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Sunday, 21 May 2006

Faith and the Media


Should we put faith in the media?

More questions than answers debated at St. Jerome's fourth annual conference on Catholics in public life

Can the media be impacted by one's faith, or should all reporting try and be completely impartial? This was one of the main questions attacked last weekend at the Catholics in Public Life Conference., held at St. Jerome's.

This was the fourth biannual conference; the conference is hosted in partnership between St. Jerome's and the Waterloo Catholic District School Board. The conference brings together people in the media and the public eye and people interested in honest debate. Past conferences have had such notaries as humanitarian Romeo Dallaire, author Reginald W. Bibby and politician Claude Ryan.

This year's conference speakers were just as powerful. The four panelists for Friday's talk "Catholic Voices in the Media and the Public Square: an Evening of Discussion" were Robert Mickens, Vatican reporter for London's The Tablet, Paul Baumann, editor, at New York's Commonweal, Marina Jimenez, senior writer for the Globe and Mail and Sir Peter Kavanagh, CBC Radio producer. The questions they tackled are as impressive as their resumes: Is the Roman Catholic faith a public or private faith? Do debate and honest inquiry equate with dissent? What should Catholic laity do to become more media savvy? Friday's panel discussion was facilitated, guided and to some extent corralled by Michael W. Higgins, president and vice-chancellor and author of The Muted Voice: Religion and the Media and co-author of Portraits of Canadian Catholicism.

About 200 people attended the public lecture Friday evening. The panelists first answered a series of questions from Higgins and then took questions from the floor, such as, "Should workers in the media who claim faith be required to have a note from a psychiatrist proving sanity?" "Since 9/11, is faith more or less a part of the media reality?" "Is the mainstream commercial media taking an increasing interest in religious and quasi-religious coverage?"

In response to these questions, our panelists had many strong views. Sir Peter Kavanagh stated at one point that "the British Broadcasting Corporation is one of the most resourced broadcasters and media outlets in the world. And what the BBC starts to do, other public broadcasters will start to do. So as they are currently increasing religious coverage and specials, an increase in religious coverage will spread. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will follow suit, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation will increase their religious coverage." Later Marina Jimenez stated that the lack of religious coverage in Canada was surprising. She said, "according to Stats Canada, 24 per cent of Canadians are Protestant Christian and another 50 per cent are Catholic, so if 74 per cent of Canadians are Christians, why is the percentage of the religious coverage not that proportionate?"

After questions were opened up to the public, many other interesting questions were raised. "How has the Internet changed your work as a reporter?" "The media is the synthesis of the future; the media can spin stories and shape culture. As a person of faith how do you react to a story that is denied?" "Many other faith traditions seem to have an active voice in the media; how can we as Catholics develop a Catholic voice?" "How were the Catholic and mainstream media affected last year by the Muslim cartoon scandal?" And many more.

Robert Mickens, in reference to his job as a Vatican reporter, stated, "The Vatican is such a political beast that still wields great power around the world. My job is not to explain Church decisions but to report the politics that are behind them. I am more like a beat reporter in Ottawa or Washington."

After the official panel discussion Friday evening there was a wine and cheese social. The four panelists and the four facilitators leading discussion times were available for personal discussion and questions. Then again Saturday morning at breakfast and lunch the celebrities were more than accessible for personal time.

The focus on Saturday was discussion times in groups of about a dozen people. Each group had one of the panelists and a facilitator to keep the conversation on track. Each group met for two discussion. Scott Kline from Saint Jerome's University, who helped to host and facilitate the event summarized the discussion times.

Kline stated, "First, the Catholic Church and Catholics should speak on a wide range of topics. Not just be a single-issue focus. Second, there is unease around the Internet and where we are heading with it? Third, the laity needs to organize itself to show the wide range of opinion within the church on social issues and political issues. Lastly, change in the church is slow, but it does happen. This slowness in regards to change is not always a bad thing."

(First published in Imprint 2006-05-19 as ‘Should we put faith in the media?’.)


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