A few days ago, Hillary wrote a great blog post offering advice to secular journalists covering the upcoming conclave.
I’d like to add my own thoughts, since this is a topic I find particularly troubling.
So, all you reporters preparing to cover the papal election next week, here’s one more simple but important tip:
1). Do your homework.
As a religious reporter who has covered Church events alongside secular journalists, I am shocked at the displays of ignorance I see on a regular basis. I realize that the Catholic Church – steeped in 2000 years of rich and complex tradition and teaching – can be confusing for non-Catholics. But come on. If you are a journalist, it is your job to develop a working knowledge of the topic you are covering.
If I were assigned to cover a rugby championship, the first step would be acknowledging that my actual knowledge of rugby is very limited. Sure, I’ve seen a few games, and I have some vague idea of what’s happening on the field, but that is not enough to write an accurate, high-quality story. I would need to read up on the sport to understand the terminology and the rules, to be able to see the game from the perspective of a player, coach or dedicated fan. Even though I’m not a rugby insider, I need to be able to think like one to write a thorough story that captures the drama of the game.
This is a basic principle of journalism, but sadly, few reporters on the religious beat think that it applies to them. They think their outsider understanding of the Catholic Church as some weird outdated cult is enough, and they skip the research on how the Church works, completely failing to come to an understanding of how the Catholic Church actually views the Catholic Church.
Then, they butcher the story. They use terminology drawn from politics, as if the Catholic Church were a democracy and the conclave were an international campaign. They oversimplify points that are inherently complex, and they complicate points that are really quite simple. They quote dissenting Catholics as if they were Church authorities (When’s the last time you quoted a disgruntled expatriate on what it means to be an American?).
The saddest part, in my mind, is that so many of the reporting mistakes I see in the secular media could be avoided if journalists just did their homework.
There are plenty of great resources out there.
Furthermore, the U.S. bishops have a “What We Believe” website with sidebar links to the Catechism (a handy resource that compiles Church teaching), as well as frequently asked questions about Catholic social teaching, moral issues and human sexuality.
So please, if you’re going to be covering the conclave next week, use this time now to do a little background reading on what the Catholic Church is all about. It’s part of giving fair, accurate and honest coverage, and it’s the right thing to do.