New Media and the Catholic Church: What Effect?

The media have undoubtedly undergone drastic changes in recent years thanks to the modern technological advancement which has brought about changes in methods of information processing and dissemination. The content of Mass Communication presented through a “broadcast” is gradually taking the form of a “narrowcast” where the older approaches to news are giving room to what is today referred to as “new news.” These are the results of the coming into play of the “New Media” which is the subject of this article. As these changes take place in society, and the global struggle to take advantage of technological sophistication to meet the information need of this age continues to grow, the concern of this paper is to examine how the Catholic Church should respond to this moving reality as she proclaims the Gospel of Christ to the same world and people. Since evangelization is a primary duty of the church, and evangelization cannot be effective without being communicated, the Catholic Church cannot but assess its effectiveness in the use of modern means of communication to transmit Christ to the world. This paper shall look at what the “New Media” are all about and examine where the Catholic Church should stand in this unfolding. It shall attempt proffering suggestions in areas where improvement or attention needs to be focused.

The New Media
The Wikipedia free encyclopedia describes the “New Media” as “a term meant to encompass the emergence of digital, computerized, or network information and communication technologies in the later part of the 20th century…often characterized of being manipulable, networkable, dense, compressible and impartiable.” In the new media traditional means of communication such as television, radio and newspapers are converged into one. Internet is the word used to describe the convergence point. Through the Internet one can watch TV, listen to radio and read news. The user can download and upload pictures and video. Media convergence has brought about the advent of digital television and online publication which can be readily available to millions of users at the same time, as opposed to the older media and the new media are very interactive. Werner J. Severin and James W. Tankard (2001), quoting McManus (1994), said of the new media: “We are shifting from content geared to mass audiences to content tailored for groups or individuals…from one way to interactive media.” With a computer or even a cell phone one can access the internet, television, radio, cable and publications; make telephone calls; carry out marketing; perform banking transactions; and do a host of other things. It is amazing that today television and radio are described as traditional means of communication. Very many years ago when I was learning social studies in the elementary school, methods that were described as traditional means of communication were the talking drums, town criers and other means that are now almost, if not completely extinct. But now with the new media, television, radio and newspapers are described as the “old news.”

The new media have also brought about the evolution of “cyber families.” You have Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, chat rooms, Blogs and the like, which are also called social media where people share information with messages for targeted audiences. This is known as “cyberspace,” a term coined by William Gibson; it is a metaphorical space where electronic communication takes place (Severin W. & Tankard J., 2001). One interesting aspect of Cyber communication is that it has no geographical limit. Messages posted in Nigeria can be accessed globally. Russell W. Neuman opines that the new media “will alter the meaning of geographic distance, allow for a huge increase in the volume of communication, provide the possibility of increasing the speed of communication, provide opportunities for interactive communication and allow forms of communication that were previously separate to overlap and interconnect” (Newman as cited in Croteau & Hoynes 2003). Latest statistics have shown that out of the estimated world population of over 6.6 trillion, over 1.5 trillion were users of the Internet by the end of December 2008. This showed about 305.5% Internet usage growth from 2000-2008 (www.internetworldstats.com). Caincross (1998) describes the impact of the new media (media convergence) in globalization as a “death of distance.” The new media have blurred the gap between interpersonal communication and mass communication, and between public and private communication. It is gradually breaking down the dominance of the media conglomerates and news is becoming more competitive. The new media give more unlimited access to users and audience, unlike the mainstream media, which are mostly guided by their corporations that are victims of media consolidation. The corporations set down policies and rules, pick and choose what news is to be publicized and be sure it is not harmful to the commercial interests of the conglomerates. Religion in this kind of policy has limited access and may not be adequately transmitted. This is where the new media can be utilized.

The Catholic Church and the Effects of the New Media
Religion is one delicate issue that many people and nations tend not to pick up in news stories. In the United States for instance, the continuous stress on the separation of the state and religion has made religion take the back seat in the media. Religious issues are arguably those least transmitted in the media. When religion is stressed much in the media then it has to be when there is a religious scandal or controversy by or among those in the religious circle. When sometimes religion is spoken about in the media it is often misinterpreted or taught wrongly. The misreporting in the media is as a result of insufficient knowledge, negligence and deliberate jettisoning of religion and the fundamentals of the church.

