Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why the Press Doesn't Get the Pope

Once upon a time, in the halcyon days of my undergraduate education, I majored in journalism. Well, technically speaking, I majored in Communication Studies with an emphasis in journalism, but the point is that which my courses were directed toward was a formation and education in the journalistic art. I entered college wanting to be a sports writer, so I took classes called Writing & Reporting, Public Affairs Reporting, Communication History (which was basically a history of newspapers), and so forth. This is pertinent only to establish my credibility for the topic at hand: when I talk about journalistic mindsets and practices, I know a little of what I speak.

The media hubbub in the last few days over Pope Francis' comments to reporters while flying back from World Youth Day has demonstrated once again that, by and large, the news media knows about as much about religion as I do about internal combustion engines: that is, not much. Why is this? I can think of a few reasons.

First, journalists are primarily educated in the field of public events reporting. Anything that involves a basic who-what-when-where-why-how breakdown, they can do pretty well: "two people were injured on Mulberry Street Thursday morning in a freak gardening accident that has some questioning the practice of marketing chainsaws as lawn trimmers," and so forth. Easy enough. Anything that requires a little specialized knowledge usually requires a specialty reporter: our science correspondent, our sports reporter, etc. But news bureaus are getting smaller these days, meaning that specialty topics are being covered by non-specialists. This seems to be most true with religion reporting (or perhaps just appears to be so to me because it's something I know a little about), and the result is often pretty shoddy. The website GetReligion is dedicated to bringing to light these sorts of poorly told tales and is filled with examples of reporters misrepresenting the most basic of Christian beliefs (the best are always at Christmas and Easter, when reporters try to explain what mysteries are being celebrated--it would be hilarious if it weren't so sad)--never mind the subtleties and nuances of, say, moral theology or sexual ethics, or the all-important distinction between the sinner and the sin. They often just plain don't know what they're talking about.

This leads to our second point. Before they might gain a specialty (assuming they aren't a specialist-turned-journalist), usually most reporters are encouraged to be well-versed enough in politics to enable them to report on the important events of the day, so that political reporting becomes less a specialty than a standard modus operandi for the reporter. And because most reporters are trained in politics, they tend to see every story as a political story, a story about groups struggling for power or influence. Look at the reporting on global warming, for example: it's much less about any of the science involved and much more about various political pressure groups or international scientific bodies vying for the nation's attention. Too often, it's the same with religious reporting.

Reporters tend to view religious groups, such as the Catholic Church, solely as political organizations that have "policies" and "agendas" and do "messaging"; they definitely do not view the Church as the organized body of believers in Jesus Christ, convened under the headship of Peter among us, preaching the Gospel and teaching the truth for the salvation of souls. (Though to play devil's advocate for a moment, the Church does have a bureaucratic structure and does, in fine Italian fashion, have in-fighting between various offices at times, so the press can't be entirely blamed for treating it like any other organization on occasion.)

To the point: when Pope Francis makes comments on the Church's pastoral responsibility toward homosexual persons, on the importance of distinguishing the sin from the sinner, on the reality of the forgiveness of sins and the duty to recognize that fact in people's lives, he is simply expressing, as a true shepherd of his sheep, what the Church's Magisterium says in a dozen other places. But because most of these reporters 1) do not know the Church's teaching on this topic and think the Church "hates gays or something," and 2) see everything through a political lens, they start reporting that the pope "may have signaled a shift in tone" or "may be setting up a change in policy," etc., as though he were a senator "pivoting" on an issue to gain a few points in the polls. But of course, it was nothing of the kind.

So, guys, a few helpful hints here. First, learn your facts: when given an assignment on a religious story, do your homework, read up on the issues and doctrines involved, and don't always go to the same three dissident priests for quotes. Second, stop thinking everyone is a political schemer grasping for power; you'll sleep much better at night when you realize not everyone is out to get what they can for themselves.

You have a responsibility to the public: you provide the data from which people in this free republic shape their conclusions. The least you can do is give them accurate info.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Nick, and sorely needed, though it would be a huge blessing if some people other than "the choir" would read it. But, hey, if "preaching to the choir" is what's available, then take pleasure in the fact we love seeing a bit of light cast on the truth from time to time. Perhaps it's up to the rest of us to see that these pearls of wisdom gain a wider audience. God Bless you, "Thick".
    Grandpa Jake