By: M.L. Stein
SECULAR NEWS COVERAGE of religion and the Catholic Church in particular merits only a C ? maybe a C-minus ? judging from views expressed by the Archbishop of Los Angeles and others at a recent Catholic Press Association conference.
“Sadly, in some quarters of journalism, so much of what passes for news and information today is nothing more than sensationalism, gossip and an unhealthy fixation on conflict and confrontation,” said Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop. “The attitude of ‘no news is good news,’ and ‘good news is no news,’ seems endemic, especially in the secular press’ coverage of the church.”
Cardinal Mahony’s comments came in a homily during his celebration of a Mass at the recent CPA meeting in Los Angeles. The Archdiocese’s press spokesman, The Reverend Greg Coiro, was equally critical of media reporting on the Catholic Church at a later panel discussion of the subject.
Mahony, who previously has expressed irritation with religion reporting, allowed that the general press and the clergy “do not always view the world and the Church with the same eyes,” but rapped the media for focusing on four “hot-button” issues in their coverage of the Catholic Church: artificial birth control, abortion, celibacy and the male-only priesthood.
He singled out CBS’s Sixty Minutes and reporter Mike Wallace for their coverage of the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim last February.
“I kept encouraging them to see and experience what was going on all around them,” he recalled. “Tens of thousands committed, happy, joyful and spirit-filled Catholics were gathering . . . to celebrate and grow in their faith in Jesus Christ and His Church. The real story was staring them in the face but they could not see it.”
The cardinal, who is considered liberal on some social issues and very conservative on doctrine, called on the Catholic Press to counter what he believes is distorted reporting by matching the secular press in professionalism and by reporting the news honestly, “even if that means revealing the very humanness, brokenness and imperfections of Christ’s Church.”
He urged the CPA to report good and bad news but in such a way that its audience “never loses sight of the good news, which is, after all, the raison d’etre of the Catholic press.”
In all stories and commentary, the cleric went on, Catholic journalists must constantly ask: “How will this story feed the flock? How will this opinion piece nourish Christ’s body, the Church? . . . When there is a scandal to report, report it, but tell, too, how this relates to humility, to seeking forgiveness and to reconciliation.”
Every story, regardless of how horrible or negative, contains an element that can be used to teach and illustrate the “Gospel of Life,” Mahony asserted.
Mainstream media did not fare much better in a panel, “How the Secular Press Covers Religion.”
Not too well, except for some experienced religion writers on major dailies, according to Father Coiro.
He blamed broadcast journalists and general assignment reporters in both media for inaccurate coverage of church affairs.
From questions by some reporters, he said, “I can tell right away that they know nothing about the Roman Catholic Church. There is a great deal of ignorance among people in the press.”
However, Coiro acknowledged that sometimes communication problems arise because he must withhold certain information.
In addressing the media, he insisted, “I always tell the truth, but I can’t always tell all the facts. The public has a right to know, but not everything.”
He cited cases involving priests in alleged sex scandals, commenting, “Sometimes there is good reason not to reveal.”
Certain reporters, Coiro observed, will say, ” ‘You’re hiding something.’ They refuse to believe I’m telling the truth when I am.”
All too often, the priest said, the press feeds the appetite for “dirt in the marketplace.”
But he excepted religion specialists on major papers from criticism, saying, “It’s the rest of the media I worry about.”
Coiro’s point was taken up more strongly by Russell Shaw, information director for the Knights of Columbus, and an author whose several books include Anti-Catholicism in the Media.
Shaw complained of an “incomprehension” among some reporters about the Catholic religion, adding: “There is a real gulf of knowledge between religious people and the press. They’re not speaking the same language. In some cases, there is hostility toward
Ignorance of religious terminology is one manifestation of poor reporting of church activities, Shaw said. He chided reporters who wrote that Pope John Paul “conducted” a Mass in New York’s Central Park. “Masses are not conducted,” he pointed out. “This shows the cultural gap between the Pope and the media.”
Defending the press on the panel were Los Angeles Times religion writers Larry Stammer and John Dart, both of whom were lauded by Coiro and Shaw as being notable exceptions to their complaints of shoddy religion reporting.
Stammer declared the press is doing the best job it has ever done in covering religion. But he acknowledged that even the well-informed religion writers developed by his paper, the New York Times, Washington Post and other major dailies, have not blunted the faulting of their work by some religionists.
“The term ‘secular press’ itself has become pejorative ? like the unbelieving press, the infidel press,” he said. “We in the media should be concerned because the criticism is widespread.”
“The brickbats are hurled equally by Catholics, Christian Fundamentalists and Muslims,” Stammer said, asking, “Could all those men and women of faith be wrong about us?”
There is no clear-cut answer, Stammer conceded. But whatever the failings of religion news coverage, they are caused by ignorance, not unbelieving, atheistic reporters, he stated.
Another reason for the sometimes adversarial relationship between the press and the religious community lies in their different outlooks, Stammer reasoned.
“Journalists are most comfortable with these things that are verifiable,” he explained. “Religion is different . . . it is sometimes difficult for the media to cross the threshold of faith. These things which cannot be seen ? that great transcendent absolute ? may make the press uncomfortable.”
Also, the panelist said, religious bodies “are frequently hierarchical and authoritative while the press is democratic and questioning. Religious teaching is often complex and subtle. The media wants things short and simple.”
So, he concluded, when ignorance of religion is combined with an inability to confirm facts, journalists may be discouraged from pursuing stories about religious claims.
And often when religion is covered, it veers toward stories about religious strife, war, sexual misconduct “or an Alabama priest declaring that the murder of an abortion doctor is morally justified. That fits nicely into the traditional template.”
Editors who are not “religiously literate,” can compound the communication problem, Stammer said. Some may dismiss a religious element in a breaking story as irrelevant or unimportant, he commented.
Despite their differences, there is a “reservoir of goodwill for religion among print journalists,” Dart said. But he suggested that the animosity felt by those on both sides could be diluted by newspapers devoting more space to accurate, insightful coverage of religion.
Dart agreed with Stammer that most newsroom problems involving religion reporting stem from ignorance, not bias.
General assignment reporters covering religion, he remarked, often ask “elementary questions” and when they don’t understand what they hear, they “write around the story, practicing avoidance so they won’t be wrong.”
“When the paper is large enough, you will get good religion writing, although there may be a few loose cannons who are pursuing their own agenda,” Dart said.
Press bashing at the convention was relatively mild compared to the pasting that Hollywood took.
A documentary movie, Hollywood vs. Religion played to a packed house at a plenary session, stirring attendees to outrage.
Michael Medved, an author and New York Post film critic, wrote and narrated the production whose theme was that Hollywood is turning out scores of pictures that put religion in a bad light and could be termed anti-religious. Using film clips, he cited such flicks as The Rapture, Godfather III, Agnes of God, Last Temptation of Christ, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Pope Must Die, and Three Musketeers.
The studios regularly turn out movies that portray clergymen as “criminals, kooks or crazy,” Medved said as the audience murmured approval of his remarks, and often broke into applause at his shots at the movie capital.
Hollywood, Medved said, is an “equal opportunity offender” in religion bashing, having portrayed priests as sadistic teachers, fundamentalist preachers as bigots and rabbis as clowns. Several films have suggested that “it’s okay to hate God,” even though polls have shown that an overwhelming number of Americans believe in God and that 46% of them define themselves as born again Christians, Medved said.
Ironically, he claimed, most of the movies he labeled anti-religious lost money.