As trust in journalism and the Church erodes, there is a way to reclaim it

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Attendees receive Communion during Mass at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception July 5, 2022, during the Catholic Media Conference in Portland, Ore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Scott Warden (new)When I was in high school, there was no career aptitude test or long meetings with guidance counselors asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. There was no verbal hand-wringing from my parents telling me that I needed to pick a career. I might have lacked many things in my formative years, but direction was never one of them.

My career in journalism was more a gift than it was a choice, given to me by my father, who spent more than half a century doing this important work.

For the first nearly 20 years of my work as a writer and editor, I never saw it as a vocation. It was a job — one I felt I was good at, and one that, at times, I felt rewarded by doing. But working at secular daily newspapers never felt like a vocation in the Catholic sense of the word — a calling. Over the last eight-plus years, since I started at Our Sunday Visitor in 2014, however, it has become exactly that.

Lately, though, the reputation of both institutions that I love so dearly — the Church and the Fourth Estate — has fallen sharply over the past two decades. As my colleagues at OSV joined other members of the Catholic Media Association at its annual conference in Portland, Oregon, Timothy P. O’Malley of Notre Dame — a frequent contributor to Our Sunday Visitor — explored how to reclaim the respect and trust that society once held for these two pillars of society.

“It’s clear,” O’Malley said at his keynote speech on July 6, “that the Church is experiencing a crisis related to communications. This crisis, in my assessment, cannot be reduced to the problem of technique — if we found a better way to use Twitter or TikTok, we would bring everyone to Christ. Rather, we are experiencing a crisis related to authority itself. The Church, along with a variety of other institutions, is no longer worth listening to.”

O’Malley cited statistics from Reuters news service stating that the United States has the lowest trust in media among 46 countries polled. “Only 29% of Americans trust the media,” he told the crowd of Catholic journalists. “Only 29% of Americans, therefore, trust you.”

I can’t speak for my colleagues, but that line hit me like a hammer. O’Malley went on to detail why trust in journalism — Catholic and secular — is rare to find these days.

“For the last 20 years or so, institutional failure has been the experience of millennials, the iPhone generation and whatever we’ll call the generation my 5-year-old daughter will be part of. They were told that if they went to college, they’d have jobs and live the American dream. It turns out it was more complicated than that. They were told that the wars we were fighting were necessary. Many of them weren’t. … And with the Church, it’s even worse. They have been told, by us, that the Church is a Eucharistic communion manifesting the love of the triune God. But what they see is endless conflicts, hypocrisy, bishops fighting with one another, the confusion of the Gospel with political ideology and the replacement of serious thought with propaganda.”

He isn’t wrong. Any media can be toxic, but when organizations whose stated purpose is to introduce people to the loving mercy of Jesus Christ and his Church fail to live up to this higher calling, a crisis ensues and trust erodes — for all of us striving to do this work.

O’Malley, thankfully, proposes a solution that, while daunting, isn’t overly complicated. “Journalists and communicators have a role to play here, to let the Eucharistic mystery of the Church manifest itself for the life of the world,” he said. To do that, however, Catholic media outlets ourselves must become more Eucharistic. “The Eucharist is a slow space, rather than a fast one. It is defined by contemplative wonder more than immediacy of action. Might journalists and communicators learn a bit of this contemplative wonder in their work. Not every story needs an immediate reaction. If the purpose of journalism and communications, in a sense, is the pursuit of the truth, we need to recognize that perceiving, recognizing and judging the truth takes time.”

He continued: “Our interlocutor is a human being, and if we don’t possess a modicum of empathy even to those whom we very definitely disagree with … then how can we manifest the love of Christ to the world?”

This is more than our job; it is our vocation — our calling.

Scott Warden is managing editor of Our Sunday Visitor.