Credibility at stake for restrained religious media


Artistic representation of Flinders Street Station undergoing a variety of weather conditions. From the brochure for the 2013 ARPA conference Storm Proof: Good News for All SeasonsWith 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 on the style of Pope Francis. He has generally urged Catholics to go out, and not to see the inner life of the Church and its institutional challenges as the main game. Even though it might be accident prone, he prefers a Church that goes out into the world to one that is closed in on itself and sick. The Pope's avoidance of formalities, his visits to gaols and detention centres and his refusal to be shackled by what others might think to be the reasonable demands of security have embodied his message.

The Pope's style of communication has been consistent with his insistence that the church is not its own centre. He preaches daily in pithy and demotic language without a text. His press release on the plane returning from Brazil was uncontrolled and open. As his critics have noted, he has often been misquoted and misrepresented. But because he treats misunderstandings as part of ordinary life, they do not become a problem.

At a deeper level the Pope's style of communication appears to come from his own comfort at recognising himself as sinful and fallible and yet called to follow Jesus Christ. That makes him also comfortable in acknowledging scandals in the Church without having to defend them. He is then free cheerfully to preach the Gospel to the poor.

Francis' style suggests that church media might be better seen as a gateway for churches to go out from than as a screen controlling what is allowed out.

In particular it suggests that Catholic media should report the bad news about sexual abuse and failures of governance. In its coverage it should focus on giving voices and faces to those who have been hurt. It should also encourage its readers to go out into the world in an exploratory and not a defensive way. As is the case with life itself, those who try to save their reputation lose it, while those who are happy to lose their reputation in the service of the Gospel may save it.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: media, church sex abuse, Australasian Catholic Press Association, Australasian Religious Press



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Existing comments

Another excellent article, Andrew. One of the essential things that should be clearly understood about Pope Francis is that he has a real, developed, mature, interior spiritual life which informs everything he does. Thus he does not just talk about Christianity but lives it. Your article on him and his attitude to the Church reminds me very much of what the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh said, that Christ did not come to found an institution, but to change the world. Seen in this perspective, there is no problem with the institutional Church if it is in constant, living acknowledgement of its ultimate purpose. Many ecclesiastical administrators (that is in effect what bishops, archbishops and cardinals become) look at things from a purely administrative perspective. That is, at least, extremely short sighted, and, at worst, when it comes to not dealing openly and fairly with matters of abuse of power and privilege, including sexual abuse, downright diabolical. Without inner renewal, as demonstrated by Pope Francis, the Catholic Church can be an empty vessel. I hope it does not. He is a sign of hope.

Edward F | 05 September 2013  

The two Catholic newspapers with which I am most familiar are The Catholic Leader and The Catholic Weekly. Both are under church control and this is an obvious limitation on the breadth of opinion expressed. They spin an official line and little room is allowed for any other viewpoint. To say this renders them useless as purveyors of truth might be an exaggeration, but it limits their effectiveness and, probably, circulation.America's National Catholic Reporter is the model the Catholic media should aspire to. I do not think anyone is about to concede our media that much freedom. however.

grebo | 05 September 2013  

Thank you. A lovely common sensibility and humanity.

Caroline Storm | 05 September 2013  

Thanks for this excellent analysis. It would be fabulous if the Australian catholic media & other media outlets took this on board.

Mary | 05 September 2013  

Couldn't agree more, Andrew. Have been on diocesan editorial teams a couple of times: high censorship, no possibility of dissenting letters to editors so no room for the real debate characteristic of an adult church.

VIvien Williams | 05 September 2013  

An interesting perspective on an important issue. Thank you Andrew.

Frank Golding | 05 September 2013  

It's very pleasing to see Pope Francis using pithy and demotic language in public statements. Hopefully, a model for others - a fine way to reach those who know nothing much about the Gospel.

Pam | 05 September 2013  

A timely article not only because of the annual conferences coming up, but also as a contribution to the ongoing discussions about reversing the fall-off in church attendance and the general reduction of respect for the Church's perspective. Church media which provides only warm and fuzzy feel-good stories and glosses over matters of concern within the Church is not simply irrelevant to the laity. Very significantly, it indicates that the Church as an organisation does not take us seriously; does not consider our concerns about Church authority and organisational governance worthy of comment. It provides yet one more reason to leave the Church or at least, to withdraw a bit more from active participation. Andrew offers a very simple but worthwhile approach to the reimagining required in the role of (at least) Catholic Church media. As a lay Catholic, I would add the request that the media address us as intelligent adult members of this Church rather than simply consumers of political spin.

Ian Fraser | 05 September 2013  

A welcome article from Andrew .Maybe Catholic weeklies might attract significant readership if this advice were followed.

