Should bishops hire journalists?

As I meet with bishops and diocesan leaders to discuss their communications needs, the question of what type of communicator a diocese should hire comes up. I get asked to help develop job descriptions for editors and communications directors. I participate in interview panels. They ask me about the types of candidates that are successful in other dioceses. Diocesan content creators come from a variety of professional and academic backgrounds such as marketing, public relations and journalism. 

The question that often comes up is this: Should bishops hire journalists to help them with their mission to evangelize? 

“Good journalism supports effective evangelization” is a proposed new line in the vision statement for the Catholic Press Association. Is that true? Does good journalism support effective evangelization? 

The American Press Association (APA) identifies nine principles of journalism. Let’s take them one-by-one to see how these journalistic characteristics can serve a diocese:

1) Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. 

This is the first APA principle for journalism. As Catholics, we believe that Christ is truth itself. So, yes, dioceses should hire someone who can create content that helps people understand the truth about God and the very nature of our human condition. I believe diocesan content creators’ primary role is to proclaim the Good News that Jesus Christ is the source of our happiness in this life and the next. Dioceses should also want the truth about the Church published and made public. From the clergy abuse crisis to financial transparency, the institutional Church is best served by professional Catholic journalism that brings truth into light. This sort of journalism can help restore trust in Catholic leaders and the institutional Church. 

2) Its first loyalty is to citizens.

The APA states that journalists must “maintain allegiance to citizens and the larger public interest above any other if they are to provide the news without fear or favor.” It continues to explain that a commitment to citizens means that journalism “should present a representative picture of all constituent groups in society.” According to this logic, would a diocesan journalist feel compelled to publish views from all sides of an issue, including perspectives that may run counter to Church teaching? If this APA standard is not followed, is the editor functioning as a public relations professional rather than a true journalist? This question has been a debate at many past Catholic Media Conferences. How does a diocesan employee balance his or her journalistic integrity with serving a bishop? 

When the ideals of journalism appear to take precedence  over being a disciple who evangelizes, the diocesan journalist can lose his or her way. 

In my opinion, this is creating a false dichotomy. I believe diocesan content creators should have the same goals as their bishops. Because of our common baptism, each of us should first serve the mission of Christ through the Church. That means a diocesan editor should employ those APA principles that are helpful, and should abandon any that undermine Christ’s mission through his Church. In other words, it is a higher call to be an evangelist than a journalist. When the ideals of journalism appear to take precedence over being a disciple who evangelizes, the diocesan journalist can lose his or her way. 

3) Its essence is the discipline of verification.

Journalistic integrity and discipline ensure that a fact is a fact before it is published. This APA principle serves a bishop well. Fact-checking, providing insight into sources, and verification of the truth or falsehood of statements provide the reader with reliable information. That builds trust in the Church. Bishops are wise to allow their diocesan journalists to see source documents, vet statistics, question claims and interview subjects with direct knowledge of the facts. The discipline of verification is not disrespect or disloyalty; it is the opposite. 

4) Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

The argument for journalistic independence is passionately defended by secular journalists, and with good reason. Our republic relies on a free press. Some in the Catholic Press Association believe deeply that that same journalistic standard applies to diocesan journalists, who must have independence from the bishop and/or diocese. They believe it is necessary to draw a stark line between public relations and journalism. Their underlying belief is that the primary content a diocese needs to create is news, which has more credibility with readers than content that is viewed as propaganda. 

In my opinion, there are several problems in applying this secular journalistic standard to a diocesan content creator. First, does a news-first approach evangelize? Only 21 percent of registered Catholics attend Mass weekly — why would they be interested in Catholic news when they aren’t participating in the life of the Church? Our research shows that most Catholics are not interested in a news-first diocesan publishing approach. This means that, in order to evangelize, dioceses need to create content that does just that. I believe news is not the only content that should come from a diocese, nor is it the most important.  Content creators can draw upon their journalistic skills, such as good writing, editing and storytelling, to evangelize. Some of the best editors with whom we work have journalistic backgrounds.

I believe diocesan content creators should not be independent from the Church. Instead, they should be closely tied to the mission of the Church and become essential aids to the bishop’s work.

Second, the principle of journalistic independence within a diocese can erode trust between the bishop and those he has hired to help him get the Church's message out. Many times, I’ve heard bishops complain about this very thing. Some bishops feel underserved and even undermined by their diocesan journalists. I hear stories about the bishop or communications director asking the editor to run something in the diocesan paper, and the editor replies, “I’ll consider it.” I once heard an editor say, “If the bishop or communications director expects me to publish something, they want a secretary, not an editor.” This sort of misplaced value on independence can erode trust in the editor and create questions about the usefulness of the publication within a diocese. It is unnecessarily confrontational. In my view, it devalues the mission of the Church and, instead, elevates journalism as the highest good. Maintaining this position doesn’t help the editor, either. When journalistic independence becomes an unnecessary ideology that the diocesan editor feels he or she has to maintain, it can isolate the editor and the publication’s  staff. It puts them in a silo and makes them vulnerable to budget cuts, criticism, and even closure. 

Third, there is an important distinction between the important role of independent Catholic journalism and the diocesan press. National blogs, independent Catholic newspapers and religious order magazines can probe, question and independently observe the Church. This can be a proper and helpful application of the APA journalistic standard that applies to truly independent Catholic journalists, as opposed to the diocesan press. 

I think the average Catholic would be surprised by the assertion that the diocesan newspaper or magazine is independent from the diocese or the bishop/publisher. Just like an alumni publication from a university or a trade association newspaper, the reader presumes that these publications are the voice of the organization. This is not a bad thing, and does not mean readers discard the content or are disinterested. 

