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Friday, January 20, 2012

Catholics and the Press

It's no secret that the Media hates us but if we are to be's partially our fault

Recently I happened to witness an exchange between a reporter and a Catholic spokesman and was dismayed by the image given to the Reporter about an important Catholic devotion, one that is quite central to our Faith. I also saw others try to explain things to a reporter who had no qualms in asking for details and clarification, citing that this was entirely new to him and he truly wanted to understand.

I believed him.Truth and sincerity were in his expression and body language, conveying slight embarrassment.  I also knew that the people speaking to him had their minds elsewhere and let's face it: it's really hard to explain our beliefs about things we take for granted because they have always been our practice and belief.

It must be terribly confusing for "an outsider", e.g.  the secular press, to come into any religious organization or something associated with a religious organization, and obtain details of an event, people, or person involved in whatever story they happen to be covering.

We bloggers are often the first to condemn the Media (yup, I'm right there in that crowd!) and harp at them for interviewing this or that dissident or mis-informed individual. We're always rolling our eyes and cringing when we hear or read a reporter's summary of our beliefs and practices or how it applies to a situation, and then, if the spokesperson of a particular place is quoted, we either tend to condemn that person as a "dissident" or, more likely, the reporter with some other defamatory label usually lumped in with "The Liberal Media."

I don't think that's really fair. 

Now, don't go off on me in the combox about the general fact that the Media as a whole is, in fact, actually quite liberal. Even most liberals agree with that! And they've got plenty to say about the "conservative" media, too, and I'll stand in line to condemn the "conservative" end, also without qualms.

So let's move past that and actually shine the light on ourselves as Catholics for a moment. It's necessary and we do need to take a good, hard look. 

Like it or not, if something is happening involving a Catholic parish, reporters and big trucks with huge antennae are going to show up and stick microphones in people's faces. We don't have to like that fact; few people do, even those who are trying to get a story into the News in some way. It simply isn't comfortable to be a bug under glass. The only people who are comfortable with it are veteran reporters and news anchors in cozy studios.

Let's look at things from a different perspective

First let's consider the Catholic psyche.

We Catholics often grow up in our faith and we are accustomed to our liturgical worship; it is quiet, it is contained, and it is constant. We don't just have the Mass which is infinite and contains everything in heaven and earth, but we have the Liturgy of the Hours (LOH) seven times per day, or for busy people, the Magnificat magazine (which is often a bridge to the LOH). We have Eucharistic Adoration, Processions (a bit more public than our typical form of prayer!), Rosary, various prayer groups and just a general culture of prayer that is inherent in our religion.

The world does not understand this intense form of prayer because it is not available for public viewing. While it may be emotional, it is hidden and is not open to reveal to observers who expect us to react in a different way. In the world of religion, Catholicism is very introverted for our relationship with Christ is so intense that we have no need to announce to others what we are doing and when.

But the world does not understand this and if we are in crisis or if a group experiences a great event that is somehow related to the Catholic Church, the general public is confused. They confuse our regular prayer cycles and think if it appears we do nothing, we in fact, are doing nothing when the opposite is true.

They are, quite understandably, a bit stymied by the fact that Catholics pray so quietly and in a crisis, we don't "rally" like many do, but we bow our heads and bend our knees and do this privately or in the silence of the Eucharistic Adoration chapel. If we don't have such a chapel, we to to the Sanctuary and we do the same thing with Jesus hidden in the tabernacle.  

Then enter the Press, in some form, mostly secular or participants in a different non-Catholic or non-Christian religion...or no religion at all.  

The Press is supposed to be conditioned to be "unbiased" (Journalism 101) but the reality is they are human beings and as such, they are biased. However, let us, for the sake of the virtue of charity, assume the best of these professionals and hope they really ARE trying to be unbiased, especially when it comes to religion.

Yet, the largely-secular Press, by practice at least, comes into a Catholic parish and is suddenly confronted with all sorts of theological terms: Liturgy, Eucharistic Adoration, Transubstantiation, etc.

Now, think of who is called upon to respond to the Press at a given event:  often it's the Priest, and really, dear Father has his mind on many things. Perhaps his explanation to the media is harried and clipped because while he knows he must give this interview, his heart is with his flock and all that needs to be done to serve them in this given event or crisis. The parish business administrator may be called upon to become the Spokesman and you know what? That person may not even be Catholic as his job calls for knowledge of business, not theology. He may give an explanation of a Catholic practice of which he has rudimentary knowledge and may even admire, but if he doesn't share the Faith or have direct knowledge through shared participation in a given devotion, he may get the explanation wrong.

