Bridging the gap between the press and the Church

Last week at the National Catholic Reporter, John Allen Jr. took aim at the “religious illiteracy” that still reigns among his fellow journalists (h/t Get Religion):

On Tuesday a piece in the U.K.-based Telegraph carried the following headline: “Muslims will become majority in Europe, senior Vatican official warns.” An alarmist subhead added: “European Christians must have more children or face the prospect of the continent becoming Islamized, a senior Vatican official has said.”. . .

Then I drilled down into the article, and discovered that the “senior Vatican official” is an 81-year-old Italian priest named Fr. Pierro Gheddo, who in reality holds no Vatican position whatsoever. (In the index to the Annuario, where the names of Vatican personnel appear, he’s not there.) Gheddo is a member of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions, a religious order founded to support the overseas missions of the Milan archdiocese, but that no more makes him a Vatican official than being a Jesuit or Dominican makes one pope. . . .

In other words, this is a bit like the Washington Post taking a comment from a retired analyst from the Brookings Institute, who has no job at the White House and who couldn’t even get into the building without permission, and trying to pass it off as coming from a “senior administration official.”

It’s hard to tell whether this was an honest mistake, or a deliberate act of “sexing up” a story. In any event, it was dangerous — whenever you stoke the clash of civilizations, you’re playing with fire.

The problem, Allen points out, is that “these instances illustrate . . . a degree of sloppiness and imprecision [that] is routine when it comes to religion that wouldn’t fly elsewhere.” 

In an attempt to meet the press where they are, then, the UK Papal Visit team released “guidance notes” on the events for journalists who might not be familiar with Catholic terms and ideas. The UK Mail and others poked fun at the “glossary” — which does have a few cringe-worthy comparisons, to be sure — but the American Papist has a copy of the full packet, which includes the kind of information any journalist covering the Church should know. Distributing a packet like this would seem to be a smart move in helping the press understand and report on events more clearly.

The question, of course, is how much the secular press will care to learn from it. In the case of the UK Mail, at any rate, the answer appears to be “not much.”

Margaret Cabaniss

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Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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