Catholic journalist: oxymoron or perfect match?

Posted by MeganFinnegan at 8/25/2009 1:21 PM EDT

This week, I started at City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. As one professor put it, I am now a reporter going through a graduate program. "Student," while technically the correct term, feels too much like college and not serious enough. So I'm wearing a name tag and learning video editing software and journalistic ethics and how to stretch student loan dollars as far as possible. I'm no longer a part-time writer or freelancer; I'm a reporter in training. Today the thought occurred to me, what does it mean to be a Catholic journalist?

There is a certain category of writers who could be classified as "ex-Catholics" - those raised in the faith but who no longer practice it. Then there are writers who are Catholic first - those who write mainly religious books or for Catholic publications. My goal is to finagle myself somewhere between these two categories.

There are a lot of things about being Catholic that, if I apply them, will actually make me a better journalist. First and foremost: an acute sense of guilt. Yesterday at J-school, after learning how to use Final Cut Pro, we discussed our newfound abilities to alter time, sound and visual realities with the slide of a mouse, and how we must adhere to strict rules when presenting video presentations as news. One guideline: imagine what viewers would say if they were in the broadcast studio during the editing process. A better rule, as far as I'm concerned, is to remember that God is in the broadcast studio during the editing process, so don't try to pull a fast one. Even if your editor, boss, colleagues, and viewers will never know that you manipulated the facts, God knows. Anyone who's ever sweated on the screen side of a confessional knows how well this must work.

Ideally, another tenet of Catholicism is compassion, especially for those less fortunate than oneself. A good journalist will spare no harsh words for the powerful, for those who place themselves in the public eye and must endure the requisite scrutiny, but will also present the single mother on the Burger King night shift with dignity and respect. Healthy skepticism (or recently, blatant mistrust) of people in power and of the power structure itself? Check, for all Catholics with a conscience and access to a newspaper.

Another thing that Catholics, in theory, do is to reserve judgment for fellow human beings. That should be left up to God, not to us. Similarly, a journalist presents a good story and leaves the judgment up to the public.

(Disclaimer: as we all know, this blog is strictly opinion and is thus not subject to the same journalistic rigor that I will henceforth be applying to other writing. Still, I certainly strive to make clear when I do present facts and when statements reflect only my humble and loud opinions.)

I'm hoping that a lot of things ingrained in my Catholic self will easily translate into good journalism, but the opposite question must be asked as well: What about being Catholic will make it harder to be a journalist? And what about being a journalist will make it harder to be a Catholic?

For one thing, the Church might consider it a dicey maneuver to bind oneself to a set of rules other than the 10 Commandments. Quite honestly, I flip through Elements of Style much more frequently than I do the Bible. But I would argue that any set of rules not in direct conflict with one's religion can only serve to enhance one's faith. For instance, Thou Shalt Not Lie is pretty clear but not at all nuanced. Journalism bases itself heavily on that single idea, expanded into a thousand circumstantial rules. Basing a career around telling the truth and doing it well has to at least warrant a nod from the man upstairs.

The whole questioning authority deal may not go over with Church leaders, but it certainly would with Jesus. At the same time, all journalists want to make money and support themselves, which leads many to work for giant corporations (there are only a few at the top, after all) which may or may not be engaged in the best business practices. Fight the man, but make sure another man is paying you. It's a tough world to navigate.

There's also the same temptation for journalists that one faces as a Catholic - to merely show up and contribute to the noise. It's possible to attend Mass, say every prayer and response in perfect unison, and not actually talk to God. We can go through the motions without engaging. In the same way, every writer can choose to report on the same things, to add more words to the ever-increasing volume without working to affect or change anything. The challenge is, in both situations, to rise above a comfort level.

What kind of Catholic journalist will I be? I don't know yet. At this point, I know I could be a better Catholic and a better journalist. If I focus on improving one of those things, will the other follow? In the next year and a half, I suppose I will find out.

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