities in wealth, fields are inherently uneven. We need an ethic that tilts toward the small and the poor. A system weighted toward "the least of these" is a foundational principle in religious and ethical thinking that cuts across faith lines. At its heart, this struggle is a question of justice.

Fourth: we need clear and robust protections for our children who do not understand the implications of exposing their lives for all the world to see FOREVER on social networking pages. We must also develop "tools of discernment" and teach these in schools, civic arenas, religious institutions, that young people can ascertain for themselves those sites with legitimacy and those who cannot be trusted. This principle was made particularly important when, during a Q&A, an IT high school teacher Su Lambert, from the UK, with passion and emotion in her voice, claimed that children in her classes repeatedly told her they believed everything they read on the internet. It was a telling moment about how issues we face here in the US are shared by others around the world.

Fifth: we need to understand the power of entertainment to touch hearts and minds and support informal initiatives that reach out to producers to encourage diversity of ideas, discourage stereotypes, and promote environmentally sound solutions, peacemaking imagery and stories that inspire. We need an ethic that promotes imagination, creativity, free expression. Perhaps, imagination is the key: that human quality that still moves us to dare to dream, that emboldens us, that enables us to create new products and practices-that dimension of our heart and mind and soul that, when coupled with faith, moves us to ever deeper understandings of ourselves, our world and our God.

It was a privilege to share these thoughts in that beautiful Alpine setting with concerned leaders from business and the NGO community from around the world.

In September 2007, The Rev. Robert Chase was called to be the Founding Director of Intersections, a new justice-based global initiative of the Collegiate Church of New York. Previously, Chase served as Director of Communication for the 1.2 million member United Church of Christ.

One Response to “The Role of the Media in a Just Society, By Robert Chase”

  1. Fabian Munz says:

    The Christian humanitarian charity organization “World Vision” (http://home.worldvision.org) knows how to use the power of the media very well.

    I sponsor a child there since several years. The child gets support in nutrition, health care and education. It is a totally sustainable way of “helping others to help themselves”.
    The way how World Vision collects their funds is more questionable. The organization spends tons of funds for advertisement. In expensive advertisement campaigns (including TV commercials) they show emotional pictures of starving children and so they give the audience a bad conscience.
    Despite the inefficient use of the donations, the organization is very successful and is able to collect more funds than most other organization of that size. They are so successful that they are already expanding from Europe to the U.S.

    My question is: Is it ok to use the media in those ethically questionable ways if the purpose is ok? Is this “Robin Hood Marketing” still Christian?