A couple of weeks ago I was asked to reflect on the role of the media as a focus for a day of prayer for the gospel to be communicated through this country’s mass media. The following is the result.
Today’s gospel story [the feeding of the five thousand] is one of the favourites of the entire New Testament and paints, I think, a beautiful image of Jesus. It’s in all four gospels but how many of us realise that there are subtle differences in each telling of the story. Today’s story comes from the gospel of John [Jn 6:1-15]. However, in terms of media and the way the media treats a story, it is interesting to look at the other versions as well.
In John we hear that Jesus – working with what the people gave him – distributed the food himself. In the other three gospel stories, we see Jesus giving the blessed bread and fish to the disciples to distribute – perhaps a forerunner of the eucharist.
Mark’s gospel, which is commonly recognised as having been written first, in AD 50, around 20 years after Jesus’ death, gives the most detail. Mark says Jesus had compassion for the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd [Mk 6:34]. The writers of the synoptic gospels have the disciples producing the food themselves, but John’s gospel writer has a boy who offers all he has – five loaves and two fish.
These stories started as oral tradition. The Markan community – I don’t know where Mark was based but let’s say his community was in Newtown – had different priorities. Scholars say that Mark’s language was pretty basic, the sorts of words workers might use as distinct from the language people in the education sector would use. The Matthean community, on the other hand, might have been based in Seatoun – better educated, more money, more able to take an interest in politics.
All this leads to my main point which is that different storytellers or news media present stories differently, often according to where they think their audiences’ sympathies lie.
If you have ever watched the American tv network, CNN, you will notice that the American political point of view is given priority. For example, in the Middle East, the Israelis are backed by the Americans so we rarely hear much about the Palestinians except in terms of terrorist activity.
If you were watching El Jazeera television, however, you would learn much more about the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Did you know that I learnt about the humanitarian activities of Hamas, not from the American-slanted CNN but from a newspaper article which originated in the respected British newspaper, The Guardian.
This humanitarianism surprised me because until this point, I had been told that Hamas was a terrorist organisation. We need to delve for information about popular independence movements like Hamas. I had a look on the internet while I was researching this reflection, and discovered a website run by an American organisation called the Council on Foreign Relations which bills itself as a non-partisan resource for information and analysis [www.cfr.org]. I discovered that Hamas has been around since the 1960s. It’s based in Gaza on the West Bank.
We hear about it because of its so-called terrorist activity against Israel. But this website maintains that around 90 percent of its work is in social services: welfare, cultural and educational activities.
The site says that the Palestinian Authority, or government, often fails to provide such services; Hamas’ efforts in this area – as well as a reputation for honesty, in contrast to the many Fatah officials accused of corruption – help to explain the broad popularity it summoned to defeat Fatah in the Palestinian Authority’s recent elections.
The other seat of conflict in the Middle East, Lebanon, appears to be at the mercy of the so-called terrorist group, Hizbollah. This is described on the Council on Foreign Relations website as an umbrella organisation of radical Islamic Shi’ite groups and organisations.
Hizbollah, whose name means ‘party of God’, is a terrorist group believed responsible for nearly 200 attacks since 1982 that have killed more than 800 people, according to the Terrorism Knowledge Base.
But, like Hamas, Hizbollah has a history in humanitarian work which we almost never hear about. The organisation is a significant force in Lebanon’s politics (since last year’s general elections, it holds 14 seats in the 128-member parliament. The party has two ministers and endorses a third). It is a major provider of social services, operating schools, hospitals, and agricultural services, for thousands of Lebanese Shi’ites.
These two so-called terrorist groups, then, have a life outside of the one we hear most about, as do the people in their respective countries have a role outside that of war victim.
The point I am making here is that it is important to question everything we hear and see in the media. We need to ask where the information comes from, what interest the person telling the story has in our hearing it, who are those in control, who are the victims.
A friend commented to me long before I started in journalism, that very little news is presented with compassion. This has stayed with me throughout my career as a challenge to look at all sides of a story – to look at it from the viewpoint of those who have no power in the situation, who have nothing to gain from the particular action – to try as much as possible to present a rounded picture so that we don’t focus only on the conflict, but that we also look at other aspects of the country and its people. They need healthcare, welfare and education services as much as we do.
Just as Jesus was moved with compassion when he saw the five thousand, so must we look at the people behind the stories in the media and realise that they have a need of a life of peace.
Be constantly questioning, be suspicious …
I must say that you might be all right with Wel-com but don’t be too sure about that either – it’s my point of view.