The global kerfuffle over a statement by Pope Francis on civil union for gay couples shows the need for a religion beat reporter to offer important context on history, church precepts and processes, and a local point of view.
As it is, we’re likely to get just he said/he said reporting about something potentially epoch-marking in a male-controlled institution.
With local media eviscerated by revenues plunging off the cliff, it’s rare to see specialized beat reporting nowadays. At least I’m not reading it on the news reports that are churned out.
This problem is exacerbated by the “churnalism” made prevalent by data-driven, instead of data-informed, coverage. You rely on social media engagement metrics to lead or define your coverage, you end up outrageous and silly. Outrage and silliness drive clicks and engagement. (More on this in an upcoming blog post.)
What are our (Cebu news consumers) prospects for stories related to the Pope’s statement?
The primary story would likely be a dispatch from the Associated Press or Agence France Presse, local papers don’t subscribe to Reuters. It will have, inserted several paragraphs down, local reporting that will likely consist of comments from local church officials. The Archdiocese has released a statement that they are waiting for clarification from the Vatican.
But media isn’t the church. Should it also just wait for clarification from the Vatican? On the statement, yes, but about the peripheral but still important issues, no.
A dedicated religion beat reporter would have, I think, the experience and knowledge to be able to enlighten us readers with reporting on the implications of the Pope’s statement. The beat reporter would have provided important context. Pope Francis said it during an interview for a documentary. What is its significance? What are the implications on church precepts and teachings?
And what about the concepts of ex-cathedra promulgation and infallibility? Do these apply in this case?
I was in a church event once and after the ceremonies, the reporters were scurrying to leave. Some took quick bites of the prepared lunch while a few immediately left. They were apparently rushing to cover a press conference by a city mayor.
I smh (shook my head). The demands on reporters (from the newsroom and readers, including curmudgeons like me) nowadays are such that they do not have, in my opinion, enough time to develop and write a substantive news report.
What used to be covered by two different beats, Church and City Hall, is now handled by a single reporter. No Church and State separation, then. No distinct beat assignments for a reporter who also does Facebook Live, takes news photos, sends social media updates, and then writes the report.
A beat assignment allows a reporter to develop specialized skills and cultivate news sources.
The religion beat – already limited to the dominant Catholic Church and centered on official activities largely focused on the prelate – seems to have disappeared from local reporting. In its place is a motley list of reporters assigned to official Church events.
But the religion beat, especially in a community like Cebu, is a rich source of largely unreported stories.
I have never been assigned to the religion beat nor did I want to be tasked with covering it when I was still a reporter. In The Freeman, it was the territory of Roger Paller. I initially the issues were soporific because I would often see Roger nodding off. But it wasn’t the church; it was Roger. He would nod off whatever story he was writing: power, infra, politics, or a beauty pageant.
Sun.Star, on the other hand, assigned a non-Catholic to the beat. Erehes will out and she was found out. A high church official called up the newsroom to request that another reporter be assigned to the beat. I think your religion or lack of it shouldn’t disqualify you from covering religion.
It was only when Marlen and I embarked on our digital tourism program with SMART that I got intimately familiar with and interested on the church.
As I learned more and as I knew of things, the first thought that would always come to my mind was how under-reported the local church beat was. But with the acute lack of manpower, that’s also the case with almost all beats.
There’s also the, I think, natural tendency to be obsequious. I mean these are God’s “officers” you are interviewing and you had, by protocol (church not newsroom albeit I don’t know if this is discussed), to kiss their rings.
You also had to refer to them as “Your Eminence” or “Your Excellency.” My colleague was apparently exposed by a wayward “sir.”
The controversy over what Pope Francis said or did not say will likely consume news media in the next few days.
Church issues long unreported will likely continue to be ignored and left unreported. Financial reforms, for one, is a rich source of reporting leads. But we don’t have the time and the local journalists to handle that.
In church and with the reality of today’s exhausted and depleted newsrooms, we leave it to the Heavens.
Max is a journalist and blogger based in Cebu. He has written and edited for such publications as The Freeman, The Independent Post, Today, Sun.Star Cebu, Cebu Daily News, Philstar Life, and Rappler.
He is also a mobile app and web developer and co-founded InnoPub Media with his wife Marlen.
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