3 myths about the mainstream media and the Catholic Church
I try not to write too often about working with the media because it can sound like “Look at me, I’m on TV.” It is also a threat to humility, an occupational hazard for anyone who has ever appeared in print or on television. Nonetheless, part of our ministry at America is helping the so-called secular media. In the words of John Courtney Murray, S.J. (or Pedro Arrupe, S.J, or Daniel Lord, S.J., or St. Ignatius Loyola, depending on your “sourcing”), one way to understand the work of Jesuits and our colleagues is that we help explain the church to the world and the world to the church.
During Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last month, then, many of us at America spent time assisting the secular media. For me, it was a great grace to follow the pope from Washington to New York to Philadelphia, and I also had a delightful time working with the mainstream media—mainly ABC News.
At the same time, in every city I heard comments from fellow Catholics that reminded me that not everyone thinks as positively as I do about the media. So I thought I’d share with you, based on 15 years’ experience, reflections on the most common complaints.
The media is anti-Catholic. Now, I have occasionally run into journalists in print, online, on the radio and on television (as well as editors of newspapers, magazines and websites, and producers of news programs) who have an antipathy to our church. Nonetheless, the vast majority do not and simply want to get the story right. And when it comes to religion reporters, I can say categorically that I’ve never met a single one who is anti-Catholic. By contrast, as a result of years of reporting, religion reporters have encountered so many inspiring bishops, priests, brothers, sisters and lay Catholics that they usually have an abiding affection for the church. Indeed, non-Catholic religion reporters may know more about the Catholic Church than the average Catholic. For they have met sisters who work in the slums, priests who spend long hours in the confessional, brothers who teach patiently in classrooms and committed lay leaders dedicated to helping others.
Also, it’s important to distinguish between attacks on the church and critiques of it. When The Boston Globe ran its extensive series of articles on the sexual abuse crisis in the early 2000s, for example, Cardinal Bernard Law, then archbishop of Boston, said he “called down the power of God on the Boston media…particularly The Globe.” But although The National Catholic Reporter ran a remarkable series of articles on abuse in the 1990s, and some of the pieces that ran in The Globe were unfair, their coverage overall was not only fair; but it is in large part because of The Globe that the church in the United States was forced to confront the abuse crisis. The church both deserved criticism and benefited by it.
The media deliberately misrepresents the church. Sometimes the media make mistakes about the church. Sometimes they are big ones: misunderstanding a papal document, misinterpreting something that the pope says or mistaking a basic piece of Catholic doctrine. Some of the more common examples: Everything the pope says is infallible; all priests take vows of chastity; all Jesuits are priests. (Also, it’s pronounced “pay-pul” not “pap-pul.”) But most mistakes are ascribable to ignorance rather than to attempts to misrepresent the church. Why? Because no one likes to be wrong, and no journalist likes to see letters to the editor, or Tweets or Facebook posts correcting a story. Also, religion reporters cover more than Catholic news. They have to master the theology and nomenclature of every religion, an almost impossible task. The next time you see something incorrect in the media, try to ascribe it to ignorance rather than deceit.
The media does not care about the church. There is an element of truth to this. When I started helping the media, I kept a list of the reporters in this country on the religion beat. There were perhaps 50 with whom I was in regular touch. Today the list is down to a dozen. Why? Financial restrictions make it harder for editors to retain a full-time religion reporter. But as for not caring about the church? During Pope Francis’ visit I was astonished at how media outlets had reporters and cameras stationed on the “media risers” at every single event. That’s a lot of money spent on something that the media supposedly does not care about.
So the next time you’re tempted to throw your paper down in anger or punch through your computer screen, take a deep breath and tell yourself, “They’re doing their best.”