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A Chairman on the Church and the Media

Interview With William Burleigh of Scripps Company

CINCINNATI, Ohio, DEC. 15, 2005 (Zenit) - Modern Catholics have an obligation to be well informed, says the chairman of one of the largest newspaper firms in the United States.

William Burleigh, chairman of E.W. Scripps Company, retired from active management in 2000 after working for the company for 50 years -- first as a reporter and editor, and eventually as its chief executive officer.

He shared with us the proper role of the media, and how the Church and its members should engage the media.

Q: In his message for World Communications Day 2005, Pope John Paul II held up the media "at the service of understanding among peoples." Is that how most journalists see their work?

Burleigh: I don't think I'm being naive in saying that the vast majority of journalists in my experience are basically idealistic.

This may come as a surprise to many who see them as cynical, controlling or even churlish. But I suspect most true professionals would have few quibbles with the late Pope's mandate.

To take but one example: For almost a century, my own company's newspapers have lived by the motto "Give light and the people will find their way." That's another way of saying the same thing about creating understanding among people.

Q: Pope Benedict XVI's theme for World Communications Day 2006 is "The Media: A Network for Communication, Communion and Cooperation." Are the media in general easing the way for unity and understanding among peoples, or exacerbating problems? We can think of Al-Jazeera in the Arab world, but media in the Western world are known to fan the fires of ideology, too.

Burleigh: There's generalized confusion about the role of the media. Its principal function is to gather facts about the world around us and present them in a fair, balanced manner. But another -- and presumably separate -- role is to offer opinions and serve as a marketplace for competing ideas.

Unfortunately, those two roles are more and more frequently mixed together in much of the modern media so that the facts become suspect because they get colored with opinion.

The advent of blogging has only exacerbated the problem. This situation creates a seedbed for ideologies to fester. Unity gives way to divisiveness.

Q: How can the Church be more effective in communicating its message through media that are often hostile, or at best indifferent, to many of the positions taken by the Catholic faith?

Burleigh: Pope John Paul II wrote the book on how to use the media effectively.

He understood that these world levers of communication are essentially neutral tools and can be turned to good purpose. Employing them with consummate skill, he became arguably the most respected figure on the world stage.

Admittedly, one finds hostility and bias in some parts of the media but it is far from pervasive, as the late Holy Father proved. Journalists work in a secular world. By its very transcendent nature, religion is a difficult, unfamiliar subject for them to cover. It does not conform to the everyday formulas of newsgathering.

But this should not mean that the Church and media become ships passing in the night. Churchmen need to engage the media and not cower from it or be afraid of those who work in it.

Q: What recommendations would you have for lay Catholics who work in the media as to how they can transmit their values, and at the same time be accepted as professionals?

Burleigh: Catholic journalists must first strive to be the very finest professionals that they can possibly be. They must be able to excel in their chosen field. Then the integrity and values that animate them will speak for themselves.

Q: What advice could you give to a faithful Catholic who wants to make good use of the media?

Burleigh: Use the media critically and with caution. Understand the strengths and limitations inherent in its various forms. Try not to demonize it or see plots where they don't exist.

At the same time, recognize where the minefields do exist. As citizens and Church members, modern Catholics have an obligation to be well informed -- to live in the light of truth and not the darkness of suspicion and ignorance.

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