It's also quite possible that the person giving the interview to the Press has his or her mind on the larger community, and out of lack of faith, fears our beliefs are not palatable to the general public, and further, may not have a succinct explanation of it. The reporters need word bites, not long theological treatises. So the spokesman bungle the explanation, or, more likely, hedges the explanation to make it seem like something other than what it is...maybe something more Protestant or more "generic" to the allegedly larger non-believing crowd.

Inherent Catholic Culture

As it is, what I'll call "orthodox Catholics" who tend to prefer the quiet, unobtrusive liturgical prayer that characterizes our culture are not very likely to step up to the mike and speak for us. It's just not part of our collective Catholic personality to want to be in the spotlight. Those Catholics who do, though, unfortunately tend to be overwhelmingly blustery and condemning.  Or perhaps they step up out of a sense of duty or parish role and do the best they can with what they have and just pray it all goes away quickly.

Now, when it comes to the blustery types, common to what the world wants to call we "conservative Catholics",  if I were a Reporter, I'd run far away, quickly, and never darken the door of that parish ever again. I'd certainly never call up such people for an interview. Who wants to be lectured-to and condemned as "liberal media"? Why even risk that?

We so often see that some of the more "socially-active" parishes have much of the media spotlight, and we know that those same parishes for some reason tend to be missing the proper theology to back up their explanations, too. But because the personality of those parishes is more extroverted, they are also more press-oriented and so the Media, as a whole, will naturally gravitate towards them. If you were a member of the Press, wouldn't you look for comment on a Catholic topic at a place where you were more likely to be well-received?

Heck, I would!  And, having worked with difficult people in many places, yeah, I'd call the nice witness before I'd call the one I knew was going to be a problem to me personally in the fulfillment of my job!

Here's the thing, my dear friends...we need to do a serious examination of conscience in our relationship with the Press and we need to see where we are at fault...and what we can do to change it. And really, it has to start with we bloggers because, at least online, we are the face of the Church. And we're scaring the secular  Media away. That's not going to help our cause.

Here are my suggestions for good Catholic PR: 

* If you are called upon to be a spokesperson for you parish or our Catholic-related event and need to use terms like "Eucharistic Adoration" or "Liturgy of the Hours" or "Vespers", for example, you need to have a concise definition fresh at hand, use the actual terms for our practices, and understand that our terms may be new to the reporter who visits us.

* Don't shy away from theological terms - such terms invite questions and questions invite answers which tend to develop friendly relationships. (Keep an eye on evangelization y'all. Maybe not that reporter, but if he or she gets it right because you took the time, it can go a LONG way!) 

* Be open to the reporter's requests for definition - have it handy! Write it down on a card you can hand out, even!  (Hey! Media-ready flash cards! I get dibs on the copyright and patent on that idea!) 

* Don't try to evangelize the reporter. *cough*  They're used to that and expecting it because of the fact they're visiting a church. If you don't do it, it will throw them off and you're more likely to help them get your comments right because they'll relax and stop worrying about how to politely turn down your invitation to their Bible study!  ;-)

* Be patient with the reporter. They're just trying to get a job done, they were sent to you by someone over their head and may not even want to be there. Give them the benefit of the doubt, be gracious, and know that this is part of your job, too, even if you're "just a volunteer". Or "just a random guy".

* Stop painting the Media as a whole with a broad brush condemning all. "The Media" is made up of human beings and they have editors who make certain demands. It isn't the reporters who are "in your face" who have the final word on a story: it's their editors. And probably other people, too, like investors. I don't know. I'm not a journalist. Thank God! (No offense to Journalists!)


I guess, ultimately, what I'm trying to say is that if we want to change the state of the Media in the United States, we need to learn to be more friendly TO the Media and stop expecting them to acquiesce to us. We complain they seem to have this or that dissident theologian who has long been discredited, but really, if we don't throw out a welcome mat, they're not going to come pounding down our doors and asking us to comment or explain this or that detail.

We don't have to compromise our Faith; we just need to do better at explaining our beliefs. 

What I witnessed recently renewed my hope in the Press, and I think there are many who would really appreciate a good definition of terms, would be happy to have a knowledgeable Catholic on hand for questions and research, and truly, want to do a good, ethical job of getting the story right.

Maybe, for once, we should give them a chance and recognize that we are our own worst enemy and only we have the power to turn the tide in that regard. 

1 comment:

Brian Sullivan said...

Well said! It's so important to remember that reporters are people too; well, most of them...<;-)>