Thursday, February 9, 2012

Following Journalism Religiously

By Victoria Guida

Our two-week trip was a whirlwind of beautiful buildings, fun outings and media visits. Translation: an amazing experience for a journalism nerd who loves to travel. I learned some new words — “pain” means bread in French and doesn’t sound at all like our less pleasant word of the same spelling. I ate some new food — like goulash, Fidorka (look it up on Wikipedia) and those tasty, actually Belgian, waffles. But I also got to experience firsthand how Europeans cover the news.
St. Peter's Basilica.

During our visit to the school of communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, I was intrigued by David Kerr’s take on coverage of the Vatican. Kerr, a friendly Scottish man who reports for Catholic News Agency, said that while Vatican correspondents shouldn’t just produce propaganda for the Catholic Church, other news outlets often present the Church unfair.

This is interesting to me because the Church is an entity based around a religion with which people either agree or disagree based on deeply held beliefs. The Church’s positions on any topic would be expected to come back to, “It’s what Jesus would want,” and that’s something that’s based more on faith than on reasoning. But it’s not like the Church doesn’t use reasoning, and maybe that’s something that is often overlooked. For example, the Church doesn’t continue to condemn the use of contraception because it has ignored the benefits of using it, but because it decided a long time ago that humans should not interfere with the natural process of producing children; a position that still holds no matter the perceived benefits of contraception.

It’s moral decisions like this that could make covering the Church more complicated in a modern world. Is it okay for the secular world to condemn the Church for a position it sees as harmful to the future of the world? I suppose the answer should be: as long as the Church’s position is properly explained. Kerr seems to believe that too often this does not happen, and I decided to see whether he’s right.
Stories from all different news outlets covered the death of Pope John Paul II with respect and appreciate for the impact that he had on the world.

The tomb of Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's.
Otherwise, coverage has been more complicated.

I looked at a story from The New York Times and a story from Catholic News Agency, written on the same day about the pope’s trip to Germany. You wouldn’t even think they were written about the same trip. The Times focused on the criticism and protests about sex abuse cases within the Church, as well as other topics on which the Church is deviating from secular society:
"The pope is the leader of a church of about 1.2 billion followers worldwide, but its base in aging, socially liberal Europe has been eroding. The child sexual-abuse scandal that enveloped the church here and around Europe last year has continued to smolder, a slow-moving crisis of confidence and credibility, the article reads.
Meanwhile, the article by Catholic News Agency does mention criticism about sex abuse cases, but it includes the pope’s response:
“The Pope also fielded questions from the media on the issue of clerical abuse, suggesting that he understood why some victims may be tempted to say ‘this is not my church anymore.’ But he explained that Church is an institution which catches both ‘good and bad fish.’
The majority of the CNA article, though, was about his speech — about living freely and coexisting with others.

In a way, both approaches seem appropriate. It would be kind of silly to talk about the pope’s journey and not mention that people were protesting. But it also seems unfair to not actually talk about what the pope said. But I guess the point is that most non-Catholics only care about the Church when it does or says something negative; otherwise, they’re not really affected by it. So maybe that’s the root of the problem.

But I looked at another pair of articles from January 20, and they were slightly more similar in their coverage. The stories were about the Obama administration’s decision to require some religiously affiliated organizations to include contraception in their health coverage. Exemptions were only offered for organizations explicitly teaching religious beliefs and serving mainly those who are members of that faith.

The Washington Post quoted two Catholic leaders and then presented the viewpoint of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, as well as a Democratic senator. The focus of the Post’s story was on how the administration was offering religiously affiliated organizations another year before they had to comply. Their headline was “Obama administration gives groups more time to comply with birth control rule.”

Meanwhile, the CNA story had the headline, “Obama administration refuses to change contraception mandate.” It started its story with Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ position and then included comment from many different Catholic sources.

I found it telling that the Post’s story started with the Catholic perspective and ended with the Democratic perspective, whereas CNA did the opposite. Stories often present the perspective to be expounded upon first — the stimulus — and then give details arguing for or against that perspective — the potential explanations for how people should react.

You could say that both sides are biased, but I think it’s more of a question of framing. As I implied before, CNA and other secular new outlets have different audiences. CNA tells Catholics what they want to know, and the Post tells everyone else (well, and Catholics too) what they want to know. What is especially telling is the kind of comments that both stories got. On the top of the comments section for the Post story, someone said:
“Is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops aware that 98% of Catholic women use birth control? Maybe in their all male bizarro world it's not necessary. But out here in the real world, people choose to plan their families and space out their children…”
But a comment on the CNA story took an entirely different position:
“And History begins to repeat itself as The Persecution rears its ugly head again. The first quarter of the 1900s saw the vicious persecution of Catholics in Mexico. Will the first quarter of this century see the vicious persecution of Catholics in the United States in similar fashion?”
So, CNA writes for a Catholic audience, while The New York Times and The Washington Post write for a secular audience. Is that the difference? Both sides cover each other unfairly because they aren’t covering the other perspective? Or do both sides merely frame their stories differently? Ultimately, I think journalists in general could do a better job of explaining complicated positions. The Post could include maybe a sentence or two about why the Church opposes birth control, and CNA could cite why the Obama administration supports it. CNA needs to remember that Catholics already have their beliefs and will benefit from hearing outside opinions too. But if journalists don’t bother understanding the Church’s perspective, that’s just laziness.
Click here to contact Victoria Guida. 

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