How to communicate well

Sometimes it seems that we never forgave Gutenberg for inventing his printing press! Though the Church has engaged with various forms of public media from the beginning, we have a long way to go.  Despite having been in the “communication business” since 33 AD, we are simply at sea when it comes to handling mass communication.

In the information economy this is deadly serious.

A woman displays the e-book version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on an iPad. To communicate effectively, the Church must make good use of all media, traditional and new. (Photo: Nancy Phelan Wiechec, CNS)

First, let us consider how we react to the media. In 2000 the Boston Globe newspaper published a series of reports implicating the archdiocese of Boston in covering up cases of priests sexually abusing children. The archdiocese responded by accusing the newspaper of all kinds of anti-clericalism, hostility to religion, and rumour-mongering. Unfortunately subsequent police investigations confirmed the Globe’s stories.

Alternatively, another scenario: a prominent theologian is censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for writing something deemed to be unorthodox. The secular press, radio and television come to her defence, arguing that the Church’s move is reactionary, violates freedom of thought and lacking in charity. The stock response: “You don’t understand, you are anti-Church, mind your own business!”

What went wrong? Though the Church commendably defends freedom of the press, there remains a mentality that objects to being the subject of investigation or of criticism. The assumption, often rooted in a Perfect Society model of Church, is that we are above examination or criticism.

Unfortunately this does not work in democratic societies. That the media may indeed be hostile to religion or the Church is neither here nor there; the media exists and sees its job as reporting and commenting upon what is happening in the world. And the Church is part of that world.

How might we respond? We need to respond honestly, in good faith (presuming good intention on the part of the media). Where necessary we need to explain our position clearly, simply and concisely. (Sadly this is the age of 30-second sound-bytes). At times, when we have indeed made mistakes, we need to apologise.

Secondly, how do we use the media? This is by far the more important question, because it cuts through to the crux of our reason for existence: proclaiming the Gospel.

We have a Message, indeed as one disciple said “the message of eternal life”. But as it is proclaimed it is but one message among many on the information super-highway.

Obviously we need to master all the technologies of communication. But technological wizardry is not enough if we are to get the message across effectively. It’s how we package and market it that makes the difference, as well as knowing the intended audience’s way of receiving information.

A 500-page book will, sadly, not attract as many readers as a journal article, let alone a concisely written newspaper article. A disembodied radio voice droning on or a television “talking head” may draw some, but put others to sleep.

Catholic media, like all religious media, runs the risk of becoming parochial. This may satisfy the faithful and keep the guardians of orthodoxy happy, but will it really draw in the rest?

Free speech, controversy and debate makes media interesting. At times it even facilitates deeper insight into truth. While all media has interests behind it, has political and social agendas, good media transcends agendas.

Though broadly Muslim and Arab in outlook, the TV news channel Al Jazeera promotes free speech, controversy and debate by appealing beyond its roots. I heartily agree with my confrere Fr Chris Chatteris’ suggestion, stated in his excellent book The Church and Media, that we need desperately a Catholic Al Jazeera.

Creativity is essential if we are to communicate effectively. Jesus taught in parables; great moral insights are often expressed in novels, plays, film and television. If you want to hook the unconvinced don’t start off with lots of dogma and piety – tell a story. Let the God-given imagination and conscience do the rest.

“Preach always and use words if you have to,” said Francis of Assisi – an insightful fellow.

Finally, we need to understand consuming media. We consume all kinds of media all the time and we are influenced consciously or subconsciously by it. In the same way we need literacy to function in society, we need media literacy.

Media literacy calls on us to ask questions. What is the media saying? What is left unsaid? Whose interests are served and whose are not? What values are explicit, what implicit? Does this accord with my understanding of myself, my neighbour, my God?

Censorship is a practice and a mentality that many people seem to have. A generous interpretation of it suggests that it’s rooted in genuine concern to protect the spiritual and moral values of people from harm. From history, including South Africa’s, it is true too that it can be a means of social control serving the interests of the powerful.

I believe it is unhealthy and based on the assumption that people are too weak, too stupid, to make up their own minds. Training in media literacy, on the other hand, gives people the tools to make prudent judgments about what they read, see and hear.

You may be asking: What has this article to do with Vatican II? Two words: Inter Mirifica (1963). That was the decree on Social Communication promulgated by the Council addresses many of the issues I have raised.

Go and read it  – for the new media junkies you can find it online at www.vatican.va

One Response to How to communicate well

  1. Simangaliso October 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

    Fr Anthony I have come to appreciate this website because of your style of writing and thinking. You r thinking is outside the box because in a way there is no box. Thank you for keeping our minds thinking about issues especially those concerning the Vatican II. While I am an Anglican at heart I appreciate Catholic news because I believe that we need to consolidate our structures one day and we can’t do that unless we understand each other.

    Thank you!

Leave a Reply