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Is gossip a sin? – Catholics in societal rough sea of calumny must not harm reputations of others, moral theologian says

By Michael Swan
August 10th, 2007
The Catholic Register (www.catholicregister.org)

TORONTO, Canada (The Catholic Register) – From cell phone conversations about what the boss may have told a colleague about his boss, to an Internet blog reporting what insiders are saying about a movie still in production, and TV shows filled with breathless revelations about celebrity marriages and sports pages filled with whispers about athletes at loggerheads with teammates and coaches, Catholics are daily floating in a sea of gossip.

It’s a rough and dangerous sea for people who believe indulging in gossip is worthy of a trip to the confessional. There are plenty of Canadians who think that gossip isn’t such an innocent diversion, and Father Bob O’Brien often encounters it in the confessional.

“If anything, people take it to heart sometimes too much,” said Father O’Brien. “They’re concerned somehow that they’re doing harm.”

And they should be, said Jesuit moral theologian Father Ron Mercier, adding that the church assumes people have a right to a good reputation.

“Except for appropriate reasons, one shouldn’t harm the good name of others,” Father Mercier wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “It is a sin against justice and creates a situation in which eventually the good name of everyone is in danger.”

Suanne Kelman, former gossip columnist for The Globe and Mail and associate chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism, has seen that atmosphere of casual calumny up close. She quit her Globe and Mail job writing “The Tattler” in the early 1990s after six months.

“I’m not going to lie. Some of it was fun. But in the end, it’s not a very satisfying way of making a living,” Kelman said.

Kelman doesn’t have great qualms over what the media reveal about people who court media attention, but when news outlets transmit details of the private lives of civil servants, journalists and others who never sought media attention, the gossip business starts to rack up collateral damage, she said.

“It is very destructive, and it did start to bother me,” said Kelman.

Beyond damage to individuals, Kelman worries about the impoverishment of public debate when juicy bits about celebrities and the personal lives of politicians displaces information about how, and how well, we are governed.

“It’s about money in the sense that they (media companies) are giving people what they want to hear about rather than the things they need to know about,” she said.

She points out that in focus groups broadcasters have discovered their target market of women between the ages of 25 and 45 are upset by coverage of wars and conflict, and consequently turn away from the TV and ignore commercials.

“We have a problem,” said Kelman.

The problem isn’t driven so much by journalists, who remain an idealistic lot, as it is by media ownership looking for a broad and easy highway to the consuming public’s eyes and ears, she said.

“Gossip is very much the central glue of human social community since we developed language,” said Leslie Chan, a University of Toronto anthropologist and media literacy expert. “And that hasn’t changed. There’s a sense of belonging you can get with some juicy gossip. That means you’re part of that community.”

Chan worries, however, about a growing false sense of belonging as people plug into gossip networks that are media generated. It seems that the more isolated people become in their real lives, the more they seek a connection with the celebrity character of a 24-hour cross-media meta-soap opera, she noted.

“People desire so much this celebrity gossip, because they can feel that they’re part of that community to which they do not belong,” said Chan.

With wireless Internet feeding cell phones, Blackberries, blogs, Facebook and podcasts, 21st-century technology may have created the perfect petri dish for an experiment in global gossip – the inevitable buzz of the global village. Technology has made it very easy to gossip about anybody, any time, anywhere.

“While it is easier to gossip today, no doubt, that doesn’t reduce personal culpability,” said Mercier. “What you’re dealing with in this case is a cultural shift in which gossip becomes the norm, often displacing real news that people need to hear. Just as one can’t say that since murder has become easier with guns it must not be wrong, so one has to be more careful given the ease involved in gossiping today not to help foster a culture of gossip. Our media ... all help create such a culture, but Christians are called to do good, to avoid harm.”

For Philadelphia-based blogger Rocco Palmo, who maintains the Whispers in the Loggia Web site (whispersinthe loggia.blogspot.com), avoiding harm is something he takes very seriously. That means that despite a very personal tone intended to give readers the impression they are overhearing conversations among clergy at the rectory dinner table or in the diocesan curia, Palmo insists everything he reports has a legitimate news value for ordinary Catholics.

“I keep everything I do above board. I keep it policy oriented. Gossip is meant to either bring someone down or cast doubt about the reputation of another. That is genuinely sinful, and that’s why I don’t engage in it,” said Palmo.

The problem with a culture of gossip is that it encourages people to live a virtual reality, and discourages them from taking responsibility for their own lives, said O’Brien.

“Gossip becomes a kind of scapegoating. There are problems we see in the world that ultimately actually are found in ourselves,” he said. “It sidesteps the whole issue of, ‘where is our responsibility for our own lives?’”

Gossip in the media is nothing new nor is the Paris Hilton phenomenon of a person famous for being famous really all that new, said Kelman.

“There were a lot of gossip magazines and gossip columns in the 1930s and ’40s – people like Walter Winchel,” she said.

It may be difficult to see the difference between 1938 Glamour Girl #1 Brenda Frazier and Paris Hilton, except in the sheer quantity of coverage.

“There’s a moral dimension also in – well, look at the content of much of the gossip. This is not heartwarming stuff. This is drug and alcohol abuse,” said Kelman.

Kelman won’t allow her students at Ryerson University to indulge in gossip in their assignments.

“Journalists ought to be paying more attention to things that are going to seriously affect people’s world – climate, economy, work, demographics, political decisions, corruption,” she said.

The same might be said of the people who read newspapers and watch television.

“Our media literacy has always been outstripped by the media,” said Chan. “We’re constantly trying to catch up and falling further and further behind.”

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