As we prepare to send off another graduating class into the wilds of professional mass communication, the time seems right to reflect on what tools you young professionals will need to be considered both Catholic and media practitioners. By tools I don’t mean laptops, software, cell phones, tablets and the like; instead I refer to what moral touchstones you’ll need to grasp and stay in touch with throughout your careers. Chief among these are the concepts of practical reason, and the ability to restrain one’s passions.
It seems odd to talk about something as anachronistic as practical reason in this age of modernity with its emphasis on the individual and one’s freedoms. Elegant in its simplicity, however, human reason stands alone for its ability to harness behavior. In the simplest terms, reason is the uniquely human ability to acquire knowledge and to put it to use in taking action. When we do this we reason about means and ends and their affects on us and on others.
Passions, our desires, influence our ability to reason by (sometimes) making things that we know to be bad appear to be good. In its recent coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, CNN’s producers and anchors knew that getting facts right before news is announced is something good to do. However, it seemed to have been overtaken by the desire to break a story before other news outlets, and in doing so they erroneously reported that a suspect had been taken into custody. If we’re right in this assessment, what likely happened is that passions made it seem to them that a previously known bad was in fact good. CNN knew that breaking news before corroborating it between multiple sources was a bad thing to do; but being gripped by passions (the overwhelming desire to break the news first) made it seem like a good thing to do.
Hyundai seemed to have succumbed to the influences of the passions too. Its advertising agency, Innocean Europe, produced an ad that depicted a man attempting to kill himself through carbon monoxide asphyxiation by running his Hyundai SUV in his closed garage. Since the car only emitted harmless water vapor, he was unsuccessful. In this case Innocean Europe’s desire to produce an edgy, clever ad overshadowed what they (hopefully) knew to be good: That it’s not desirable to poke fun at someone trying to kill himself and to use a suicide attempt as a comic foil in an ad.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor of the Church,” wrote in his Summa Theologica: “Wherefore according as man is affected by a passion, something seems to him fitting, which does not seem so when he is not so affected: thus that seems good to a man when angered, which does not seem good when he is calm.” Your challenge, then, is to employ your power of human reason throughout your life and your career as a media professional so as not to be led astray by your passions. It won’t be easy. Like those who work for CNN and Innocean Europe, you’ll be faced with very attractive desires foisted upon you by the competitive marketplace. The economics of the free market can assure you of that. But when it happens, please take a moment to call on reason to assist you. Without a doubt, good will result. And with that, you will surely be an exemplary Catholic media professional. Godspeed.