A holy role model for modern journalism students

By Michael Rizzo

The 2022 spring semester at St. John’s University will be another opportunity to introduce my students to the patron saint of journalism, St. Francis de Sales, whose feast day is January 24, and my lifelong goal of making this 17th century bishop century accessible to 21st century students.

Media coverage today seems to be dominated by controversy, sensationalism and dirty stories. That’s not to say some of them aren’t worth watching. We want our journalists to be our watchdogs on who is in power and tell us what is relevant, unique and unusual. But it’s no secret that public trust in the news media is eroding.

It seems like some headlines are just clickbait to get us to read a story. Cable news shows seem to take sides more than tell facts. It also seems that much of the media coverage is often negative, with little room for uplifting stories or those with a thoughtful perspective.

My goal is to help students see another way to do good journalism and bring Saint Francis into that discussion.

I start, as always, with the fundamentals of being accurate and fair, writing well, providing context, and behaving ethically. My classes discuss how journalists need to be more than “infotainers” – who seem to be trying to just entertain, not inform. These journalists are telling the story of themselves, not of the people involved in and affected by the story. This is where Saint Francis comes in.

I explain to my students, as I have written in past columns, that he is not the kind of journalist we know today. There were no newspapers in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1600s. But St. Francis serves as the patron saint of journalism because he was a great communicator. Saint Francis kept people informed of the challenges facing his Church. He wrote thousands of letters explaining the faith. He has also produced numerous pamphlets combating misinformation against Catholicism. He took his writing seriously, tailoring his messages to the different audiences he wrote for and treating those who objected to the messages he delivered with respect.

St. Francis’ attributes of dedication to sharing information and finding truths that could be revealed are qualities worthy of good journalists today. He showed fearlessness in the face of threats. These are traits that are linked to the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics:

To be honest and courageous news gatherers and reporters, to treat sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings, and to be journalists who serve the public and take responsibility for their work.

I also link St. Francis and journalism to Catholic social thought, whose principles include the solidarity of the human family, the dignity of all people, and our responsibility to one another.

The message to my students is to reflect on the sanctity of journalism, as Saint John Paul II described it, by getting stories right before rushing to report, by writing stories without passion instead of advocating a program, and working hard to find the perspective that reveals the true impact and relevance of the story instead of a superficial report that doesn’t dig into the facts the audience really needs.

This semester, I will also talk about changes that could be promising for news coverage, changes that could be beneficial for journalism.

A report released earlier this month by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism predicted that we could see more constructive, solution-oriented stories as alternatives to “confrontational talk shows” and the traditional cycle of negative news.

If these story formats are widely encouraged, perhaps they could be the new incarnation of journalism as the resource it is meant to be. This would be what Saint Francis embodied in his own writings: empowering the public to make informed decisions.

“We can all attain Christian virtue and holiness, whatever the condition of life in which we live and whatever our life’s work,” wrote Saint Francis.

This semester, I will remind my students that these words of Saint Francis are good words that they can also apply to journalism.


Michael Rizzo is Associate Professor and Director of the Journalism Program at St. John’s University, Queens

Rebecca R. Santistevan