Why Rosaries Scare the Media

Reluctant Prophet – The Story of Jonah
October 12, 2017
25th Anniversary of the Release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
October 12, 2017

By Clemente Lisi, The Catholic Thing, 12, 2017

In an era of fake “news,” readers are bombarded each day with stories – most of them legitimate, but sometimes totally made up – and fueled by social media. The news gathering process, the method by which journalists report the news and editors determine the value of stories, has increasingly become a bone of contention.

Readers no longer blindly accept accounts in the morning papers or continuously streamed on Twitter feeds. Sloppy errors, perceived biases, and last year’s presidential election all helped feed into the narrative that the mainstream press is out of touch with everyday Americans. Indeed, the Internet has become both an opportunity for journalists, but increasingly also a challenge.

Newsrooms, from my experience, lack diversity. While diversity in the job market is the aim of all companies, no other industry needs it more than journalism. Newsroom diversity leads to big ideas, better debates, and improved news coverage. The problem? Diversity is often seen as having to do with either race or gender. Are there enough African Americans on staff? Should we hire another woman? These are all questions media companies grapple with behind closed doors every time there’s a job opening.

What employers never lose sleep over (or even talk about) is whether there are enough devout Catholics in their newsroom or if they need to hire a person of faith – any faith – to report on what’s going on in the world and in the community. Believing in God is taboo in the newsroom.

To say there is a religious blind spot in hiring is a gross understatement. But it makes a big difference in the way important issues such as abortion and gay marriage are covered by media outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. Media coverage can sway public opinion and help determine laws and policy. It impacts social mores, and it’s being done largely without people of faith in key positions.

There is no more secular setting than in a newsroom. Liberal bias does exist in the media, but most journalists don’t see it. You can’t see bias when everyone around you thinks and feels the same way.

Take the recent gathering of Polish citizens along their nation’s border. The October 7 event, dubbed “Rosary at the Borders,” was timed to coincide with the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary and the 1571 Battle of Lepanto between Christian fighters and the Ottoman Empire. It was a solemn and peaceful event, but to many in the media, it automatically qualified as sinister because it featured Catholics and rosaries. Newsweek couldn’t help editorializing in the very title of the story: “Poland Catholics Pray Along Border in Controversial Event Seen as Anti-Muslim.”

A similar initiative by Muslims would never have been described pejoratively. In addition, the video Newsweek embedded was from Good Friday in the Philippines (probably the only recent video pertaining to Catholicism they had available), where Jesus’ final hours are reenacted – complete with men being nailed to the cross – in a practice the Vatican has condemned.

The media covers it because it depicts religious fanaticism, not standard devotion. And Newsweek isn’t alone. The BBC and other news outlets reported that the prayer event as “controversial,” as if it were a simple fact.

We’re used to seeing such bias in the way the media cover events like the annual March for Life, but most of us aren’t alert to how much bias is subtly insinuated into many other “news” stories.

Journalists tend to be white, educated, and living in either New York or Los Angeles, two of the most liberal cities in the country. Most people who are conservative tend to go into the private sector, often volunteering their time or donating money to causes they believe can help others. Liberals enter journalism because it is a profession they value.

Reporters at large metropolitan newspapers often have degrees from the Ivy League – another bastion of liberalism – and want to affect change through critical thinking and writing. Journalism is seen an intellectual endeavor and has gone from a blue-collar to a white-collar profession in the post-Watergate years.

That leaves religious Catholics – and devout believers of any faith – with virtually no voice in today’s newsrooms. That, in of itself, causes bias to seep into news coverage. The ongoing Church sex-abuse scandal, for example, doesn’t get the same treatment it would if it were taking place among rabbis or imams.

For liberal journalists, the Catholic Church is an easy punching bag. The reporting that led to guilty priests being defrocked was solid journalism (if a cause of great embarrassment to me as a Catholic). But the presumption of innocence is never given to Church officials – a presumption often given to police officers or even people accused of murder. The only time the Church gets favorable coverage is when it supports the liberal agenda – witness the positive coverage of the American bishops who defended DACA after President Trump announced he was ending it.

Diversity of thought, in general, would go a long way in improving newsrooms and the stories they produce. But hiring a few journalists who actually know something about religion (one of the central interests of human beings around the world) – perhaps even who are believers themselves – is equally, if not more important, in getting the news straight than are a reporter’s ethnic background or skin color.

Maybe, someday, the mainstream media will wake up to that fact.

Clemente Lisi, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at The King’s College in New York City. He has nearly twenty years experience as both a reporter and editor at media institutions such as the New York Post, ABC News, and the New York Daily News.