Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Accurate media coverage of the Pope’s visit and everything else Catholic: Is it a hopeless cause?

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.

8 comments:

Rodak said...

Why does the Catholic Church feel that it has to have a public image in the first place? I don't hear the Presbyterian or the Lutheran churches bitching and moaning about the press mistreatment of their "brand."
If Catholics don't want to be treated like politicians (or mouthwash), they should shun the media hype and concentrate on saving souls the old fashioned way.

Anonymous said...

Rodak,

Individual evangelical and mainline Christians complain about how the media views them all the time; I used to be one.

Plus, I am not advocating the Church make itself into some kind of appealing brand. I am saying Church leaders need to be honest and open and befriend the media.

So, you don't think it would have been much more beneficial to people's souls if at the beginning of the sex abuse crisis in Boston if Church leaders had been more candid and transparent with the media and the public? Instead, the whole thing came across as a big cover-up and even more left the Church because of it. Those people are not participating in the sacraments anymore. Is that good for souls?

St. Paul -- to paraphrase -- said he became whatever he needed to be to whomever in order to save souls. I don't think it is a sin for priests to befriend the media, 1) because reporters have souls and 2) because the readers, viewers and listners whom they influence do too.

God bless, Maureen

Maureen

Jared said...

Good article Maureen.

Two points:

1) We need to encourage faithful Catholics to enter into the "secular" journalism field so that they can write accurately about Catholic things when that assignment comes. More people read the AP than the Wanderer or the National Catholic Register. Engage the world, use its media to save souls, don't run and hide and then expect others to get it right. St. Paul would.

2) Whether you like them or not, it seems the Legion of Christ has bought in to Maureen's argument. They have a priest providing commentary on Catholic things for FoxNews and for NBC. I'd be willing to bet they approached those networks and offered to help.

Rodak said...

Individual evangelical and mainline Christians complain about how the media views them all the time; I used to be one.

Individual complaints are usually launched by the public reaction to individual behavior. I can't recall a mainstream (e.g. Lutheran, Presbyterian) Protestant complaining about his treatment qua mainstream Protestant. I have heard evangelicals of the Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell ilk complaining; but that is precisely because they engage in the kind of political activity that I am saying the RC Church should stay out of.
That said, the last Pope certainly got good press when, for instance, he visited Cuba. And, of course, when he died. But on many occasions before that, as well.
I'm wondering what you mean by the "everything else Catholic" of your title?

Anonymous said...

Rodak,

You are right that JPII received pretty good news coverage. However, he was a natural at that sort of thing, and he has a pretty good Vatican spokesperson in Navarro-Valls.

As far as "everything else Catholic," I am talking about the coverage of Church teachings such as abortion, divorce, contraception, etc., being reported as being ideas subject to change if only enough Catholics complain loud enough. The Church is not a democracy, and we need some articulate spokespeople on the local levels getting through with that message.

BTW, you said the Church should stay away from evangelical issues. I am assuming you mean: abortion and marriage/sexual issues. You are against the war and torture, right? So am I. Don't you think the Church should speak out against those things? If so, why not abortion, etc.

God bless, Maureen

Rodak said...

Don't you think the Church should speak out against those things?

Maureen--
I believe that the Church--all churches--should preach the Gospel and let individual Christians then conduct their own lives according to how scripture and the spirit of grace moves them to act. I don't believe that churches should enter politics as institutions.

BTW, you said the Church should stay away from evangelical issues.

I think what I said is that the Church should stay away from political issues. The role of Christianity is to change men's hearts, not to change men's laws.

Rodak said...

Btw, Maureen--
I am very appreciative of your non-combative, non-confrontational, mode of discussion. You are able to express disagreement without making brother-love problematic. It's a rare gift in this world. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the compliment, Rodak!

Jared, I think the Legionnaires have done a good job in realizing the imporance of the media. The Register is a good publication, I think. They also were behind the movie, "Bella," which I thought was pretty well done.

God bless, Maureen