Former NY Times writer addresses church and media
By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor
On Sept. 30 in the Alibrandi Center at Syracuse University, R. Gustav Niebuhr, a former national correspondent for the Washington Post and a former religion writer for the New York Times, addressed the relationship between Catholicism and the media.
In his talk, Niebuhr focused on the tension that results from the difference between the long, linear narratives of the Catholic Church and the fragmentary nature of modern media.
As an example of this tension, Niebuhr told those gathered of his experience covering World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 for the Washington Post. He said that in the days leading up to the event, the media focused on stories like the decline in vocations, dissenting Catholics, priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.
“These stories were legitimate news stories, but it struck me that they told only a small portion of the story, and there was a great deal more to be told,” Niebuhr said.
Yet once Pope John Paul II arrived in the Denver airport, Niebuhr said, the tone of the media coverage changed to one of adulation. “He was given the coverage that is afforded to a rock star without problems,” Niebuhr said.
Niebuhr speculated that one important reason for this was the physical charisma Pope John Paul II had. “There was something about him that was rare in a leader in that he enlivened people at a distance,” he said.
Yet much of the coverage of the pope’s visit never seemed to go beyond this surface appeal. “It was utterly superficial. What was he saying? Who was there? Why did they come?” Niebuhr said, shrugging. “Who knows?”
These long, linear narratives are often sacrificed for stories that are easier to tell. “There is real news in conflict, so conflict does make a news story,” Niebuhr said. “But sometimes what goes on is subtle.”
Neibuhr is associate professor of religion and the media at S.U. In August, Viking Penguin published a book by Neibuhr exploring the idea of religious cooperation in America. The book is entitled Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America.
He said that the traditional media outlets have often favored areas like politics, government, business and sports. “What they all have in common is that they all have a score at the end of the day. They have numbers,” Neibuhr said. That same sense of tallying cannot be applied to areas like science, labor, and religion.
Niebuhr said this tendency in the media to quantify or oversimplify affects not just the Catholic Church, but other faiths as well. “These narratives are everywhere. ‘Protestant numbers are declining.’ End of story. Or, ‘The evangelical church is growing because they’re conservative.’ Period. End of story.”
While there are, he said, a number of reliable news sources who seek to provide as full a story as possible, he has also seen shoddy and sensationalized journalism becoming more common — particularly on the Internet.
“YouTube allows for someone to take a fragment of an interview and post it up there on a Web site, and then we can all see it,” Niebuhr said. “And we can see it as many times as we want to. … People could see it and react to it, and react to it again, and react to it again.” This instantaneous dialogue of reaction can determine the news and drive it forward without the benefit of context or a fuller explanation.
Often, he said, this news can be pushed forward by a small group of “provocative and unseemly people” who seek to benefit from the millions of advertising dollars that can come from a popular news source. In turn, Niebuhr said, these unreliable sources pour tidal waves of poison into American living rooms.
“Anyone can draw their information directly from this and draw their own conclusions,” he said. What’s needed, he said, is more credible sourcing and a more discerning critique of media sources by consumers.
“We’re in an era of fragmentation, an era of complete surprises, and it’s difficult to reconstruct a linear narrative,” Niebuhr said, “but it has to be done.”