VATICAN CITY, MAY 14, 2005 (Zenit.org).- One of the first public acts of Benedict XVI was an address to representatives of the media in Rome on April 23. After thanking them for all their efforts in covering the death of John Paul II and the subsequent conclave the Pope noted: “The possibilities opened up for us by modern means of social communication are indeed marvelous and extraordinary!”
The Pontiff expressed his desire to continue the “fruitful dialogue” with the media begun by John Paul II. But Benedict XVI also had some recommendations to make for those working in communications.
Pointing out that the instruments of social communication should contribute to the common good, he suggested that their influence on the conscience and mentality of individuals also needs to be considered. The Pope recommended that those who work in this field take into account their ethical responsibility, “especially regarding the sincere search for truth and protection of the centrality and dignity of the person.”
The Pope returned to the theme of the media last Sunday, when the Church marked World Communications Day. In his message read prior to the Regina Caeli, Benedict XVI once more noted the great power the media has, and he also pointed out the need to use this potential in a responsible way.
Media’s coverage of religion
A study published in the United States shortly before John Paul II’s death noted some defects in how the media covered religious themes during the preceding months. “Religion on TV News: Secular Orthodoxy Still Reigns,” was published by the Media Research Center March 28.
Tim Graham and Ken Shepherd, the authors of the publication, analyzed the religion news stories on ABC, CBS and NBC from March 1, 2004 through Feb. 28, 2005. There were 648 religion news stories in this period, down from 705 the previous year. But a large part of the material came in the last month, due to the worsening of John Paul II’s health.
The Catholic Church received the most coverage among faiths, noted the study. But, the authors added, reporters approached religious issues from a very secular and political perspective, particularly on the issue of whether presidential candidate John Kerry would be denied communion due to his pro-abortion position. According to Graham and Shepherd the TV reports on this issue not only failed to adequately explain Church rules governing the Eucharist, but they misquoted bishops on the issue.
Another point raised in the study was that TV news often ignored subjects that the Religion Newswriters Association found were the top stories of the year. For example, the networks barely touched the church trials of two lesbian Methodist ministers. And only NBC noticed the success of some Christian ministers in reaching the top of lists of best-selling books.
The report made some recommendations on how the media could improve how they covered religion. To begin with, TV channels need to hire religion reporters. Currently none of the three networks analyzed have a religion specialist.
In addition, Graham and Shepherd recommended that the stories not approach the themes from an exclusively secular or political angle. And they also pointed out that when the TV programs interview religion experts they should be more balanced in their selection, instead of just picking those who espouse liberal ideas.
Criticism of British media
In Britain this week, BBC’s coverage of religion was put under internal review. There have been two recent reports into the quality of its media coverage, along with data showing that the hours dedicated to religion by BBC 1 declined last year, the station reported last Monday.
A panel headed by BBC director general Mark Thompson and its board of governors will now examine the issue. According to Monday’s article, a recent report by an independent panel found that some faith groups expressed concern about “occasional negative and inaccurate coverage” which showed an “ignorance of key issues.” As well, some felt that religious characters were portrayed in a stereotypical way in some of the drama programs.
Also on Monday the director of the Catholic Media Office Peter Kearney issued a statement criticizing the failure by the British regulatory body, Ofcom, to condemn a BBC radio program broadcast Nov. 6. The football phone-in program, Kearny explained, read out a message that showed “a profane and disrespectful reference to the Eucharist.”
Criticism also came from the Anglican Church, reported the UK newspaper the Guardian March 28. The Anglican bishop of Norwich, Graham James, who heads a multi-faith committee set up to guide the BBC, said that some recent shows were offensive to Christians.
The January broadcast of the program, “Jerry Springer – The Opera,” drew 50,000 complaints. And the bishop said that the program “The Vicar of Dibley,” was even more offensive still than the Springer transmission.
Bishop James told the Guardian that said that a “western liberal secular mindset” dominated the British media in general when it comes to covering religion. He also said that the media needs to improve the quality of its programs. “Religion is one of the great phenomena of the world for millions and millions, and yet people represent religious broadcasting as dull,” said the Anglican prelate. The Guardian also noted that another TV broadcaster, ITV, has recently halved its religious output.
Nonetheless, not all the news is negative. A press release issued May 3 by the Catholic Church praised a three-part series to be broadcast on BBC 2, called “The Monastery.” Filmed at Worth Abbey in West Sussex, the program follows the story of five men who lived alongside 22 Catholic monks. During their 40 days at the monastery, the men tried to follow the Benedictine rule.
According to an article, April 30 in the Telegraph, one of the participants, Tony Burke, entered the stay as an atheist, but by the end became a believer and gave up his job producing trailers for a sex chat line after having what he described as a “religious experience.”
Another member of the group, Peter Gruffydd, reportedly regained his faith that he had rejected in his youth. And Nick Buxton, a Cambridge undergraduate, came closer to taking the decision to become an Anglican priest.
Getting the message across
In an interview published Nov. 30 by the UK Financial Times, Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, commented that: “One of the greatest challenges today is to get our message into the mainstream media.”
He also noted that in the UK and other markets the switch to an all-digital broadcasting system, where most viewers will have access to many more channels, and content rules will probably be relaxed, which will in all likelihood make it more difficult for the established churches to get their message across. At the same time, Archbishop Foley said that the Catholic Church needs to manage and use the media more professionally.
In his message last Sunday the Pope commented that the media “can favor reciprocal knowledge and dialogue or, on the contrary, fuel prejudice and contempt among individuals and peoples; they can contribute to spread peace or to foment violence.” Benedict XVI reminded the media of the need to respect the common good and human dignity, and to play a part in bringing down “the walls of hostility that still divide humanity.” It is a task that still requires much work, as recent events demonstrate.