"Ecclesiastics Often Want Special Treatment"

Why the Church Has Troubles With the Media

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ROME, MAY 10, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Church officials sometimes expect "white glove" treatment from the media, which may explain their problems with journalists, says a pontifical-university official.



The complex relation between the Church and the media was at the heart of a debate at the recent International Congress of Institutional Communication, organized by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.

The meeting brought together journalists, communications experts and Church figures such as Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

In order to understand the issues, ZENIT interviewed Norberto González Gaitano, dean of the university´s Department of Institutional Social Communication and a member of the pontifical council.

--Q: In general, relations between the Church and the media have not been particularly good. The media are usually not very indulgent with this institution, which it considers too closed. Don´t you think that they are right to an extent, and at times to a great extent, when they speak of secretiveness?

--González: That the Church, or more accurately the hierarchy and the ecclesiastical institutional body -- they are not always identical -- has sinned by secretiveness historically, and not just vis-à-vis the media, is something that the Church itself has admitted many times.

Mark Silk says that "no institution likes to see its sins published; however, when it is a question of religion, there is the practice not just of condemning but of demonizing the bearers of bad news."

Yet, the Church, like any other human institution, has need of discretion and reserve, but it shouldn´t do so for the purpose of manipulation or control.

Institutions of the Church, like the Vatican, episcopal conferences and dioceses have been reluctant and slow in establishing communications offices, especially professional communications offices to supply information. A rigorous history of this delay is about to be written.

--Q: In fact, this is another criticism made against the Church: ignorance of the professional rules of journalism.

--González: It´s true: Ecclesiastics often want free publicity or special, white-glove treatment, which the press, pointedly independent, does not grant politicians, the government or any other institution.

This naive view of the media is revealed in the oscillating overall judgments of it, from outright condemnation to simplistic exaltation of the media.

In the second case, for example, there are many "pastoral operators of communication" who have ventured into the complex cauldron of social communications, producing an "ecclesiological-media" jargon that few understand. Well-intentioned individuals dress up in borrowed feathers to approach an unknown world, thus revealing not only ignorance but naiveté.

To Christianize a profession means, in the first place, to know it thoroughly, to believe in it, to acknowledge what is naturally good in it, and to heal it from within. To throw holy water from outside or adulate the professionals is both a useless and counterproductive practice.

--Q: A third criticism stems from a simple observation. Religion is the source of controversies and bitter arguments that exacerbate spirits and divide public opinion -- and the readers should be included here, who at the end of the day are the ones who buy the newspapers.

--González: Indeed. Religion is like dynamite for a newspaper. For an editor to touch on religious arguments means to expose himself to letters from the readers, protests, loss of readership, or entrapment in thorny theological-moral arguments that are often of no interest except to four specialists, or the pious.

The clergy and pastors cannot hope to have the favored treatment they enjoyed in the past. "The work of a journalist is to communicate facts, not to serve as a public relations firm," the director of The Fairfield Daily Republic, M. Cosgrove, said.

--Q: What do you recommend to the men of the Church in their relations with the media?

--González: Citizens need complete and correct information. The media lives to inform, and the Church wants and needs to give information on itself and its activity. In three words you have the raison d´être of a service that the institutions of the Church are morally obliged to provide. And not just as a reaction, or in situations of misunderstanding.

This leads us to talk about public relations, a term that not only makes journalists nervous, but also some ecclesiastics. The way to handle public relations is explained in "Dealing With Media for the Church," the first book that addresses the question clearly and uses these terms. It was written by Russell Shaw, who was director of the information office of the U.S. bishops´ conference for more than 20 years.

--Q: The press is reproached for ill will toward religion or at least prejudices toward Christian values.

--González: The Catholic Church and other religious confessions are not the only ones, of course, to complain about the bias of the media when they report on them. The politicians of different hues also complain, especially conservatives. The difference is that politicians, to say nothing of great enterprises, have greater means to make their voice heard.

It is difficult to give a definitive judgment over the real extent of these prejudices and over the bias of the media. Independent of the fact that the party criticized always sees its image negatively reflected, what is true is that the faith and moral values of journalists are not dissociated from the result.

The founding fathers of modern mass journalism, who are inscribed in golden letters in the history of journalism -- Pulitzer, Hearst, Steffens, Greeley, Storey, to mention but a few -- were unbelievers, social crusaders of Utopian ideologies and, in some cases, anti-Christian belligerents.

In any case, it is not superfluous to recall that to have faith and to be honest professionally are not necessarily and automatically identical. There are very honest professionals who have no faith and who are more honest in concrete situations and in general than some of us who have it. However, it is also a fact that, independent of the greater or lesser faith of journalists, the news coverage, for example the Catholic Church in the United States is, all together, partial and sectarian, as a rigorous analysis of contents reveals, which was effected in that country by Robert Lichter, Daniel Amundson, and Linda S. Lichter.

It´s true, to settle the problem by referring to faith or lack thereof is not enough, as there are "professional" rules commonly accepted in editorial boards, which have devastating disinformation effects on society.

One of them is "objectivism" ... in other words, with the false pretension of being neutral in face of values. This is a sophism.

Let us imagine that, in Hitler´s time, there was reporting of the controversy over the Jews, giving them five minutes of space to defend themselves and offering an additional five minutes to Hitler to attack them.

The journalist cannot be neutral in face of human values. The journalist, the real journalist, is committed professionally, in other words, personally, in reporting on violence, oppression, injustice, on what in the end harms man and, consequently, society.

--Q: What would you suggest to a journalist in order to address his work of reporting on the Church professionally?

--González: First of all, he must be specialized, in other words, have his credentials. Editors do not usually send a reporter who knows nothing about soccer to cover a world cup final. Yet, "we constantly send ignorant or untrained journalists to report on complicated religious affairs," Hollnagel acknowledges in American Journalism Review.

Interestingly enough, while 18 out of 20 journalists in the United States, who regularly cover religious affairs, recognize that specialized training is necessary, 12 out of 20 admit they have none.

The conclusion is obvious: Specialized journalists are needed, that is, [journalists] who are accredited in the realm of religious information. If there is good will, there is only one way against ignorance: study, credentials.