Church and the media examined

2009-09-09 00:00

IN the introduction to your book, The Church and the Media, you call yourself a “priest-journalist” as opposed to a “journalist-priest”. Why did you choose this title?

I certainly see a number of similarities between priests and journalists in terms of the use of the word and both having mediating functions. I put “priest” before journalist, because I think of myself as a part-time journalist. Journalism was something that sort of sneaked up on me and drew me in gradually. I have done far more work as a teacher than a writer, a speaker than a scribe, although again, the two things are closely linked. In terms of this book, which I suppose has one foot in journalism and the other in theology, it’s a convenient description.


What inspired you to take on this project?

I had served on the board of Cluster Publications for a few years. Perhaps it’s one of the hazards of serving on a publishing board — eventually they ask you to write a book. So it was by commission rather than inspiration. I was flattered, daunted and excited. The idea of being part of a series was also exciting.


What are some of the things you hope this book will achieve?

One reviewer has described it as coming at some media issues from a left-field direction, so I hope readers will be prompted to look again at some of the media they consume and at some of the issues to do with media. For example, we don’t really think of advertising as a medium in itself, but perhaps we should.

Another thing: we tend to think of the media as being powerfully suggestive in the areas of sex and violence — and no doubt they are — but the advertising that funds them makes sure that they are persuasive in the way we shop. So I try to cover all the main issues and open them up again in as fresh a way as I can.


Given the church’s widespread mistrust of the media and the media’s ignorance of how the institutional church functions, how much chance is there that “a great round table” is feasible?

Good question. I don’t see a massive move to openness towards the secular media. But there will always be some church members who understand that if you want to interact with the media you have to gain respect by professional engagement and that suspicion and defensiveness won’t get you anywhere. However, it may be that new technologies facilitate the “great round table”. For example, the Internet is an extremely open medium and almost anyone can get a place at that particular table. The church has been quick to take its place despite having to compete with all the pornography and violence which is out there in cyberspace.


You comment that respect for the ­sacred is no longer a feature of secular newsrooms.

I do think that newspapers that have an editorial policy which airbrushes out the sacred are missing a large chunk of what makes and motivates people, even modern people.


Whose responsibility do you think it is to educate the media on how the church functions so it gets the basic facts straight, for example, the difference between denominations and theology, clerical titles and roles?

The media works hard to get its facts straight when it writes about governments, or educational institutions, or the health service, or the economy or sports. Yet so often reports on the church are embarrassingly inaccurate. There is a problem of professionalism here. Unfortunately, this is often reciprocated by the church’s media representatives whose suspicion and even hostility often translate into things like unreliability.


As an experienced media person, what would your advice to the church be on how to handle the media?

Be professional (e.g. if you are going to call back with a statement, do it, and when you said you would); be courteous, engage journalists as equals. Never say: “No comment.” Apart from sounding hostile, it creates the suspicion that you have something to hide. You may not be in a position to tell the journalists what they want to know. Better to explain this to them frankly and then give them something that you can tell them.


How feasible do you think it is that churches will use their network of correspondents for a kind of Christian Al Jazeera?

Most unlikely. I’m really just trying to make us think about what makes a successful medium from a religious background. Islam is very suspect in much of the world these days thanks to violence and fundamentalism, and yet Al Jazeera is generally trusted. The question is: how do they do it? And how could we (Christians) do it?● For Christianity is also not particularly trusted in certain quarters, including the Muslim world?


Who would you rate as ‘media savvy’ church figures locally and abroad?

Desmond Tutu and the South African Anglican Church generally. The Archbishop of Canterbury is pretty good on the media. I think the historical experience of being an established church seems to give a confidence that the non-established churches lack. John Paul II was a media natural. Billy Graham, Cardinal Sheen and Mother Angelica (who looks like a classic nun) are other examples.

Book Review:

THIS is the third in the Signs of the times series published by Cluster ­Publications, a project of the Pietermaritzburg cluster of theological ­institutions that includes University of KwaZulu-Natal, St Joseph’s seminary and Essa, the evangelical seminary.

This book was written by a former Pietermaritzburg resident, Chris Chatteris, who is a Jesuit priest and monk.

The choice of a cleric to write a book about the church and the media is not as strange as it may perhaps sound, as Chatteris has worked as a journalist and calls himself “a priest-journalist”. He has been a Witness columnist for several years.

He has some interesting observations to make about several issues, and not just the relationship between the institutional church and media. For example, I was struck by his comments on how much television people watch, particularly children.

He writes: “Most churchgoers spend far more time in front of the ­television than they do in church and for many, the personalities they see nightly on the soaps and the news are more familiar than their priest or minister or their fellow parishioners.”

Another thought-provoking observation that bears consideration by church authorities is the suggestion that in its local churches, the organisation has what amounts to a network of local correspondents. Similarly, he floats the idea of a Christian news service like Al Jazeera .

Although the book is unlikely to have a very wide reading outside of church circles, many secular ­journalists would be intrigued by Chatteris’s suggestion that perhaps in their “critical and prophetic take on the world” journalists have much in common with the mystical prophets of old.

Unfortunately, the book is marred in places by poor proofreading, which was unexpected for a publisher as ­experienced as this one.

Julia Denny-Dimitriou


The Church and the Media

Chris Chatteris

Cluster Publications

BORN in Zambia (Northern ­Rhodesia) in 1950, Chris ­Chatteris went to school in Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom, where he joined the ­Roman Catholic order Society of Jesus or ­Jesuits.

He came to South Africa in 1958 and has worked as a ­parish priest, seminary teacher, administrator, and journalist in KZN and Johannesburg.

He now works at the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg.

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