By Alessandro Gisotti

Jan 29 2022

In his Message for the World Day of Social Communications Day, released this week, Pope Francis urges the media to put the person at the center, not partisan interests. He emphasizes the importance of listening to promote good communication at all levels. It’s even more pressing in a time marked by the pandemic, in which people’s need to be heard is growing.

“We have two ears but only one mouth, so that we can listen more and talk less”. This famous maxim attributed to both the historian Plutarch and to the philosopher Zeno of Citium is well connected to Pope Francis’ Message for this year’s World Day of Social Communications, published last Monday – on the feast day of St. Francis de Sales – and focused on “listening.”

It’s a theme that the Pontiff has repeatedly indicated as central for information professionals (and not only for them!), but that has become even more urgent in a time marked by the pandemic, in which social distancing and isolation have increased the need to listen to oneself and to others. In short, that “boundless desire to be listened to” evoked by the psychiatrist Eugenio Borgna several years ago has grown.

Listening calls for silence. You cannot really listen if the noise covers the voice of the person who is speaking to you. It was April 21, 2020, in the midst of lockdown, when at morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta the Pope affirmed, “In this time there is a lot of silence. You can even hear the silence. May this silence, which is a new habit, teach us to listen and make us grow in our capacity to listen.” An ability, “an art” as Goethe would have said, the need for which continues to be felt.

The maxim quoted above, which dates back more than two thousand years, underlines how this need to make room for the patient, and at times difficult, listening to others has always accompanied the path of humanity. First listen, then speak. And all the more so when it comes to listening to the Other. In his Message, the Pope observes that the Shema’ Israel – “Hear, O Israel” – the opening words of the first commandment of the Torah, “is continually reiterated in the Bible, to the point that St. Paul would affirm that ‘faith comes through listening’ (Rom 10:17). The initiative, in fact, is God’s, who speaks to us, and to whom we respond by listening.” Listening, therefore, naturally and inevitably brings with it the theme of encounter. This is a crucial issue in the life of man, which in an era of increasingly pervasive social media, digital disintermediation, and the arrival of artificial intelligence, has been enriched with particularly complex meanings and developments.

So, what can the mass media, or rather, workers in the information sector, do to respond to this “challenge” of listening, in such a fluid context subject to rapid and often turbulent changes of direction? The “compass” that Pope Francis offers for orientation is, ultimately, quite simple: the person (a word used six times in the document). In fact, if in last year’s Message he encouraged journalists to go and see people’s stories where they are – to “wear out the soles of their shoes” – this year he stresses that “in order to provide solid, balanced, and complete information, it is necessary to listen for a long time.”

The Pope also proposes a sort of listening therapy to cure those ills of information that he himself has repeatedly denounced. Listening is not eavesdropping, “exploiting others for our own interests,” he warns in this Message. And with journalistic sensitivity, he notes that “in order to recount an event or describe an experience in news reporting, it is essential to know how to listen, to be ready to change one’s mind, to modify one’s initial assumptions”.

There is no lack of positive experiences: from radio programmes that listen to the distress of young people, to local newspapers (local experience is fundamental) that act as a megaphone for the voiceless, to “social experiments” in the field of digital communication where creativity finds unexplored spaces.

No less significant – as the director-general of the European Broadcasting Union, Noel Curran, underlined in an interview with Vatican Media – is the renewed prominence of public service broadcasting, which is called, by nature and statute, to listen to the needs of individuals and communities. During the pandemic, the EBU head is convinced, public media “became a portal for the population”. To these media, and to each of us (because we are all communicators), the Pope asks to put the person back at the centre. And gamble on the relationship that always begins by “inclining the ear of the heart” to bring us close to those we meet at the crossroads of our existence. – VaticanNews