Fr. John Flynn, in an article on ‘Misreporting Religion’ featured in the December 21, 2008 zenit.org, pointed out some examples of flaws in media reporting of religion. In an article in the December 15 issue of the American Newsweek Magazine, written by Lisa Miller on same-sex marriage, she argued that we cannot take the Bible as a reliable source on what marriage should be like, and also that neither the Bible nor Jesus explicitly defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. On December 15, 2008, the reader’s editor of the U.K’s Guardian newspaper had to admit that they had confused Mary’s Immaculate Conception with the virgin birth of Jesus in a published story on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. What is distressing about it is that the same newspaper had to publish corrections on this same topic seven times in ten years. When Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, smuggled a consecrated host out of a mass, a reporter of the Fox News, on July 7, 2008, while reporting this news, misstated that the host is believed by Catholics to “symbolize” the body of Christ. Instead the Catholic Church does not believe the Eucharist to be a mere “symbol” but the “true” Body of Christ. Fox News was corrected! But when it came to present the corrected version it made further error by saying that the host becomes the Body of Christ when it is “blessed” instead of “consecrated.” Michael J. Parker, Director of Communications, Oblate School of Theology, pointed out how the New York Times in its front page during Pope John Paul II’s lying-in-state referred to his pastoral staff as a “Crow’s ear” rather than “Crosier.” There are many such mistakes arising as a result of most secular journalists’ lack of knowledge of the subject.

In most parts of the world today there is a rising “religio-phobia” in the media owing to religion’s delicate nature. Recently in the U.S. a group of people were pleading the court to grant an injunction prohibiting the use of “so help me God” by the president of the nation during his swearing-in ceremony. For them the use of “God” tends to promote religion and since they do not believe in God they feel use of God’s name excludes them as citizens, which they claim is contrary to the religious freedom the U.S constitution upholds. In addition to this, some groups of individuals are clamouring for same-sex marriage, which they feel not legalising is denying them part of their human rights, a choice of sexual orientation. In Nigeria similar misinterpretations are present and in addition, religion in the media is treated according to geographical background. A region dominated by a certain religion seems to promote mostly that particular religion in the media to the detriment of the other. A lot of claims are made by people against the fundamental dictates of religion worldwide to the extent that issues about religion are becoming very delicate to be treated by the media in order not to hurt anyone. This is gradually leading to a dearth of news on religion.

With all these issues where does the Catholic Church stand in its mission of evangelization? The church has the duty to promote the gospel of Christ. It is a mission given to her by Christ himself and the church cannot but execute this call to mission. But the question is how does the church effectively carry out this mission in a world full of anger and detestation for God? It is a fact that our Sunday homilies are not enough to fulfill our evangelizing task. In most parts of the world today the majority of Christians and Catholics are not regular attendants at even the Sunday worship. How do we get our message to resonate with such people? How do we meet them in their homes and in the places they go? How do we confront the issue of our faithful being constantly misled by false teachings and misguided information? The media are part of the solution! But considering how the mainstream media outlets treat the issue of religion with a lot of disdain, it is absolutely clear that they can no longer be the effective means of communication that the church needs for evangelization today. We must develop a way of using the media to achieve our goal, and this must be done with a greater degree of independence from the mainstream media.

I must state here that the evangelicals have gone steps ahead of the Catholic Church in the use of the media to communicate their message. Considering the structure and size of the church, it will be a big set-back not utilize efficiently this means of communication. The new media have presented to us a new method of communication that could be utilized quite independently of the mainstream media. With the creation of the World Wide Web (WWW) a lot of things can be done through the Internet. Archbishop Claudio Celli, the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, affirmed that the Church does not succumb to fascination with new technologies, but neither does it fear using them to promote peace, love and the encounter with God. He alluded that these changes that are bringing about new culture of communication are urging Church communicators to include those who are left behind in this acceleration, and to collaborate among themselves forming links with those who are at the service of the same high objective to put the Lord Jesus Christ in the heart of the information society (Zenit.org, Dec. 12, 2008).

The Catholic Church in the developed countries should be seen utilizing the many technological advances they possess to preach the faith. The websites should not be left to the dominance of the marketers alone. Statistics indicate that 64.1% of Americans are Internet users (internetworldstats.com). It is estimated that 82% of U.S. teens ages 12-17 and 43.5% of children ages 3-11 will use the Internet on a monthly basis in 2009; and one out of three U.S. Internet users, that is more than 70 million consumers, also access the Internet through a mobile device. In the United Kingdom it is estimated that 1.3 million U.K. residents have come online since 2007 and a similar number will access the web for the first time between 2008 and 2009 (www.marketresearch.com).

Even for those of us in less technologically advanced countries like Nigeria, the Catholic Church can still utilize the technology available for disseminating the truth of our faith. Dioceses can develop TV and radio programs. We have professional Catholics in the mass media; the Bishops of Nigeria can join hands to develop a TV or radio network through which the Catholic faith can be transmitted. Let the different dioceses develop their websites to allow interactivity. Where the state media cannot allow transmission of our faith because of religious bias, the Internet can be utilized and people can blog on our sites and be sure to have answers to their questions. The church must continue to push for a more technologically advanced Nigeria, because the benefits to our faith outweigh the cost.

