Monday, May 05, 2008

A cursory look into the Church beat

AT first blush there may not be any noticeable difference between a church beat and a routine coverage, say the police or Congress or some other fulcrum of community or national life. In fact in Manila, a church beat reporter may not do some special preparations before entry.

Having personally known most church beat reporters since 1996 when the CBCP press office in Intramuros was opened, I have not known any of them who prepared for the beat unlike somebody I know who dutifully familiarized with business concepts when assigned to cover Makati business. Church reporters enter the beat as naturally as anybody would casually snoop for news. After all, church news is just like any other news—or so that’s how it has been going till today.

In this order of things there had been recurring conflicts. I remember in 1998, a bishop berated a reporter, right in the progress of a press conference, for not being faithful to what he previously said. There had been a number of cases when the attention of a regular church beat reporter had been called by a bishop for not reporting accurately his mind. In 2005, a group of bishops gathered some courage to meet an editorial board of a national daily just to complain and do something about a “wrong” slant—as if in mainstream journalism there is such a thing.

A school of thought among journalist circles calls this clash a mutual naiveté between the Catholic Church and the media. This is partly true in the sense that both do not substantially know what the other is all about. The secular media do not know the values of the Church while, on the other hand, the Catholic Church setting pat on its teaching authority, the magisterium, does not technically understand what the media are up to. A bishop, for instance, with this teaching authority as his mental frame, delivers his piece like a professor expecting students to pass a correct reading of his mind at final exams. But the church beat reporter, pursuing his own journalistic values, reports the piece of the bishop according to the slant that he decides to take—independently and with no regard for “thy kingdom come”.

Independence in its pursuit for the truth is what defines the media. Without it, fidelity to the very same truth is compromised and, therefore, its “raison d’etre” disappears. Admittedly, though, this independence is subject to both personal and social determinants, or biases if you may—without even mentioning human limitations—that may, sadly, weaken the professionalism of a beat reporter. The irony, however, is, it is this very same independence in the pursuit of truth that makes the “truth” relative—and, therefore, not objective.

It maybe hard to take, but in secular journalism the truth is not philosophical. Neither is it theological. In practice, “truth” is simply the editorial policy of a news organization so that anything that goes against it is “false”. The truth of a beat reporter passes through “editorial desks” of manipulations until it reaches the editors who give the final judgment whether one’s report is in the ambit of the “truth” or not. The most that the beat reporter does in order to get closer to the truth is to work for a balanced reportage which is getting both sides of the story. But getting both sides of the story may just be a window dressing that does not necessary mean presenting the objective truth.

This explains why, for instance, the “truth” held by the Catholic Church on the issues related to capital punishment or responsible parenthood will not hold water in several news organizations whose editorial policy is “death to convicted heinous criminals,” or “population deceleration.” Unbelievable as it may seem, but there are even news organizations in our midst whose editorial policy finds virtue in gambling and bliss in the finances that are derived from it. And this is not even to mention, the tremendous power of advertisers, sponsors and the well-funded multinational advocacy campaigns that lobby and dictate their own definitions of “truth”.

The late Pope John Paul II bluntly commented, “The media often do render courageous service to the truth; but sometimes they function as agents of propaganda and disinformation in the service of narrow interests, national, ethnic, racial, and religious prejudices, material greed and false ideologies of various kinds. (37th World Communications Day, 2003)

A multinational mining company will always find it “truthful” to advocate that mining in the Philippines is environmentally and economically wholesome despite a long track record that declares otherwise. The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) and Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) and their bankrolled news organizations do not blink with the well-funded advertorial trumpeting that this greatest gambler in the country, which is owned and operated by the Office of the President of the Republic, is also the biggest charitable institution in this part of the world “na hindi kumukupas.” That “trust condom” strengthens conjugal relations and family ties is also held as such and given extraordinary prominence in editorial agenda.

But the “truth” for the Church is different because it is transcendent and absolute. It is not relative or situational, much less transactional. Pope John Paul II in his message during the World Communications Day in 1999 puts it this way: “…media culture is so deeply imbued with a typically postmodern sense that the only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths or that, if there were, they would be inaccessible to human reason and therefore irrelevant. In such a view, what matters is not the truth but “the story”; if something is newsworthy or entertaining, the temptation to set aside consideration of truth becomes almost irresistible.”

Dr. Joaquin Navarro Valls, former spokesperson and director of the Vatican press office notes: “The problem is that the logic of the Church and that of media are different. The logic of mass media is conditioned absolutely by daily events…on the other hand, the logic of the Church looks at events over a long period of time, where every particular event is seen as part of a holistic context implying that one does not separate moral teaching from man and woman’s life.”

This is where the crossroad lies. While the media look at the truth on a day-to-day basis, the church looks at it transcendentally and absolutely. While media look at the news on a journalistic value of information and entertainment, the church transcends towards the common good and, ultimately, unto the salvation of souls. While secular media report reality within the parameters of an editorial policy, the Church perceives it within the purview of its teachings that are doctrinal and dogmatic.

It is in this sense that in the Church beat there is such a thing as a wrong slant. Any reportage that goes against accuracy and objectivity is definitely a wrong lead, irrespective of whether the Church is naïve of the media or the media of the Church. This might be saying too much, but what makes the truth in the church beat dogmatic is that it proceeds from and founded on natural and divine law. In other news beats, such as the senate or the Comelec, the truth is hinged only on human arrangements with social or political ends—but which, despite being such, also demands equal accuracy and objectivity.

In any case, the “bias” for the truth does not destroy the independence or freedom of the beat reporter. “The media serve freedom by serving the truth: they obstruct freedom to the extent that they depart from what is true by disseminating falsehoods or creating a climate of unsound emotional reaction to events,” said the Holy Father in his message quoted above.

The ends of the Church do not end with the here and now. Which is why there maybe ecclesiastical issues that are handled as prudently, if stringently perhaps, as possible. While the overarching value of the beat reporter is to get the story at all cost and submit it to the desk on deadline, the Church values the ends of human society towards its ultimate purpose. Thus there may be situations when the Church will hold an issue unto herself thereby sublimating, at least for a time, the right to information in respect to ecclesiastical principles.

“The right of expression must be exercised with deference to revealed truth and the Church's teaching, and with respect for others' ecclesial rights (cf. Canon 212.1, .2, .3, Canon 220). Like other communities and institutions, the Church sometimes needs—in fact, is sometimes obliged—to practice secrecy and confidentiality. But this should not be for the sake of manipulation and control.” (Ethics in communications, 26).

This is to say finally that the church beat is different. Not that it should be treated differently, but is rather something that the church beat reporter should know more about. While the church is a community of human beings complete with the attributes of any human institution, it has a faith dimension—which makes the beat more worth the while.

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