Is No News Good News? Looking for the Scoop on the Catholic Church? You May Not Find It in Your Diocesan Newspaper. Too Many Photos of Bishops and Not Enough Analysis Have Weakened the Catholic Press. but Journalists Could Help Restore Credibility in the Church-If Given the Chance

By Schroth, Raymond A. | U.S. Catholic, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Is No News Good News? Looking for the Scoop on the Catholic Church? You May Not Find It in Your Diocesan Newspaper. Too Many Photos of Bishops and Not Enough Analysis Have Weakened the Catholic Press. but Journalists Could Help Restore Credibility in the Church-If Given the Chance


Schroth, Raymond A., U.S. Catholic


THERE'S AN OLD STORY ABOUT THE HEADLINE IN A Catholic paper in the Midwest: "Flood wipes out whole town. No Catholics drown!"

But that was in the 1950s, pre-Vatican II American church--ghetto-minded, turned in upon itself. All that has changed, right?

Well ... yes and no. For dramatic evidence of change, sit down and work your way through one to three copies each of 26 diocesan papers from all over the country, most from the first weeks of January 2005. That's what I did, and here's what I found:

Nearly every front page features coverage of the devastation of the tsunami in Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. The most frequently reprinted story is the Catholic News Service (CNS) feature asking why God permits such suffering to occur. The "local Catholic angles" are pictures of corpses in a Catholic center, a nun shoveling rubble, and the address where Catholics could send money for relief.

Yet many of the old limitations remain: the dominance of the publisher/bishop and priest and nun news items; the conservative theology; the shortage of challenging intellectual meat, book reviews, and cultural criticism. So it makes sense to ask whether, in these years when the credibility of the American Catholic Church is under attack as never before, the church is using the media--TV, radio, film, the Internet, and particularly the potential of the diocesan paper--as effectively as it can.

But first perhaps we should ask what the Catholic press is for. The standard journalism texts say that the media exist to inform, to persuade, and to entertain.

In the January 14 edition of the St. Louis Review, Archbishop Raymond L. Burke calls the paper his instrument in teaching the faithful. It is to inform, inspire, and promote Catholic culture. In the venerable Brooklyn Tablet, editor Ed Wilkenson quotes Archbishop John P. Foley: The Catholic newspapers form community, "make us realize we are not alone in practicing our faith."

Diocesan papers emerged as one of the many parallel institutions the church created because Catholics saw themselves as excluded from the dominant culture. But more and more, beginning with the Second Vatican Council and now with the recent sex scandals, Catholics find out what is really going on not from the diocesan papers but from Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe. Why? Because the institutional church is not an open society. The hierarchy does not really thrive, as they see it, from openness and free exchange of ideas. And this is their undoing.

CATHOLIC PAPERS DO STRUGGLE TO INFORM, TO BE THE community glue. Witness the countless photos of groups lined up smiling with the bishop, the soccer teams, meetings and award dinners and fund-raisers, the jubilees. They highlight the nun who blesses high school football players before their games, the four new postulants of a shrinking religious order, the seminarians on their knees, the priests who have been assigned, reassigned, made monsignor, made pastor, retired, and buried. But is this the best use of space in a 10-page weekly or fat monthly tabloid when the world is on fire?

To some degree last January's "news" agenda was set by Rome: emphasize the Real Presence in the Eucharist and promote vocations. These are certainly essential to the church, but they challenge the journalist to deal with them with some originality. More recent theology emphasizes the social role of the Eucharist and the presence of Christ in the community. But most papers featured the story of the special monstrance blessed by Pope John Paul II that toured the United States this year and was featured in services of eucharistic adoration.

Several papers made an effort to promote vocations. The Trenton Monitor profiled the diocese's 24 seminarians, one of whom is a kickboxer; the Wilmington Dialog wrote up a local priest, deacon, and nun; and the Milwaukee Catholic Herald heralded a 320-pound, 6-foot-5 football player who turned down a pro career because he got a better offer from God. …

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Is No News Good News? Looking for the Scoop on the Catholic Church? You May Not Find It in Your Diocesan Newspaper. Too Many Photos of Bishops and Not Enough Analysis Have Weakened the Catholic Press. but Journalists Could Help Restore Credibility in the Church-If Given the Chance
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