Lending a Hand to the Press

A comment on: Misreporting Religion

There is no doubt that many secular reporters and editors are ignorant of religion in general and Catholicism in particular. One of the best examples was on the front page of the New York Times during Pope John Paul II’s lying-in-state.

It referred to his pastoral staff as a «crow’s ear» rather than a crosier.

Amy Wellborn’s suggestion that editors see that reporters get better education on religion seems to assume that editors know such an education is to be found. They haven’t a clue, and generally speaking, they have many other things to worry about that seem more pressing. Most journalism schools may have some courses on specialty reporting, but precious few, if any, offer anything on religion reporting. Newspapers rely on reporters to have general reporting and feature writing experience and assign them where they deem them most needed.

When I began my 23 years as religion writer for the San Antonio Express-News in September 1984, I was told only, «do the best you can.» Actually, I did rather well, mostly because I am a lifelong Catholic interested in religion and knowledgeable about many faiths and denominations. But I also did a lot of on-the-job learning, which is pretty much the rule in the business. This doesn’t excuse shoddy reporting or indifference to standards of objectivity, and it doesn’t hold much promise of improvement in the foreseeable future.

But I went into the religion beat with good will and a desire for balance and fairness. I soon discovered that Baptists and Catholics widely felt the news media, if not actively out to embarrass people of faith, at the very least didn’t care much about whether they got it right.

I actually received a statewide award from the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1989 for the balance and fairness of my coverage of religion in San Antonio (after the Southern Baptist Convention had met here in 1988), but in the meantime, I learned that the Baptists didn’t just complain about bad reporting, they cheerfully and consistently showed positive interest in helping reporters. They went to great lengths to help non-Baptist reporters covering their conventions to understand the significance of actions taken and to report them accurately by sharing articles written by the staff reporters of the Baptist Press and Associated Baptist Press on the same events. That helped a lot of reporters improve their understanding of the Baptist milieu. I rarely saw anything like this from the Catholic bishops’ media people or their counterparts in other national denominational communications offices.

J. Michael Parker

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Director of Communications
Oblate School of Theology
(also freelance reporter for Today’s Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Antonio)

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