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Credibility at stake for restrained religious media

  • 05 September 2013

With the Australasian Catholic and Australasian Religious Press Associations hosting their annual gatherings in Melbourne this week, September is the month of religious media conferences. Perhaps because hope springs eternal. This year church media, particularly Catholic media, face a growing challenge: how to deal with bad news about the church. At stake is their credibility.

This challenge is difficult to meet because of the place that church media typically have within churches. The print media generally present news of the regional churches. They also tell encouraging stories of Catholics and their work within the wider community. The writing and production are often very professional, given the lack of staff and financial support available.

Church leaders use their media to address their members. In that respect church magazines are often like in-house newsletters, subject to control over who may write and about what. If Catholic media discuss issues that are controversial among Catholics they will generally present only the position taken by church authorities. More generally they avoid church scandals and matters of dispute. These are more freely discussed in such independent Catholic newspapers as The Tablet and the National Catholic Reporter and a variety of small magazines and blogs.

This formula generally corresponds to the limited resources available to the Catholic Church for communications. Readers of the magazines and visitors to websites can find some picture of what is going on in the Church, an introduction to people who are significant in its life, and encouragement in their commitments.

More recently the restrictions on Catholic media, and particularly their limited coverage of Church abuse, with comment usually restricted to Catholics in leadership positions, have affected their credibility. Many Catholics instinctively see what is written in Church media as spin rather than as engagement with truth. They then look to the secular media for a more accurate and honest presentation of the state of affairs than they hope to find in the Catholic media.

There is a loss in this. The account of the Catholic Church they receive from the secular media often lacks depth and a feel for context. It could helpfully be complemented by an honest insider's perspective.

This suggests reconsideration of the assumption that it is in the interests of the Catholic Church to control reporting in its media of bad things done by Catholics and of differences between Catholics. The role of Catholic media needs to be reimagined.

That reimagining might start in reflection