Saturday, June 05, 2010

"What Does It Mean?": Fidelity in Media, Take One

Over this week, its future fallen on shaky times in a world of funding cuts, dropping circulations and a radically-altered media landscape, the nation's Catholic press Establishment has been meeting in New Orleans.

While the temporal challenges were seemingly never far from the surface, an even more important topic took center-stage at this year's Catholic Media Convention: the mission and identity of the work of communication in the life of the nation's largest religious community.

As the highlight of the push, yesterday morning a panel of bishops sat down with the outlets in attendance to discuss “What Does it Mean to Be a Catholic Media Organization in Today’s World?” And in just one indicator of the event's importance, headlining the group of five prelates was the Vatican's top hand on media: the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Italian Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, joined by (among others) the vice-president of the Canadian bench, Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, and one of the US bishops' savvier lights on the media world, the Crescent City's own Archbishop Gregory Aymond.

Termed "unprecedented" by the Catholic Press Association's trade paper, The Catholic Journalist, the session was an outgrowth of the US bishops' task-force for Catholic identity in media, one of the three working groups established by Cardinal Francis George and announced in his presidential address at last November's USCCB plenary in Baltimore. The hourlong exchange took as its springboard a 1994 article written by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ on "Religion and the news media."

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All this provided the backdrop to a Thursday speech that set the "baseline" for the following day's discussion: an address given by the USCCB communications chair, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala.

Originally published by the conference's intrepid Don Clemmer on the Mothership's media relations blog, it's a text of immense importance as the state of things goes, and you'll find it published in full here below.

As prefaces go, though, one thing bears noting: the fact that you're reading this is but further proof that, over recent years, what constitutes ad intra media -- or, indeed, what is perceived as such -- has undergone a staggering evolution, bringing about a dramatic change in how this church communicates, how it is informed... and, above all, how its message is shared (or, indeed, shaped), not just for the "choir" of the committed, the paid subscriber-bases, but anyone with armed with nothing more than a pinch of curiosity and a Google search.

And as the future goes, well, you do the math.

Sure, some might remain in a spirit of denial (or, in some locales, fatwa) about it, but the truth remains that the days of viewing new media in the church as a "flash in the pan" are solidly behind us. As a result, that this new and ever-growing reality of the work hasn't been publicly included in, nor even once approached about, the conversations to date isn't just unfortunate, but -- however unintended it might be -- manifests the same short-sightedness and penchant for blown opportunities for which Catholic communication in this country has, painfully, become too famous over the years.

Bottom line: until this sea-change is reflected in the exchange at hand (and not just as something judged from outside), any attempt at sizing up the landscape, the challenges, the opportunities and best-practices -- indeed, any effort to reinvigorate the hope, future and, above all, the sense of communion and mission -- of the Catholic press on these shores will remain, at best, woefully incomplete.

Luckily, it's not too late to change that... but especially in this era of 24-hour news cycles, gang, the stakes are sky-high, and time is of the essence.

Sermon completed, here's Zavala's text: