A Fair Account?

The Golden Rule in Catholic Journalism


Years ago I was discussing journalism ethics with a veteran reporter for a secular news organization when I hazarded an opinion: “I guess the idea is to be objective.” The reporter, a man of personal integrity and sincere religious belief, shook his head. “Human beings can’t be objective,” he explained. “God is objective; we aren’t. But what we can be and should be as journalists is fair. Fairness is the measure of ethics in the news business.”

Important point. But what’s fairness? For a reporter, some aspects of what it means to be fair are clear. Things like getting facts straight, not taking quotes out of context, presenting both sides of an argument as accurately as you can. Yet in real life, what’s fair and what isn’t often appears to differ according to circumstances. Sometimes, for instance, it’s fair for a news organization to conceal the name of a person accused of wrongdoing; sometimes it’s not. It all depends.

Still, the basic principle—fairness—always holds. It’s expressed in the Golden Rule, for thousands of years a central element of many moral codes. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states it like this: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12).

It should be noted, incidentally, that the journalist who shared his thoughts about objectivity and fairness with me was a veteran of the Associated Press. The AP for years was a source of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other reportage that moved people to accuse it of blandness or worse. Perhaps it was guilty as charged, but in its own way, the AP did try to be fair. Today, driven by changes in media and economic pressures, the venerable news agency increasingly is a source of analysis and interpretation—opinion, in other words. One hopes it’s still trying to be fair.

To Serve and Defend the Church

Unlike secular media, the Catholic press seldom has claimed to be objective. From the start, Catholic publications have engaged in advocacy and apologetics in the belief that this was how they best served the Church.

Often, they were right. “With the tongues of a thousand Goliaths,” the anti-Nazi archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, once said, “the evil press utters calumnies against everything that is sacred to us; with the tongues of a thousand Davids, therefore, the good press must defend our sanctuary.” The Catholic press was the “good press” in this scenario. And many still think of Catholic periodicals like that: defenders of the faith against hostile tempests raging outside the Church. Partly as a result, the Catholic press deals heavily in opinion and interpretation. Even news is reported from a Catholic point of view.

Maybe that’s just as it should be. But has the Catholic press been—and is it now—fair?

There was a time when parochialism was considered the besetting sin of the Catholic press. A Catholic newspaper is said once to have run a headline that read, “Plane Crashes, No Catholics Killed.” The story may be apocryphal, but it makes a valid point: Catholic papers in the past could be exceedingly narrow in defining “Catholic” news. And although that has changed to some extent, parochialism—in less obvious forms—still exists.

Unquestionably, the Catholic press has an important part to play in the life of the Church (although, as we shall see, there’s disagreement about what part). Catholic newspapers and magazines are crucial to the exchange of information and ideas. Yet many of these publications are more or less ethically challenged. The reasons for that deserve close attention.

Catholic publications usually operate on the assumption that in case of controversies, the Church’s leaders are right and those on the other side are wrong. But significant exceptions exist. Periodicals of the extreme left and the extreme right often come at controversies just the other way around—Church leaders are assumed to be wrong and their adversaries are assumed to be correct. That’s especially true when the controversy involves an intra-Church clash between authority and dissent.

Even in the most confused and problematical of situations, nonetheless, one ethical principle guiding Catholic journalists must remain untouched. Whether writing from the perspective of the left or the perspective of the right, and whether writing about Church leaders or Church critics—do your level best to be fair.

How does the Catholic press measure up by that standard? Start with diocesan newspapers.

House Organs

Scratch the surface and it becomes clear that no consensus exists on what a Catholic diocesan newspaper is. As noted, many would agree with Cardinal Faulhaber that a paper published under Church auspices exists to defend the Church against external enemies. Many also would agree with a former president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States, who wrote that the job of a diocesan newspaper is to collaborate with the local bishop in his role as “chief shepherd of the diocese.”

Perhaps so. But that raises a question. Is pastoral ministry the task of a newspaper? Or do newspapers exist to provide honest news coverage, analysis, and commentary? In the secular context, who would praise a daily paper that always backed city hall in everything it said and did? Shouldn’t the paper provide honest, accurate coverage of city hall, along with responsible criticism on its opinion pages? Simply to ask this underlines the fact that secular newspapers and diocesan newspapers operate according to different models.

Basic economic facts of life skew the Catholic press in a particular direction. Subsidies have much to do with it. According to the annual directory of the above-mentioned Catholic Press Association, as of last year there were 170 diocesan newspapers in the United States, with a combined circulation just under six million. That’s a lot, but someone might reasonably ask why circulation isn’t a lot higher in a country where, officially at least, there are nearly 70 million Catholics.