Above all, we must encourage our Catholic faithful to develop interest in the use of the Internet and encourage them to use it effectively. In Africa internet and Broadband markets are very much untapped. Though there is a remarkable growth in Internet uptake, its market penetration is very low due to the lack of reliable phone line networks, according to market research.com. African population was estimated to be about 955,206,348 at the end of 2008, and 53,136,930 of the African population were Internet users at the end of 2008. Africa now makes 5.4% of the total Internet users in the world. In Nigeria, Internet users made up 7.5% of the country’s population as at March 2008. That is about 10,000,000 Nigerians were Internet users in 2008 (www.internetworldstats.com). The numbers show some growth but much still remains untapped!

Suggestions
With the kind of growth we see in the usage of the Internet, it is certain that the new media are taking over the mainstream trend of communication. This has even led to addiction by many to the Internet, which is a negative side effect that must be moderated. This only shows an indication that the Catholic Church as a religious institution has to develop a method of reaching out to the faithful using the new media. In effect, the Church has to be a teacher and a moderator in the cyber world. Pope Benedict XVI is very loud and clear on this. He stated, “New technologies have an extraordinary potential, if used to favour understanding and human solidarity. These technologies are a real gift for humanity; therefore we have to make sure the advantages they offer are put to the service of all peoples and communities.” In his speech to the directors and staff of the Vatican Television Centre on December 18, 2008, the Pontiff said he wants “the life of the church to be present in audio, text and video on the Internet.” It is not surprising then that the Holy Father is now in ‘You Tube’ (visit YouTube.com/Vatican). The CNN News calls it ‘PopeTube.’

The new media today are a major tool used for propaganda, to make and to mar, and the church cannot but make use of it to propagate the faith, to make strong the faith of our faithful and to mar the false teachings that come from detractors. The first apostles, St. Paul and his companions, used all the available means of communication of their time to transmit what we have today as the word of God. They travelled long distances, wrote letters and sent different kinds of correspondences far and near to teach, to preach and to convert. Today with the growth of technology we do not need to travel far to pass our messages; a message posted in the Internet could be accessed within seconds all over the world. This is a goal that no amount should be too much for us to achieve. We must invest heavily in proclaiming the gospel through the new media.

As a form of conclusion I offer the following opinion and suggestions:
First, the church should establish more international media channels that would explain the doctrine, teach the faith and inculcate religious morals to our people in a more detailed manner. Particular churches should attempt replicating the same for their nations, and dioceses should sponsor Catholic TV and radio programs in their territories.
Second, dioceses should develop and upgrade their websites to improve more interactivity. I applaud the efforts of most Catholic dioceses and organizations that have created websites. However, the contents of these websites must exceed mere contact addresses, names of parishes and personnel with a few write-ups. Let the sites be interactive. Let us have live-chats where faithful can log in and ask questions regarding their faith and belief with a church expert on theology and doctrine. These kinds of interactive live-chats are found in most websites of advertisers and marketers. We can utilize this means for our faith formation.

Third, with the way Catholic doctrines are misinterpreted by the media, the Catholic media practitioners must be more functional in using alternative media in transmitting and defending the faith. Teams of media experts should always read and analyse books written against the fundamental teachings of the church and should in turn write counter-books explaining the truth in more details. They should also monitor some of the wrong transmissions and misinterpretation of doctrines presented by the media and try correcting them using our channels or alternative media.

Fourth, as part of media interaction, dioceses should organize telephone call-in programs on TV and radio, promote and encourage the idea of our faithful sending emails to diocesan-provided addresses with questions, and be sure to get responses from designated church officials.

Fifth, we should encourage having more Catholic i-reporters whose duties would be to provide information through the Internet and serve as public relations agents. This should go with the creation of Catholic cyber-families to encourage faith-sharing communities through the internet. Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and the like are used as meeting points of socializing for people, and our Catholic Cyber-family site can be used as a meeting point for the exchange of religious knowledge, sound Catholic doctrine and faith sharing.

In Nigeria these may appear at first sight as unachievable goals because of our technological backwardness, but we would get there. And getting there means experimenting with what is available.

One Response

  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful essay. I am so excited to hear that my brothers and sisters in Nigeria are wanting the same things that many of us want here in the United States of America. Please visit my blog whenever you can, http://catholicmediagirl.wordpress.com

    Peace to you and your loved ones.

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