Noel Fitzsimons | 05 September 2013  

How is it that The Tablet and the National Catholic Reporter enjoy autonomy and can be fearless, within certain constraints, about major issues in the church, while here in Australia no such autonomy is permitted? While this situation exists it is not surprising that the so-called secular media take over responsibility for reporting the nastier facts of church life, or attempt to bring the churches to account for their failings. It takes the courage of people like Barney Zwartz to persist in getting at the truth through the mainstream press because the church press are fearful of even asking the right questions, let alone trampling on the toes of a dubious bishop.

IMPRIMATUR | 05 September 2013  

We have had an interesting experience in my local parish. Very few take the parish bulletin home. Only a dozen or so Catholic Weekly papers are sold each week. For years, attempts to attract youth in a youth group have failed to the point where a youth group no longer existed. Six months ago a new assistant priest came to the parish. He started youth group meetings for diffrent age groups with 5 or 6 participants. The numbers have grown exponentially to a vibrant youth group larger in numbers than I can remember in this parish over the last 40 years. None of my 7 children ever attended the parish youth group. Why has this happened. The new priest is a traditional conservative Catholic. There is no careful, touchy feely approach to Catholicism. His young charges have taken to discussions such as same sex marriage, abortion, homosexuality etc and according to some I have spoken to are hearing the Catholic Christian teachings on such subjects for the first time - and they are lapping it up. It is long overdue that the Catholic media begin to proclaim Catholic teaching again. After all, that is precisely what Pope Francis is being praised for. Ignatian Insight (the American version of ES) does this regularly. Time for ES to lead the way in this poor country of ours. While the Catholic position on matters of faith and morality is not understood in the public domain the Church will continue to decline and very rapidly indeed, since one ignorant generation can only be expected to produce yet another.

john frawley | 05 September 2013  

Thank you Andrew. You have highlighted a real problem with the official Catholic Press. In the case of sexual abuse of children by clergy we have had to rely on the secular press for full details. I for one, am grateful to them, particularly the Age, which many Catholics cannot stand. I can't see any solution coming from the Catholic Press at the moment. Maybe we should all subscribe to The Tablet or some other independent Catholic newspaper for articles giving details of controversial issues.

Tony Santospirito | 05 September 2013  

What is there to discuss, anyway? The church's teachings are easily accessible online now - so everyone should know what the rules are. So just "go away and sin no more." Expecting Catholic newspapers to be controversial and critical would be like expecting News Ltd newspapers to be critical of Rupert Murdoch, or Channel 10 to bag Gina Reinhart. And can someone tells me why we always talk about sex in these discussions? Sex is the easy part of Catholic teaching. Let's get to the really hard bits one day like social justice and care for the poor.

AURELIUS | 05 September 2013  

Thank you Andrew for a frank and honest view of our church reality at present.

Marie O'Connor sgs | 05 September 2013  

Thank you, Andrew. Couldn't have said it better myself. If Catholic media would be open and accurate in its coverage of all aspects of Church life, including our failures and misdeeds, we'd actually be one up on the secular press. I don't agree they've been brave and honest in their reporting - it's quite easy to denounce wrongdoing when all around you are doing the same. It's also easy, apparently, to forsake the rules about honest reporting. For example, the very well respected Religion Editor of The Age has several times published coverage of 'facts' that are actually only unproven accusations or total misunderstandings of the context. It would be quite easy to get this right - it does no honour to anyone to be lazy in doing the necessary research. Let's take the high ground and show them how honest, courageous reporting could really look!

Joan Seymour | 05 September 2013  

Glad to see someone touch base with the issue of a cordoned off and corralled Catholic press when it comes to the editing scissors of the appointed watchmen. This tight control is part of the ferment of shrinking credibility, agitated these days by such as restrictive editing that, while presenting the 'good news' of Church life, is one more item of discontent among the many square pegs in round holes that represent an officialdom growing more and more out of touch with the mind and hearts of many of both the clergy and the laity. In a word we are growing up and look to opportunities to say our piece. At best this traditional editorial control may have served the Catholic community well in by-gone days but not any more, being counter-productive in this day and age, even destructive, as our 'pay and pray' folk awaken to a growing sense of responsibility as Church and also a growing sense of ownership of the journey of Peter's barque. It has been said that there are elements to Catholicism that are worryingly close to communism. Hopefully our catholic press can keep clear of any Marxist shenanigans.

p goodland | 05 September 2013  

Thank you. An excellent article. There is freedom in the approach you suggest.

