Blessed are the truth-tellers

(Photo: Unsplash/Erik Mclean)

Now is the time for truth and accuracy to be at the centre of all our communications.

As the coronavirus sweeps the world, people need accurate and timely information to help them decide the actions they should take.

We need to understand the reasons behind the instructions being given by governments and health professionals.
And we need to know how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

So, yes we need to be praying for and supporting the front-line health service staff, the public health experts, the scientists researching vaccines to combat the virus, and the key workers keeping our societies running.

But we also need to be praying for and supporting the men and women working in and with the media to publish, upload, broadcast and distribute the most accurate information, without spin or distortion.

As the coronavirus pandemic was first taking hold across Europe, Tom Phillips, editor of the fact-checking organisation Full Fact, set out some of the dangerous mistruths and half-truths circulating on social media.

In an article for the Guardian, he refuted a wide range of the claims and concluded: "We face a global public health crisis in the age of unprecedented and rampant misinformation – good health advice can make the difference between life and death."

The truth and lies. Life and death. In a world of post-truth, fake news and disinformation, a lie or half-truth can be across continents on social media before an effective challenge is mounted against it.

And the harm can begin with us if, unwittingly, we share something on our Facebook or Twitter accounts simply because it agrees with our worldview or confirms one of our prejudices.

That's why the role of professional journalists, trained and experienced in searching out the truth is so important.

The media has come under increasing attack globally from governments, opposition parties and big business interests. The US-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists regularly lobbies for the release of imprisoned reporters and highlights the growing pressures on them.

In some countries, the government response to the coronavirus epidemic has included greater controls on the media.

Earlier this year – in the days when 'self-isolating' and 'social distancing' were still unfamiliar terms – the Sandford St Martin Trust hosted a seminar under the title "Is Truth Dead?".

The Trust, which promotes "thought-provoking, distinctive programming that deals with religion, ethics and spirituality", brought together a group of senior journalists to discuss the increasing pressures on the media.

Takeaways included that good journalism costs money – and people should be encouraged to pay for it; that political journalism needs an overhaul to reflect the breadth of what MPs do and to hold them to account; and that a thriving network of local newspapers and media is vital for our society.

Given the current urgent health crisis, I'd say that now is the time for the media to be specially valued. It's the time for journalists to continue to ask challenging questions, to keep those in power on their toes – and not to back down in the face of put-downs or insults.

They should ask the questions that all of us want to see answered. Those vital questions that should be addressed publicly on TV, radio and online - not in briefings held behind closed doors by unnamed and unaccountable officials.

We live in challenging, uncharted times for all, including everyone who works in and with the media.

In a prayer for the Christians in Media website, I wrote:

Loving God,
We pray for everyone working in and with media in these challenging times.
Encourage all who seek to explain and interpret the fast-changing world around us.
Embolden the truth-tellers, truth-seekers and fact-checkers.
Promote coverage that builds our shared humanity and where everyone has a voice.
Bring clarity where there is confusion
Bring knowledge where there is speculation
Bring wisdom and insight when the way ahead seems unclear.
And bring us all to a knowledge of truth that sets us free, and helps keep us safe.
In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Herts, UK, and a former communications director with the CofE.