Thursday, September 24, 2009

Now this is helpful. No, really.

One of the biggest contributors to the loss of Catholic identity is the media's coverage of "devout" Catholics who are anything but. The term devout is thrown around too much and more often than not confuses the heck out of Catholics and even non-Catholics. The problem is that by calling someone a "devout" anything, you label them as a sort of poster child. This wouldn't be a bad thing if the people the media tend to call devout were in fact just that. Alas, that is not the case and so we have the media labeling all sorts of people as "devout Catholics" when in truth they simply are not. Here is a good article from about journalism's use of the term devout. Below is a section of that article where the author listed feedback from "religion-beat veterans and observers".

There is no question that the term “devout” is used far too often and in a sloppy manner, said Richard Ostling, a religion-beat veteran best known for his work with Time and the Associated Press. This fact could be a comment on how little exposure many mainstream journalists have to religious life and practice.

“Perhaps, to someone with only secularist experiences and friends, any level of religious interest of any type might seem ‘devout,’ ” he said. But, in the end, “reporters can only observe outward behavior, not the inner soul. … There’s usually a connection between observance and personal faith, so generally it makes sense to assess personal belief by externals.”

Many of these common labels used to describe believers — terms such as “serious,” “practicing,” “committed” and, yes, “devout” — are completely subjective, agreed Debra Mason, director of the Religion Newswriters Association at the University of Missouri.

Different people define these words in different ways. With the “devout” label, there is even the implication that these believers may be fanatics.

When in doubt, reporters should simply drop the vague labels and use plain information, she said, echoing advice offered by Ostling and others.

“Since journalists do not have a direct line into the soul to discern a person’s faith, it is far better to use precise descriptions of a person’s religious practice and observance,” said Mason. For example, a reporter could note that, “Joe Smith attended Mass every day” or that “Jane Smith attended worship every week, even when ill.”

The goal is to use clear facts instead of foggy labels, an approach that Mason admitted may require journalists to add a line or two of context or background information. Non-Catholics, for example, may not understand the importance of a Catholic choosing to attend Mass every day.

However, she stressed, this extra work is “a small price to pay for more accurate and precise reporting.”

Now isn't that helpful?

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