By Maureen Martin,
Over at the Inside Catholic blog, Margaret Cabaniss wrote a good post about flawed media coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit to the United States. Like most people writing on the subject, I think there is a huge disconnect between what actually occurs within the Catholic Church and what the media is reporting. In addition, like Margaret, I would appreciate seeing someone else beside Fr. McBrien “representing” the Catholic Church.
Why do reporters get the story wrong so often and why do they rely on the same sources again and again?
There is a possible explanation. A number of years ago when I was studying communications, more than one journalism professor told us that reporters cover so many issues and topics, that what they can really know and understand about any given subject, you could basically put in a thimble. That isn't a knock against journalists; it's just the way it is. When you are assigned a story at 10 am, and have a 4 pm deadline, you need don't really have the time to always do the best research or track down the best sources. For the journalist, a lot of times it comes down to who answers the phone and who is willing and available to do the interview. Reporters need someone (an expert in the field, a PR person, etc.) to call and basically make himself available to help, over and over. Although there are people out there giving good, sound advice, most reporters probably won't have the time to go look for it. (Unless an assignment editor gets an itch to do a story on coverage of the coverage.)
So what can you change? You can change the individual perceptions that individual reporters, assignment editors, and news producers have of individual Catholic leaders. When a reporter meets and gets to know a Catholic priest, for better or for worse, he will think, “This priest is the Catholic Church.” The challenge then becomes for a reporter to get to know and develop a relationship with an articulate, personable orthodox priest, rather than an articulate, personable unorthodox one.
As someone who used to work in public relations for several years before she decided to take it easy and raise children, I have a few suggestions (not for reporters, but for Catholics.) The PR person who I considered my mentor used to make herself so useful and helpful to reporters that they were always calling her for quotes and to get quotes from others. She constantly worked at establishing friendships with reporters, so they trusted her and called her when they needed help with stories. She was one of the most ethical and hardworking people I have ever met. She was completely open and honest with reporters and they, in turn, respected her. A few of our orthodox and articulate priests out there are going to have to start putting themselves out there and establishing relationships with some of these managing editors, reporters and editorial boards and act as PR people for the Church. They need to take them out for lunch, for a beer (an advantage we have over Protestants), whatever, and start doing things like that *before* a story needs to be written or a big event takes place or a crisis arises. They need to call them up occasionally and pitch story ideas. They will probably reject 90 percent of them, but at least they will know who these orthodox priests are and that they are available to help (The reporters won't care so much that they are orthodox, but that are available and willing to help). They can guide them to other good sources,as well. Of course, people will say that priests don't have time, and they don't. However, people have more time to establish positive relationships with reporters before a crisis happens than to try to clean up the mess afterward. At some point, the reporters will start calling for help with various stories. A lot of the stories may be negative, but it would be far better to help a reporter with a negative story (and make whatever can't be perfect, be less imperfect...was that Chesterton or St. Thomas More?) than to just let him write it on his own. And never say, "No comment."
As a public relations professional told a group of us once, “Reporters are human. They send their kids to school, they pay bills and taxes, and they worry about the future, just like you. Relate to them like they are human beings.” Along the same lines, no one likes to hear about what a lousy job they are doing, 24/7. This seems to be a trap in which conservatives, particularly conservative bloggers and radio pundits, find themselves. Before I worked in public relations, I worked for a newspaper. Trust me, newspaper editors, reporters and publishers receive a lot more criticisms than they do attaboys. If you want to see more fair coverage, start praising writers when they get something right. It will be much more effective. Frankly, the onus is on us, as Catholics, to present our Church and its teachings in an accurate manner, and more difficult than anything, that involves living out those truths in our daily lives.