Kerry Holland | 05 September 2013  

Thanks indeed Andrew for articulating the frustration of many with the Catholic media. My partcular frustration is the lack of coverage of what many call the "new cosmology" although it is obvious that generations X and Y cannot connect with a church which does not embrace the new (as in developments of awarenes of where we live in the universe the last 150 years) sense of place of our species in the great wonder of life that we are all immersed in. The media would serve us well if it invited teaching from the leaders in understanding of the many facets of the awesome creation we are located within and the mystery of the creative genius we call God. While our Catholic media in sustaining the model of a patriarchical creation with imagined "external" powers calling the shots gens X and Y will look elsewhere for meaning.

Mikw Foale | 05 September 2013  

John, the neo-cons are alive and well. That reminds me of nothing so much as the Sydney Anglicans and their energetic but ultimately futile eveangelising. . The fervent young who "lap up" the teachings of the zealous young priest ( seems to be mostly about sex and its variants) will get over when the grow up and think for themselves. A wise old priest from a philoprogentive tribe ( one being an anatomy lecturer probably well known to both of us) once commented " God has no grandchildren" and "leave it to God" I was much comforted by that when I realised as a not so good little Catholic I could not expect the same of my 3.

JR | 07 September 2013  

If Imprimatur looked at the ownership and governance of The Tablet and The National Catholic Reporter, he/she would realise that both journals are guaranteed editorial independence as is Eureka Street. This, as far as most diocesan Catholic organs go, seems not so or a grey area. The current Pope, apart from anything else, to me represents a window of opportunity for the Church to realise what it is and act accordingly. How far what happens in Rome filters down to Australia I am unsure. I think there are people in the Australian Church hierarchy, such as Father Brian Lucas, Secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, who, in the light of these new directions, need to stand down or be retired. His influential position and recent public statements on his conduct regarding paedophile clergy to the current NSW inquiry on paedophilia lead me to believe he should not hold this crucial position on the body where the bishops should discuss Catholic media and its governance. I think the bishops have much to do to organise their own diocesan responses and institutions to dealing with paedophilia in concert with media governance reform. The two go together.

Edward F | 08 September 2013  

To P Goodland: Elements of Catholicism close to communism and Marxism? Really? If only we did take the Gospel that seriously and realised Jesus wasn't just being metaphorical when he said, "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." It's not whether we are communist or capitalist that matters, but how well we respect and love our fellow human beings.

AURELIUS | 13 September 2013  

Thank you so much Andrew for your wise analysis of what is often the case where religious media are concerned in the current climate. However, I bring to your attention, and that of readers, a different model existing in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. Since March 2011, the diocesan magazine has appeared once a month in six regional newspapers, including The Newcastle Herald. Previously Aurora, like many of its ilk, was distributed through parishes and schools, with a circulation of 20,000. Now our monthly circulation is 62,000 and our audience demographic crosses all categories of age, gender, socio-economics, education and religious affiliation (if any). This has required what Andrew calls “a reimagining” in terms of writing for a broad readership. The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle has had a troubled history regarding issues of child protection and the sexual abuse of children perpetrated by persons associated with the diocese. Given this history, the local press is, understandably, relentless in its reporting of sexual abuse by church personnel and the diocese has no issue with such matters being reported in all their shame. Bishop Michael Malone, and now Bishop Bill Wright, subscribes to the Gospel imperative, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). They have each written honestly of the scandals that have plagued our diocese, and have apologized, publicly and in writing, for past failures in keeping children safe. Aurora’s coverage, however, has not been restricted to “Catholics in leadership positions”. Aurora has published an opinion piece by Patricia Feenan, mother of one of the victims of paedophile priest James Fletcher. Aurora has told the story of Bravehearts founder Hetty Johnston, who learned in her own home the insidious nature of sexual abuse. Aurora invited Bishop Geoffrey Robinson to write a piece which advocated an Ecumenical Council with significant lay participation. Perhaps most significantly, a recent black and white cover depicted a sombre Bishop, with the caption, “An apology from Bishop Bill Wright”. He wrote: “I apologise unreservedly on behalf of the Diocese to those who suffered abuse, to their families and friends, and to all who have been subsequently harmed by the unfolding of these matters. My apology is intended to express the deep sorrow of the Catholic community that such things ever happened to people in our church; our desire that the victims now have the chance to tell their stories with confidence of acceptance and are able to obtain justice to the extent that this is possible; our commitment to assisting those who were abused as best we can; and our commitment to doing all in our power to protect children from such abuse now and into the future. ( The Special Commission of Inquiry continues and the Royal Commission is underway. Aurora will continue to explore ways of telling the truth so that we are then free, in the style of Pope Francis, “cheerfully to preach the Gospel to the poor”.

Tracey Edstein | 13 September 2013  

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