PORTLAND, Ore. — Catholic journalists face a twofold lack of trust as reporters who cover the Church, a Catholic theologian reminded them July 6 at the annual Catholic Media Conference in Portland.
He urged them to find a way forward that brings Catholics together and also reaches out to the public at large with nuanced, not simply reactive, reporting and by providing necessary context, or the bigger picture, to their readers and viewers.
Put another way: “Journalists and communicators have a role to play here, to let the eucharistic mystery of the Church manifest itself for the life of the world,” said Timothy O’Malley, director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.
“The Church is experiencing a crisis related to communications,” he said during his keynote address, adding that it can’t be solved by a new technique such as a better way to use Twitter or TikTok.
It’s bigger than that because, he said, so many people think that “the Church, along with a variety of other institutions, is no longer worth listening to.”
O’Malley has seen this particularly in his work with college students, who he said for the most part have been “marginally Catholic to begin with.” He added that many also had a “benign indifference” to recent reports of clergy sexual abuse, “not because they were apathetic about sexual abuse” but because they just “didn’t care that much about the Church.”
And the double punch here is that he said today’s college students are “basically apathetic toward journalism too.”
It’s not just young people either. O’Malley reminded the crowd of Catholic reporters, editors and diocesan communicators that a recent Reuters report showed that the United States has “the lowest trust in media among 46 countries” — with only 29% of Americans trusting it.
Before any of the group in the Portland hotel ballroom walked out in despair, the theologian pointed out another discouraging observation.
“With the Church, it’s even worse,” he said, noting that Catholics have been told that the Church is “a eucharistic communion manifesting the love of the triune God” but instead what Catholics often see is “endless conflicts, hypocrisy, bishops fighting with one another, the confusion of the Gospel with political ideology and the replacement of serious thought with propaganda.”
Instead of turning away from what they are up against, the group, O’Malley urged, should address these challenges head-on, saying the future of Catholic journalism requires it.
A first step is to “understand a bit more about the crisis of authority that is infecting Church,” which he said some blame on years of poor catechism while others say the problem is that Church leaders have failed to adapt to the modern world.
As he sees it, both of these criticisms fall short.
So how can Catholic media respond?
O’Malley told the group they had likely already come up with some solutions about telling the story of the Church in a new light or using best media strategies to potentially rebuild trust in the institutional Church, ideas he said were good, but not enough.
He said Catholic journalists should address the overall distrust of the media by being sure to provide something different: being bias free and also offering nuances with something “more akin to contemplation.”