It gets worse. When evaluating these figures, remember that diocesan publications are heavily subsidized by parishes and dioceses. Many thousands of copies are given away every week rather than being bought by subscribers. And subsidies are the Catch-22 of the diocesan press.

Many papers simply couldn’t survive without subsidization. But reliance on subsidies to survive makes them dependent on the subsidies’ source—ultimately, that’s to say, on the diocesan bishop. And no matter how enlightened and well-intentioned Bishop X may be, this arrangement tends to undermine the paper’s credibility as a source of reliable news and commentary.

As matters stand, diocesan newspapers usually are house organs. In itself, there is nothing dishonorable about that. House organs provide useful information, give diverse groups within the institutional framework a sense of belonging, and offer the people in charge a convenient way to communicate with a scattered audience. These are good and useful things to do, and diocesan newspapers do them all, often with considerable success. But at the end of the day, a Catholic paper like this doesn’t meet the expectation that a “newspaper” be an impartial source of news.

“Neither do the secular papers,” a former government official remarked when I shared this thought with him. Good point. And indeed secular media really are guilty of great failings where bias is concerned. But their faults don’t justify the faults of the Catholic press.

Farther and Franker

Years ago, an innovative Catholic editor shared with me the “farther/franker rule” according to which, he maintained, many diocesan newspapers operated: The farther away from the diocese some intra-Church fight erupted, the more comfortable the local paper felt reporting on it. Close-to-home disputes, especially those involving objections to diocesan policy and practice, generally got short shrift. As that suggests, the problem with diocesan newspapers often isn’t what gets reported there but what doesn’t—or, if it does, is treated solely from the chancery point of view.

This phenomenon was visible during last year’s election campaign, when whether or not to give pro-choice Catholic politicians Communion once again was debated among Catholics, with bishops expressing different views. In at least one diocese (and probably more) where the bishop opposed denying Communion to pro-choicers, the Catholic paper behaved as if there were no bishops on the other side of this argument.

Letters to the editor are one indicator of how things stand with a periodical. Some Catholic publications carry them, some don’t, and some publish only letters supporting officially acceptable views. To be sure, letters attacking the doctrine and discipline of the Catholic Church don’t belong in a diocesan paper—but is that also the case with matters on which legitimate differences can and do exist among Catholics?

Here, the house organ of a certain national Catholic organization comes to mind. When a new editor came on board, he began occasionally printing letters taking mild exception to the organization’s policy on this or that. The people in charge told him to cut it out. Rather than publish only supportive letters—something he considered dishonorable—the editor stopped publishing any letters at all. The people in charge seemed satisfied. The publication has been without letters to the editor ever since.

But there’s another side to this. Letters to the editor can go too far—and still get published. Letters columns in some Catholic publications routinely feature invective and name-calling. Not long ago, an editor showed me a letter from a reader who didn’t like something I’d written. It began: “The article by Russell Shaw perpetuates the longstanding putrefaction in the heart of the Church.” I don’t know if the editor published that or not. I’ve seen worse in print.

Independent Sources?

Besides diocesan newspapers, the Catholic Press Association directory lists five national newspapers with combined circulation around 185,000 and 218 magazines whose combined circulation is a little under 13.7 million. Many magazines are institutional house organs, mission magazines, and the like. They exist to serve the interests (often, fund-raising) of the sponsoring group.

But a handful are general interest magazines and journals of opinion which, like the national newspapers, claim an independent editorial policy. (Independent, that is, in the sense of not being owned and operated by dioceses. But some are owned and operated by religious orders—e.g., America, St. Anthony Messenger, U.S. Catholic —and may or may not reflect their owners’ views. Some clarification on that point would help.)

Among periodicals openly in the business of promoting points of view—such as Commonweal, the National Catholic Reporter, and The Wanderer —a strong ideological orientation is the norm. But the rule of fairness still applies—or ought to. People who write opinion pieces are obliged to get facts straight and not misrepresent those with whom they disagree. But it’s all too easy to find instances of contrary practice. The examples that follow are chosen at random. It would be easy to find equally disturbing examples in other publications of both the Catholic left and the Catholic right.

All Riled Up

Start with some instances from the presidential campaign. A page-one story in the August 28, 2008 issue of The Wanderer, a highly conservative weekly, spoke of Barack Obama’s “most holy sacrament of massive abortion.”

It’s impossible to say what the writer meant by this overwrought expression, beyond the well-known fact that Obama, as an Illinois state senator and a member of the U.S. Senate, had a strongly pro-abortion record. Certainly that’s deplorable. But the use of this shocking religious terminology to describe Obama’s views implies that abortion has some sort of bizarre ritual significance for him. There is no evidence whatsoever for that.

