One of the biggest challenges working in Catholic communications is overcoming hostility towards (and from) secular media. We can’t really live without them, but it is always tempting to act as if we can.
I have worked in Catholic media for 23 years and before that for secular newspapers for 15 years. I have seen both sides of that fence. And I continue to maintain a strong network of friends in secular media.
Over those years, I have seen wonderful examples of close collaboration to serve greater understanding among a broad population of all things Catholic. I recall the amazing work done by the CBC and CTV during Pope John Paul II’s funeral and World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto. I was only one of many Catholic journalists who worked side-by-side with secular colleagues to ensure their coverage was fair, accurate and in-depth.
I can also recall numerous instances of overt hostility from secular journalists who saw the Catholic Church as a real-life example of the Evil Empire. The scale of their ignorance about the real nature of faith and the Church was breathtaking. I have handled questions from journalists who clearly had no idea of what a bishop was, what power a Pope really has, and what Catholics really believe about evolution (we’re officially OK with it, by the way).
The many bad experiences have often led Church leaders to prefer having a root canal to doing an interview with a secular journalist. In more cases than I care to mention, Church leaders have often decided to not talk to secular journalists at all.
This is seriously irresponsible. By abandoning the field of communications to a broader world, we create an information vacuum. Secular journalists will get their information from somewhere and, if we’re not in the game, we have no control over the quality and dependability of that information. Also, if we decide to limit our communications effort to our own circle of committed Catholics, we lose out on the opportunity to fulfill our mission of evangelization.
Recent popes, especially since John Paul II and ably succeeded by Pope Francis, have shown what it means to engage an entire world in conversation. Francis, in particular, has been amazingly fearless in his willingness to engage journalists without excessive scripting of his message or control of the messenger. He talks to non-religious journalists as if he enjoys it. I suspect he does.
Recently in Canada, I saw some hope that Canadian bishops are beginning to understand the need to engage individually with journalists and not leave all the messaging to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. At least a dozen bishops have joined about 80 religious leaders from many faiths to challenge the Liberal government on changes to its Summer Jobs Program that have, effectively, prevented many faith organizations from participating. Each of them gave a local voice to the concerns of the Catholic community, amplifying and reinforcing the message provided by the CCCB.
Local journalists want to interview local church leaders. That’s only natural and beneficial for the Church. We need to help them do their job. It’s not always fun, but it comes with the territory.