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Walking Fine Line Between Serving Church, Readers

Media: Though representing official viewpoints, Catholic newspapers need to win worshipers' trust.

June 20, 1998|From Religion News Service

Newspaper editor Tom Tracy was looking at the biggest story of his young career.

The top newsmaker he covers made a shocking public confession, resigned and abruptly left town, leaving Tracy and his colleagues to tell the tale to astonished readers. But a problem: The newsmaker was none other than his own boss, the publisher.

And the boss is a very public figure--J. Keith Symons, 65, Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach, who quit June 2 and disappeared into an undisclosed treatment center after admitting he sexually molested five young boys early in his 40-year career as a priest.

"It's not a happy opportunity," said Tracy, 32, the editor of the Palm Beach edition of the Florida Catholic, a weekly regional Catholic newspaper jointly published by Symons and five other Florida bishops. "But it's a challenge I think we'll rise to."

This is the world of the Catholic press and the religious press generally as it tries to manage the tensions--usually under much easier conditions--created by commitments to two value systems.

On one hand they are adjuncts to the church, sometimes official spokesmen, protectors and promoters of the faith through journalism.

But their credibility with readers demands that they be completely candid, trustworthy truth tellers, free to cover diverse views on policy and doctrine, and free to print the anger, doubt and criticism coming from the pews when the church stumbles.

*

Tracy put his paper to bed the day the story broke and boarded a plane for New Orleans to meet with 400 colleagues in the Catholic Press Assn., a trade group of editors, business managers and others who publish about 450 Catholic newspapers and magazines.

Many trained in top-notch secular journalism programs or worked for years in the secular press before switching to church journalism.

"Those of us in the Catholic press consider ourselves journalists; we don't do PR," said Dan Medinger, editor of the archdiocesan newspaper in Baltimore, the Catholic Review.

Only a few Catholic publications, such as the magazine Commonweal or the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, are independently owned. Most are published by religious orders or, like Medinger's paper, by a local archdiocese or diocese under the supervision of a local bishop.

Usually their publications are filled with profiles, features and routine news on comings and goings.

Only rarely--Tracy's story being a spectacular worst-case example--does financial, sexual or other scandal require them to argue for full, frank disclosure before a bishop-publisher who may be expecting the editor to lead the work of damage control, or, worse, fall silent.

The results, some say, seem better than they used to be, but still uneven.

"On the matter of editorial freedom, you find this wide, wide variety across Catholic life," said William Thorn, a journalism professor at Marquette University and director of the Institute on Catholic Media.

At one end of the spectrum are officials like Baltimore's Archbishop William Keeler, who Medinger called "one of the most media-savvy bishops in the country." Keeler permitted Medinger to write extensively about a local pedophilia scandal, to the dismay of many local priests, Medinger said.

At the other end, Thorn said, are unidentified bishops "who may want to use their diocesan paper as a personal communications instrument."

They certainly have the power to wield. In the Catholic world, all bishops have only one boss, the pope, and they take seriously their job as primary teacher to Catholics in their jurisdiction, Thorn said.

"I'm never confused as to who my publisher is," Medinger said. "He owns the place. My job is to assist his agenda."

But editors of good papers also strive to cover people in the pews and their relationship to faith, Thorn said, avoiding the trap of "merely passing on material from official agencies."

Editors often press bishops to take the long view, lobbying to cover sensitive issues and reporting lay criticism in hopes readers will see themselves and their cares reflected in stories, building the paper's credibility.

"The Second Vatican Council said that the people of God have a right to know everything that concerns them," Medinger said.

And more practically, few modern bishops are so unsophisticated to think they can control information about their dioceses, he said.

That applied to a former boss in another diocese, whose arrest for drunk driving Medinger put on the front page--although he submitted the article for the bishop's approval and acquiesced in the removal of one paragraph, he said.

Still, conflicts occur. Every year, Thorn said, editors hear that one of their colleagues has lost a job in an editorial dispute of some kind.

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