“Clearly, confidently, joyfully”: 7 rules for journalists

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“Here is a man who pulls no punches”, the person next to me said. We sat in the auditorium of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, together with dozens of other participants. As we watched the big American walk up to the microphone flashing his trademark smile I must admit, I was sceptical: was Cardinal Timothy Dolan really going to call the proverbial spade a spade whilst wading into the complexities of Catholic journalism, whatever that is?
Three sentences into the Archbishop of New York’s presentation, however, I was impressed. This man is not just a straight shooter. He is highly intelligent and funny, passionate with the love of Jesus Christ. Over the next three days of the seminar  “Church Communications: Creative Strategies for Promoting Cultural Change“, speakers from around the world kept coming back to his points in their presentations – myself included (more on my own talk in a separate post this week).
So what did the Archbishop say? I jotted down the following observations the Cardinal offered – these are more or less verbatim what his Eminence had to say:
  1. We need a real sense of professionalism – how we say something is just as important as what we say. Communication continues the incarnation: The word made flesh. Others are more intentional and professional than we are.
  2. We are never afraid to tell the truth. Even if we are dealing with bad news. Utter honesty and transparency is expected. people want to hear it first from us. Not from the media. Be proactive in the truth.jpii always said  be not afraid . We should be neither. Church is never afraid of the truth. Also applies to good news…journos always ask me about the olds rather than the news – examples of interviews with TV journalists
  3. Every communication outlet has a bias, a slant. We should have our own bias. It must be pro Church. Pointlessly criticising the magisterium and the bishops has no place in Catholic media. This does not mean thinly veiled clericalism! Bishops need and deserve criticism, but it must be fair and civil, not knee-jerk reactions. Share the joy and beauty of being a Catholic. Most Catholics that get their news from the Catholic media look for both information and formation from it.
  4. We should not stereotype the media either. Always respond cleanly and in a civil manner. Those seeking to harm the church are a minority. Most are looking for access and information. If we hide they turn to others, often those that do want to criticse the church. I recently learned a Jewish concept which in Hewbrew is called “Anivut”. This is the term for a soft answer to a harsh challenge. It denotes humility, forbearance and quiet calm. Jesus our model sure did have it. Pope Francis is an example of it. Let us act accordingly.
  5. We must bear in mind the need to always be catechetical. Dogma matters! We can not underestimate peoples lack of knowledge of our faith.  Even the most simple and elemental points are misunderstood by average Catholics. We must clearly, confidently, joyfully, succinctly, simply, explain our faith. Catechesis nowadays happens in the media. We need to look for teachable moments: Ash Wednesday, Easter Sunday, Christmas. Canonisations or a conclave. These are opportunities to explain our teaching. The day for just having “bald fat old bishops” to communicate the message is long gone – take Helen Alvaré  on the pro life message for instance. Or “Catholic Voices” on pope Benedict’s visit to the UK. When speaking to people about contentious issues, invite people beforehand, ask them to make suggestions, and always make sure you really do listen!
  6. Always put Jesus first. People hunger for meaning in their lives. Truth has a name and it is Jesus. “I have vowed never to give an interview without at least trying to mention the holy name of Jesus”. Never can you pass up an opportunity to evangelise or catechise.
  7. Know your audience. Know the powerful effect of media, in particular the new (social) media.
Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with most of what Cardinal Dolan had to say, I found his third and sixth point to be the most contentious and valuable, in particular also for German speaking Catholic journalists and communicators. There is a tendency amongst many of my German speaking colleagues – in particular those in employ of the Church – to conflate unfair criticism with a kind of “healthy suspiciousness”. Some colleagues even think they need to emulate those dominant elements of the public sphere that critique the Church and her bishops unfairly, cast aspersions of doubt about central tenets of our Faith and suffer from a profound lack of knowledge thereof at the same time.
Anyway; this is a complex and multi-faceted problem that I can not fully explore here. Suffice it say that I think the Cardinal may be hitting even more nails on the head than he may be aware of!
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Images taken by students of the university, (C) 2014 Pontificia Università della Santa Croce. A full gallery of pictures – including several of yours truly – taken during the conference can be found here.
Disclosure: I was one of the invited speakers at the conference. The university paid for my travel and accommodation.