Pope Benedict XVI has come up with some excellent advice for journalism professors: to teach their students to be skeptical, but not cynical. Catholic News Service reports that he told a group of journalism profs that "a certain methodological skepticism" can be especially helpful in covering "matters affecting the public interest."The pope is on target here. Greater skepticism could have prevented journalistic failures in coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war or of the dot-com boom. The pope is also right to encourage journalists to uncover the truth of what happened in the situations they report on, rather than simply to report what various people say happened. In the U.S., this is a particular issue for those who cover national politics, where half-truths, exaggeration, misstatements, innuendo and lies are so much a part of the discourse. Reporters who have to look at this up close everyday can easily become cynical and, under cover of journalistic objectivity, just report on what people are saying instead of probing further to seek the truth. Everything becomes a matter of perception. But there is always hope that the next generation of journalists can be trained to deal more effectively with the fog machine that American politics has become.People who receive as much journalistic coverage as the pope usually do not urge the news media to be tougher. It's to his credit that he did. I assume that what he said applies to coverage of the Catholic Church as well. And who knows? Maybe we'll hear fewer complaints in the future from church officials and their sometimes self-appointed surrogates about skeptical, truthful reporting on the church.
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.