Round up the usual suspects!

CasablancaAirportSorry for the delay on this one folks. I have, for some time now, been meaning to post the link to some interesting comments from the noted Vatican watcher John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter. In a way, it's a meditation on the need for reporters -- especially when covering Roman and American Catholicism -- to dig past the easy layers of official sources and talk to real people on both sides of the church aisle. There are some behind the scenes tidbits in here, the kind that have made Allen one of the world's most famous Vatican storytellers (for better or for worse, depending on how you view his take on things Roman).

However, Allen also notes that the problems mainstream journalists have covering Catholicism must be linked to a larger topic.

... (There) is a deep cultural gap between Rome and the United States, which means that even when reporters get the facts right about something the Vatican has said or done, they often get the story wrong. ... Further, most news organizations don't take religion seriously as a news beat, so it's covered part-time, often by people without any special training or background. (In Fort Worth, for example, I'm told that one local religion writer also has the rodeo beat). "News" is generally defined as something new or different ("man bites dog"), so for a 2,000 year-old tradition that prizes continuity, a broad swath of Catholic life will never count as "news" for most media outlets. Further, because conflict is the stuff of drama, news reports rarely focus on instances of harmony or quiet service, another way in which much Catholic life flies below the radar screen. Additionally, because "the church" is usually understood to mean the clerical caste, the vast range of works carried out by laity are at times all but invisible. (I was recently asked by the BBC to recommend someone from the church to interview on the subject of women in Catholicism. Since Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, happened to be in Rome that week, I passed along her name. The producer's response was, "But we want someone from the church!")

Yes, there is that whole thing about many mainstream journalists failing to get religion. We sort of agree with that.

However, there is something deeper going on as well. How do journalists pick their sources? Why do certain names keep showing up in major media over and over (think Pat Robertson or Father Richard McBrien)?

Well, the other day Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher sort of hit the wall on precisely this topic and pounded out this rather dark meditation on precisely this subject. You need to read the whole thing -- but here is the heart of it. I would like to stress that Rod is describing bad journalism in this post and there are many reporters out there, including some we salute over and over at this blog, who prefer to do good journalism. It can be done.

So how do the journalistic usual suspects become the usual suspects who get rounded up in news report after news report? Take it away, Rod:

1. Outright bias. The reporter has an agenda, and calls the expert he knows will give him the quote he wants to spin the story a certain way. If, for example, you want to make Evangelicals come across in a certain way, you will call Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, even though their influence on the broad swath of Evangelicalism has long been waning.

2. Laziness, or expedience. No reporter can be expert in everything, and all reporters work under strict deadlines. Lots of times they'll do a Google or a Nexis search to see which expert in which given field has been previously cited by reporters. "Norman Ornstein" turns up a lot. He's an American Enterprise Institute scholar who knows a lot about Washington politics. Nothing wrong with his advice, but one reason he's so widely quoted is ... because he's been so widely quoted.

3. Ignorance. This is closely related to No. 2. A reporter who means well, and who has the time to research a story, may be unaware of the nuances of a particular field, might not understand that the favored expert is not really expert. She's going on past reputation as a guide to present expertise. The difference between this and No. 2 is that she really may be trying to do the best job she can, and not cut corners, but her ignorance of the subject area leads her to fall back on the usual suspects, thinking she's gone to the leading expert.

4. Media-friendly sources. Nothing makes a source rise to the "must-call" list of a reporter faster than the source's willingness to take the reporter's call, or to call him back as soon as possible. Again, it's a deadline thing. A lot of the experts you see quoted so often build up their reputation with the media by being helpful and accomodating. It's hard to express to those not in the business how helpful that is to a reporter on deadline. (This is why it's good to remember that if a reporter calls you for a quote, if you intend to speak to the reporter at all, call her back as soon as you can; she's got a story to file, and if you don't get back to her promptly, she'll go to somebody else who will.)

Leaders of major religious organizations may want to clip that list and file it for fun reading on bad-press days. Remember, reporters cannot call you if they do not know you exist. And some reporters may not want to know you exist, because you might spoil the story they have already written inside their heads.

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