Slow News in a Fast News World

Interview With Communications Professor Father La Porte

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By Andrea Kirk Assaf

ROME, MAY 10, 2010 ( Faced with scandal, a mainstream culture that rejects Catholic values, and a slow-working internal Church structure that struggles to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle, how should Church communicators approach their tasks?

Father José María La Porte, a professor of Social Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, organized a major conference for Church communicators on the theme “Identity and Dialogue,” which was held earlier this month in Rome

ZENIT asked him about his opening presentation at the conference, in which he pitched several proposals for a new communications strategy.

ZENIT: In your presentation you made a distinction between “fast food news” versus “slow food news.” Could you expand on that?

Father La Porte: Now in a world in which everyone needs more and more information, we are rediscovering time because we are spending so much time in getting news, but we do not know exactly what is going on. “Fast food news” is useful for some things — this distinction is based on the way facts are presented and the way they are interpreted by people. If you want to go to fast food news, you need something quick, fast, topics that are not complicated, and everything in one headline. The problem is that reality is complex, especially the global reality.

There is a temptation to react in a uniform way to news, and that is fast food news. This is a pity for journalists because then they become just sound-byte makers, and sometimes headlines are given by people other than those who have written the news. Journalists deserve more respect for the work they do than this.

I think that “slow food news” will help in the rediscovery of the essence of the journalist, and of journalism, because people want to know what is going on, why things are happening, the essential questions, and they are discovering that many media are offering just pills of news, but not the real essence of what is going on. In the case of the Church, we need to offer slow food news. Something which is rich in vitamins from the intellectual point of view, and which helps people to think, to form free opinions, to analyze. Fast food news could help for some situations, but not for values or topics that require much more in-depth analysis.

I think that the real problem of journalism now is not the Internet; the real problem of journalism now is quality. This is one reason why people are rediscovering quality through blogs. Journalists can be  a little upset with some blogs because, as they say, what are blogs offering that the mainstream media are not? They are offering analysis, opinion, without the fear of saying “this is an opinion.” And I think the fact that blogs are attracting such a big audience is a sign of this quality because some of those blogs are not very well designed, but rather they posses quality of information.

ZENIT: How do you offer slow food news when the current public demand is for an instant reaction, or when there is a scandal and the media want a press conference right away?

Father La Porte: Following this analogy, fast food news is like a person who wants to eat at anytime that person is hungry. And this makes the person fat. Fast food news makes the intellect fat with banal, unnecessary information, and it complicates the way we see reality because you come to think that those things are actually priorities in the news.

When there is a scandal, the Church needs to talk, needs to respond, and it is true that in that case, the speed in responding is important, and the Church communication system needs to adapt to that. But along with that rapid response they need to provide links to the more substantial documents explaining what the Church is doing, in order for people to get slow food news. It is important that we think about the consumers of slow food news, and we need to make sure that the fast news, the quick headlines, call you to go in-depth and receive more information. I offer you now fast food because it is what you need now, but I also say that I will not offer this every day all the time … the next time you look into a story go and find more in-depth information.

ZENIT: Are you referring to something such as the new blog of the Vatican Information Service?

Father La Porte: This is a good example. Or, for example, you answer a specific accusation but you also give documentation on what the Church is doing, the number of priests who have been accused, the main things the Church is doing, the relationship with the justice system, and the essence of what is going on. You answer, and if the information is wrong, you need to say so quickly, and then you need to explain your position, and this requires documentation, it requires slow food information.

In the pedophilia cases for example, we are talking about victims, but we are also talking about sexuality. We have the impression that this society that is accusing the Church and some of the priests, is the same society that does not pay as much attention to those issues when they happen in other social contexts. Of course, even one case will be more than enough for the Church, but it is interesting to see that the standard, or the way information is presented, is sometimes a double standard.  

ZENIT: So you could even say that during the sex abuse scandal, Church communicators should speak about the Church’s teachings regarding sexuality, which explain why sexual abuse is such a grave sin?

Father La Porte: Yes, why are people so upset that some priests have been found guilty of these crimes? Because they know the Church’s teachings on sexuality. It is incongruent that a pastor has behaved so immorally. There is a victim, there is a minor — someone who needs to be protected. If you ignore the problem because you think you need to protect the good name of the Church you are cheating because the good of the Church starts with the good of the people, each one is an image of God. There is something wrong when you focus your communications on maintaining a good reputation. We are not afraid of receiving criticism because critics help you know what your mistakes are.

ZENIT: Do you think the scandal has been an opportunity to teach about the dignity of the human person, the role of the priest, and other related themes?

Father La Porte: Yes, and also to see how the Church is responding because several bishops have resigned. If there is an institution that is really answering the problem, it is the Catholic Church. Maybe we, the members of the Church, could have answered better, of course, we are not denying that there have been mistakes. It is a moment of purification, to reshape and to re-propose the figure of the priest, so I think that this being the year of priesthood is not just a coincidence. And all what is happening is reminding us that the figure of the priest needs high moral standards.  

ZENIT: Your strategic proposal was created for Church communicators. Was it done in direct response to the sexual abuse scandal, or are they principles that are always needed?  

Father La Porte: It is something in general for the Church, because I think that, God willing, all the sexual abuse scandals will pass, God willing, all the victims will be helped. I think that we cannot create a long-term strategy with just a temporal aspect that will pass in several months or a year. We need to think about a strategic proposal; We have to create a map of the values that are countercurrent and those that are common in contemporary society — such as charity, volunteering, the beauty of the liturgy — and then find the right time to propose them, because it is not good to propose a whole new strategy around values that are against society.  

Everyone knows what the position of the Church is about euthanasia, everyone knows what the position of the Church is about abortion and so forth, and that creates polemic
s, but you cannot avoid polemics if your message is clear. That can help the message arrive.

At the same time, I think talking about those commonly accepted values help people to understand that there is something more; If I were to create a map of what those values are and how I want to propose them, I would see, for example, that the year 2011 is the year of volunteerism (according to the United Nations), so this will be a good opportunity to present the Church’s teachings and experience with this, because if there is any institution that does a lot of volunteering, it is the Church.

ZENIT: What do you mean by strategy?

Father La Porte: When I speak of strategy, I speak about different elements. Identity is the starting point: you need a specific identity in order to participate in a public dialogue, you need to feed slow food information with documentation and ideas. When you offer data, and documents and facts, people respond, and are able to create an opinion in their communities.

The second point is to translate the pastoral priorities of your institution in communication, and by that I mean that if the priority of a diocese is the World Youth Day, how should I translate World Youth Day to the diocese from the communication point of view? What does it mean to volunteer? How could I propose volunteering to all the Catholic schools? There are many opportunities.

The third point is thinking how to propose elements that could become interesting news for the media.

Another point is preparing experts to help with translations. For example, there was a study in Spain about the relationship between a pregnant mother and her baby, and the message of this study could be translated into images and sounds.

ZENIT: What will you do with your communications proposal after the conference?

Father La Porte: The idea is that the 250 Church communicators at this conference from all over the world can adopt and adapt the principles to their own situation because one country can be very different from another. My idea is that these proposals could be used as a framework — each communicator for the Church can ask him or herself, what are the principles from which I can begin my communications strategy?

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