Or take this editorial in the National Catholic Reporter of last October 31. Huffing and puffing about the role of abortion in Catholic political discourse, the paper accused “many” unnamed bishops of unspecified conduct that supposedly had turned abortion into a “partisan rallying cry” and “further erodes the legitimate authority of an already beleaguered episcopal conference.”

Much could be said about that. Here I’ll only say that, although disagreeing with bishops over politics is certainly allowable in the Catholic press, the Reporter’s way of disagreeing in this case was a notable instance of crocodile tears shed by a paper that for 40 years has done more than its share to erode episcopal authority.

But not only is bishop-bashing a pastime in some sectors of the Catholic press, so is pope-bashing—at times, at least.

Last year brought the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical condemning artificial birth control. An article in the July 26 issue of The Tablet of London, a Catholic weekly rather widely read by Catholic progressives in the United States, carried a subhead that said in part: “Humanae Vitae insists that the Church’s writ extends as far as the marital bedroom . . .”

Here was a comment worthy of Britain’s notorious tabloid press—a cheap shot typical of the slurs that seedy secular media often aim at Catholic doctrine on sex. It would have been accurate, and fair, for The Tablet to say: “Humanae Vitae insists that the writ of God’s law extends to human sexuality . . .” But that wouldn’t have slung the mud which this Catholic magazine’s headline writer wished to sling.

People writing in Catholic ideological periodicals sometimes lose all sense of restraint when they get riled. Then fairness goes out the window and self-righteousness sets in.

A column published last July in the monthly magazine Catholic World Report provides an example. The writer desired to say how low an opinion he has of liberal Catholics. To that end, he wrote that people who “croon to and cosset the lifeless dummy that is Liberal Catholicism” are like those “demented women” seen pushing strollers with dolls and asking passersby to admire them as if they were babies. This was a display of astonishing bad taste that exploited mentally ill women in the service of ideological fury.

Still, we shouldn’t be too hard on the Catholic press. Today, virtually all printed newspapers and magazines, not just religious ones, are losing ground to the Internet and especially to the blogosphere. And when it comes to irresponsibility and unfairness, print media generally can’t hold a candle to the blogs.

Yes, there are good, responsible blogs and bloggers performing a useful role. In some authoritarian countries, moreover, blogs are virtually the only medium of free expression that exists. And, whether for good or ill, the world of blogs is unquestionably here to stay. But in resigning ourselves to that situation and seeking to make the best of it, we need to be aware of the fact that some blogs are havens of rumor-mongering and character assassination, all of it defended in the name of a blogger’s supposedly unbridled right to say whatever he pleases, no matter how scurrilous it may be. Welcome to the blogosphere!

A Light to Show the Way

Considering how large a role media play today in shaping people’s understanding of the world and their values, it’s deeply worrisome that Catholic bishops, Catholic theologians, and Catholic educators have had so little to say on the subject of media. Of the little that’s been said, furthermore, much it has consisted largely or exclusively of condemnations and warnings.

One exception to this general rule is the Holy See. A series of annual papal messages for World Communication Day and documents issued by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications over the last four decades add up to a substantial—though commonly ignored—body of essentially positive, informed discussion of a wide range of media-related issues, including ethical ones.

Their central message is suggested up by this passage from Ethics in Communications, published by the pontifical council in 2000:

Ethical principles and norms relevant in other fields also apply to social communication. Principles of social ethics like solidarity, subsidiarity, justice and equity, and accountability in the use of public resources and the performance of roles of public trust are always applicable. Communication must always be truthful, since truth is essential to individual liberty and to authentic community among persons. . . . The human person and the human community are the end and the measure of the use of the media of social communication; communication should be by persons to persons for the integral development of persons. (20, 21)

Almost two decades earlier, the same Vatican agency produced a document called Communio et Progressio (Communion and Progress) which even today remains the Church’s most comprehensive statement on media. In a section on the Catholic press, it says that a general interest Catholic periodical is one which “publishes news and opinions and background articles about all the facets and problems and worries of modern life. . . . It will be a glass that reflects the world and a light to show it the way. It will be a forum, a meeting place for the exchange of views” (138).

Catholic periodicals, the document adds, should treat issues in light of Church teaching. But “apart from this, clergy and laity will encourage a free expression of opinion and a wide variety of publications and points of view.” And while official publications of the Church should reflect and explain the thinking of the institutions they represent, “an unrestricted liberty of expression should be maintained in those pages where it is made quite clear that the editors are not committing themselves in a particular question that is still under discussion” (141).

For many reasons, the Catholic press in the United States is indispensable. But with few exceptions, it has much work to do to measure up to this statement of principle provided by the Holy See way back in 1971.


Russell Shaw is the former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference, a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C., and author of 20 books.

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 4.