A Few Thoughts on Francis and Journalistic Professionalism
I’m a blogger, not a journalist, so you’ll have to forgive me if my observations seem a little off base, but my older brother has a degree in journalism and has even been a nationally published essayist and a news roundtable commentator. I have a sense from him how journalism works, and just a smidgen of my own cynical observations on the matter.
As a teacher, I always get inevitable questions about news reports on the pope, whether he will change this or that doctrine, what he meant by that comment he gave off-hand to a group of reporters, etc. I tell my students every time that what must go on in newsrooms (and among documentary production teams, but that’s another article) is something like this:
Actual Situation: The Pope gives an Angelus on the Real Presence and notes that Jesus’ spiritual presence in the Scriptures is not a “real presence.”
“Hey, the pope just declared something important! It’s gotta be a new dogma or something. Does anyone know why this is important?!”
“I dunno. What does it meeeeeeeeeaaann?”
“Who’s Catholic? Is there a Catholic in the house?!”
“Ummm, I went to Catholic school.”
“Until 3rd grade, but I mean, how hard can theology be? They teach it to little kids.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Religious people are morons. I’m sure you don’t need a degree or at least years of personal study or anything to comment intelligently on this.”
That afternoon’s headline: Jesus “Not Real,” Declares Pope
My brother texted me yesterday to ask what I thought of the media’s most recent misreading of Francis. I responded with my characteristic snark:
I don’t know what’s worse, that we expect high reading comprehension and critical thinking skills from an American public that spends more time learning English from lolcats than Hooked on Phonics or that we expect journalistic professionalism from newsrooms full of self-described Catholics whose last foray into catechetical formation came at the hands of Jesuits during the Pauline papacy. The arrogance of journalists knows no bounds, but what is truly striking is the insult implicit in the assumptions they must be making about my field, namely, that because religious flyover-country bumpkins are unevolved, unenlightened, moronic simpletons, grasping religion must be a matter as simple as basic arithmetic, requiring not even the most basic level of research, nuance, or experience, and that any idiot with a badge from the press corps can comment without further credentials on the full range of all things Catholic. Francis is misunderstood because they do not care to understand him, and they will be all too happy to ride along with the hipster pope in his ’84 Renault with the windows down as long as the radio blasts sweet Latino music and the breeze of aggiornamento blows through their hair, until at last they notice that he has been staying well to the right side of the road, at which point they will turn on him with disbelief and dismay, demanding the keys as if from a drunkard who’s stolen the wheel and suddenly changed course. Then they will hate him and call him a sellout and wonder, in a thousand conspiracy theories, who pulled the strings, completely unaware that the pope is entirely free, his own man and God’s, and that they themselves are tied up in their own diabolical harnesses.
America’s newsrooms have got to get serious about religious reporting. For all the mockery they make of religious folks – calling us all under a vapid assumption “the religious right” – they must realize that when reporting on us, they have to put themselves in our shoes and try to understand us. I know why they find that uncomfortable. To them, thinking like us must seem painful, our brains being so small as they are, though I suppose small might be preferable to the vacuous skull of a reporter at the New York Times, and they are certainly in no hurry to understand our thought, lest they find themselves – the shame! – in uneasy agreement. Nevertheless, journalistic integrity demands some basic level of trying to comprehend your subject, and rarely has the American media shown any willingness to do this.
To America’s editors: I beg of you, please, PLEASE put on your payroll some Catholic bloggers – degreed in theology, preferably, or better, in theology and catechetics, as we catechists are trained in how to present theology. We don’t bite and we’d be more than happy to pick over your religion articles for erroneous conclusions. We’re going to do it anyway. You might as well have us correct you before your copy goes to print.