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The challenges of Catholic media

Q: Archbishop J, What are the challenges facing Catholic News?

This month Catholic News celebrates 127 years of faithful, uninterrupted journalism. Congratulations to all who work at Catholic Media Services Ltd (CAMSEL). Congratulations to all past editors of the newspaper. You took the baton and ran your leg well, so now Raymond Syms can follow through.

Rapid transformations

In 1892 when Catholic News began, the world of media was very different. Print dominated as the truest expression of communications. This is no longer true.

With the emergence of the personal computer in the 70s, the Internet in the late 80s and the iPhone in 2007 we have seen a rapid transformation in media. This has challenged the business of all newspapers. Going digital is, therefore, not an optional extra; it is at the core of survival.

In May 1997, Catholic News launched a website. Considering this was just about a decade after the Internet became publicly available, Catholic News was an early adopter.

In 2008 Catholic News gave birth to CAMSEL, an organisation with a very different focus and vision. This signalled the shift from print to digital, from newspaper to multiple digital platforms, from print to communications. We moved from being a newspaper to a multi-platform media organisation.

All newspapers are facing serious challenges. The decline in readership means a decline in the number of people who purchase a paper, and thus a drop in revenue.

Many people now get their news through multiple media sources. The days of print are over. What we know is the last 127 years is not a forecast for the next 127. In this digital age, multiple platforms are necessary to proclaim the Good News. The scenario has led to the attention economy: Who grabs attention builds a business.

Lessons of History

In the feature documentary on the Catholic News, ‘In Pursuit of Truth’, Bridget Brereton, Professor Emerita of History, UWI, St Augustine, highlighted many significant achievements of the newspaper.

Many times Catholic News was on the right side of history, in its editorial policy and stance. In the 70s and 90s the paper was a credible source of journalistic engagement. Its editorials saw past the trivial and the tensions within the society, and into the heart of the matter. It delved deeply and gave insight to society.

At other times the Catholic News was on the wrong side of history, as it addressed the Butler Riots and other national events during colonial rule. This is both intriguing and humbling—each episode offering moments of great learning.

We see events through many lenses. There is no unfiltered way. All social structures and ideologies work like actors in the drama of history. They act on us.

The Church got the Butler riots wrong, not because of its doctrine, but because the lens of colonialism was the instrument used to evaluate the conflict. And so, the conclusions were wrong.

The challenge of history is real. How do we guarantee the gospel is the only lens by which we evaluate the current social tensions in Church and society? This is the most significant challenge of Catholic media. Catholic communications, because it serves the Kingdom and the common good, has to get its facts straight and ensure its stories are based on truth.

A higher standard

The Catholic journalist is called to a higher standard—more probing, more insightful than others who need to pander to their constituencies, advertisers and shareholders.

The Catholic journalist, to be truly Catholic, must penetrate behind the story to reveal the deeper conflicts between Church and society that are in need of resolution. Cheap sensation and partisan interest should never be part of Catholic media.

The gospel is not a partisan interest. It is a perspective that reads and challenges other perspectives. It is the power of God that brings salvation (Rom 1:16).

The Vatican document, Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture #4, says:

For the Church, evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new… It is a question not only of preaching the Gospel in ever wider geographic areas or to ever greater numbers of people, but also of affecting and as it were upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, mankind’s criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation.

The greatest challenge facing Catholic media today is not relevancy or market; it is whether they are Catholic enough, whether their reference points are the gospels’ value system.

This means that the practitioners need be steeped in the Church, its mission and its deep reflection on humanity. In the digital age, the great temptation is to take the route of sensationalism to attract views; to promote unchecked sources and opinions that do not serve the gospel and, ultimately, to mirror secular trends where ideology or partisan perspective filters the message.

We have become apologetic for being Catholic. This is a great threat to the future of Catholic media. The capacity to take a principled stance, to reflect consistently on humanity and on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable … the excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8) is at the very depth of our tradition.

Key Message: Catholic media’s mandate is to be steeped in the Catholic tradition and the best journalistic traditions, thus offering hope through truth.

Action Step: Challenge yourself to read the Catholic News regularly. It is the cheapest way to do ongoing formation in the Catholic tradition. Offer feedback: participate in the current survey (click here)

Scripture Passage: Philippians 4:4–8.