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How to keep the media honest in coverage of the Church

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 18, 2010

In troubled times, the news is more important than ever. And we live in troubled times—especially for the Catholic Church.

Think about it: Sometimes reading the paper or watching the newscast is a form of entertainment. (Who’s pitching for the local team tonight?) Sometimes it’s a spectator sport in itself. (Which Hollywood stars were divorced this week?) But often it’s a deadly earnest activity. We follow the latest reports about a tense standoff in Korea, or a growing oil spill in the Gulf, or an economic crisis in Greece, knowing that any one of those crises could have a profound effect on our own lives.

The incessant pounding of criticism directed against the Catholic Church in the past few weeks has already had a damaging effect on the lives of the faithful. How many people have left the Church in disgust, influenced by stories that suggest the entire Church is guilty for the misconduct of a few? How many lukewarm Catholics have fallen into the error of assuming that, if the media carry stories day after day hinting that the Pope is orchestrating a massive cover-up of sexual abuse, the charges must be true? How many bishops and priests have held their tongues, fearful of speaking out about some important moral issue, because they fear the inevitable, scornful reply: that an institution that coddles child-molesters has no standing to teach morality?

The teaching function of the Church is suffering because Church leaders have lost credibility. The sanctifying function of the Church is suffering because so many Catholics are drifting away from the faith. The governing function of the Church is suffering because dissident groups are exploiting the crisis to promote their own ideas of “reform,” looking to dismantle the structures of ecclesiastical discipline. And all this damage is aggravated by the pounding drumbeat of adverse publicity in the media, which keeps the Church on the defensive and impedes real apostolic activity.

Please do not misunderstand the purpose of this column. This is not just one more complaint about media bias against Catholicism, nor is it a plea for silence about the very real misconduct of some Catholic bishops and priests. The media did the Church a great service by forcing the hierarchy to acknowledge the cancerous reality of sexual abuse. I personally have been arguing for more than 20 years for a candid response to the abuse crisis: an end to the cover-up. I applaud reporters who handle this delicate issue honestly and accurately.

However, media coverage—of this story or any other—is helpful only if it is timely and accurate. In the “Long Lent” of 2002, as the details of the sex-abuse scandal in the United States emerged in the media, the coverage was often tinged with sensationalism, but in general it was accurate and certainly it was timely. This year’s coverage, prompted by new revelations in Europe, has been neither accurate nor timely, but consistently misleading.

Let me illustrate my point with a couple of homely examples. If you check the weather report, do you want today’s forecast, or will you settle for one that is two or three days old? You want today’s forecast, of course. Why? Because the forecast will help you decide what to wear, and whether or not to plan outdoor activities. You will make decisions and take actions based on the news you receive.

Weather forecasts, unfortunately, are sometimes inaccurate. So let me take another case. If you have an investment portfolio, when you check the stock prices, you want the latest quotes, not those from a week ago. At least equally important, you want accurate price quotes. Again, based on the information you receive you may make decisions: to buy or sell your shares.

Well, today thousands of Catholics are making decisions: whether or not they can trust their bishops; whether or not they will bother to go to Mass this Sunday. Those decisions will be influenced by the information they receive from the media.

For most secular media outlets, religious news is not a high priority. Religious stories are often handled by inexperienced reporters, and shunted off to the back pages of the newspaper or the final minutes of the evening broadcast. Many newspapers confine religious affairs to a single weekly column—sometimes with downright humorous results. I recently spotted an item in one such weekly column, announcing that a bishop had “reportedly” been murdered in Turkey; that item was published on the day of Bishop Padovese’s funeral, several days after his assailant had confessed to stabbing him. It was an old story, dressed up as a fresh new report.

Unfortunately, that is not the only old story that has been given new life by recent media reports. The past few weeks have seen exhaustive front-page coverage, in some of America’s most widely circulated journals, of stories that had first emerged more than a decade ago. These stories were revived not because any important new information had been unearthed, but because editors found them newly marketable, in a climate of general distrust for the Church. The old stories were sent back out onto the media market in shiny new packages.

All too often the packaging included some deceptive advertising as well. Time and again the major media have carried stories based on ignorance or misunderstanding of the way the Church works.

In 1996, when I launched Catholic World News, my editorial goals were based on two strong beliefs:

First, I believed that loyal Catholics need reliable information about world affairs as seen from a Catholic perspective—and that this distinct perspective would be even more important as the “culture wars” continued and the Church became more involved in public controversies.

Second, I believed that a Catholic news service would be more credible, in the eyes of the world, if it remained independent from all ecclesiastical control. No one should ever suspect that CWN was carrying a story—or, more ominous, covering up a story—on orders from some chancery office

Through the years, CWN has built up a reputation for accurate, timely reporting on Catholic affairs. While it hasn’t been easy to build up our news coverage, the investment of time and treasure has begun to pay dividends. Our coverage doesn’t just inform CWN readers; it informs the mass media as well.

Several times in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that large secular outlets reported a story in language remarkably close to the language of CWN stories, and explained things the way CWN explained them. More than once, a major outlet has quietly corrected an inaccurate story after CWN called attention to errors. The presence of an independent Catholic outlet helps to keep the other secular outlets honest.

Yet I should not leave the impression that all contact between CWN and the major media outlets is adversarial. On the contrary, every week I can expect a few calls from secular reporters who want some background information, some off-the-record guidance, some help in understanding the latest developments in Rome. Some interview requests are more formal. This past Monday, by 11 in the morning I had been interviewed by 5 different radio stations about the Pope’s homily for the closing Mass of the Year for Priests. That was an exceptionally busy day, to be sure, but it was also in indication of how widely the influence of the CWN news coverage can spread across the media world.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jun. 22, 2010 9:42 AM ET USA

    I think it is fair to say that the secular media is in no way shape or form called to be the "guardian angel" of the Catholic Church. Any function that it should incidentally fulfill in this regard should be considered a grace, and for that matter a significant one. Rather than wondering how "we" are to keep "them" honest in this peculiar role we should be horrified and saddened that God the Holy Spirit had to use them in this role at all Reasonable moral perspective is badly distorted

  • Posted by: The Venerable Steve - Jun. 21, 2010 10:45 PM ET USA

    I agree with jimgrum, but I find Mr. Lawler's efforts supremely valuable. As the late great JP2 proclaimed, we should engage the culture on its own terms--not just for the Faith's own credibility with some; but also because somebody for whom a news story was an easy excuse to leave might suddenly have his conscience piqued by some kernel of Truth appearing in an unlikely corner of the secular media. We don't know how it will happen but we're certainly called to be its channels. Go CWN.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 19, 2010 12:39 PM ET USA

    If people are leaving because of news stories, the fundamental issues are much graver and deep-rooted than biased media coverage. In a nutshell, many members of the hierarchy either lost touch with their calling to promote the salvation of souls or did not understand their mission from the beginning. We must pray for holy priests, animated with the Spirit of Pentecost- burning with divine life and love- sanctifying grace- not the sentiments of the world. You must believe in it to receive it.

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