I believe diocesan content creators should not be independent from the Church. Instead, they should be closely tied to the mission of the Church and become essential aids to the bishop’s work.

5) It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

In our democratic society, the ability of the press to hold power accountable is so critical that it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Does this standard apply to diocesan media? Is it their role to hold bishops accountable? Some in the Catholic Press Association will recall a bishop who is notorious for stating that the purpose of his diocesan paper was to “make him look good.” It was a cringe-inducing comment. Worse is our knowledge of how the Body of Christ is suffering from leaders who have abused their power. I have listened to anguished Catholic communicators whose diocesan leaders have lied to them. Some have sacrificed their own personal and professional integrity by making media statements that turned out not to be true. Some of my colleagues  have resigned quietly rather than expose suspected wrong-doing from diocesan leaders. 

These questions about the role of journalism within dioceses have consequences. They matter. These secular journalistic standards do apply in many instances, and can have relevance. Diocesan journalists should not serve the personal and professional aspirations of a single person. They should be coworkers with their bishops in the vineyard of the Lord, not propagandists or fix-it men and women for a corrupt leader. Of course, the vast majority of bishops would not only agree, but be equally horrified at the prospect of this.

If the people can’t trust Catholic leaders, how can evangelization occur? Diocesan editors can help with this, through their knowledge of best practices, their journalistic skill, and their understanding of communications. 

Practically speaking, diocesan journalists are only able to do so much. They are not in positions to hold Church leaders accountable with their independent published work, unlike secular journalists do with public figures. After all, it was not the Boston Pilot that broke the scandal of clergy sexual abuse of minors, it was the Boston Globe.  

Instead, diocesan journalists and communicators do what they can with their counsel, candor and prayer to get the truth out. The bishop is best served by those who can advise transparency and accountability from the local Church he shepherds. Because if the people can’t trust Catholic leaders, how can evangelization occur? Diocesan editors can help with this, through their knowledge of best practices, their journalistic skill, and their understanding of communications. It is always better for the bad news about the Church to come from the Church, and to be put into a full and proper context. Secular media can’t be counted on to do that. A diocesan editor can be. 

6) It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

The diocesan publication can be a very helpful vehicle to allow certain views and criticisms to be aired while maintaining some level of separation from the diocese or the bishop. A letter to the editor or a Facebook comment that criticizes the closing of a parish is not something an ordinary wants to see. However, it can be helpful to allow different and respectful viewpoints to be heard rather than silencing them. 

To me, the question is more pastoral than journalistic. How is the Body of Christ best served through publishing criticism? If the people’s views on issues of genuine disagreement are silenced, do we run the danger of alienating a person from the Church? Diocesan media can publish opposing views, but those views should not include anything that implies equal weight between what is Church teaching and what is contrary to that. Journalistic sensibilities should never be used to publish content that might confuse the faithful regarding truth, or undermine the mission of the Church. 

7) It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.

The skill and ability of a professional diocesan journalist to see what is of interest to readers is very helpful for a diocese. In my work, I see professional editors and writers uncover incredible stories. God is good, and he is alive in our parishes and dioceses. He is active in changing people’s lives. He calls each of us to follow him. Seeing how people answer that call is a key to evangelization. Personal witness is perhaps the most compelling way to evangelize. By telling those stories in diocesan media, a diocesan content creator becomes an evangelist who helps people see that the Church is relevant and alive. This type of content helps equip disciples to be better evangelists themselves, and provides them something with which to evangelize. When bishops or diocesan leaders trust their diocesan editors to use their gifts and skills, that’s a foundation for a successful diocesan communications effort. 

Another factor for success is to have frequent readership survey results. At FAITH Catholic, we conduct more readership surveys of diocesan publications than any other organization. We have a unique window into what strategies work and don’t work for dioceses. When diocesan leaders overstep and dominate the publication, when they diminish the proper and professional role of their own editor, the publication often suffers. In those instances, publications get turned into propaganda pieces or insider news-first house organs. Readers tend to find them less interesting and less beneficial. The readership response is lower than those diocesan publications where there is a proper balance between the bishop, as publisher, and the editor. 

That stated, the opposite problem can occur. Diocesan editors can also have a news-first perspective and a blind spot to the role their publications can have in evangelization. In these instances, the bishop is the one who really gets it. He sees the power of the diocesan publication, supports it, and wants it to be a more effective tool for evangelization. In these cases, when the editor prioritizes journalistic independence, and focuses on being news-first, it can become a boring insider publication, where the readership survey response suffers. 

In my experience, success comes when the bishop and editor respect one another’s proper roles. The bishop should set goals. For example, he can prioritize that the purpose of the publication is for evangelization. The editor then creates a publication to achieve those goals. A diocese can know if this works, or whether something needs to be tweaked, based on regular readership surveys and other measures. 

I believe diocesan content creators should think of themselves more than editors, writers, designers and journalists. We are evangelists first. 

8) It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

The best diocesan journalists are far superior to secular journalists and independent Catholic journalists in helping the faithful in a diocese understand the nuances, depth and truth of a local story affecting that local Church. Their journalism forms the diocesan record, the official history of a diocese. They inform the faithful of what is happening in a diocese. They have the inside knowledge to understand and report on the issues in a way that is better than secular journalists. They understand the Church and how to present the news in a way that helps Catholics and the public understand a topic in a way no other journalist can do. 

At its best, diocesan journalism presents Catholic thought on everything from public policy to social justice to matters of faith. The scope is local, diocesan, national and global. It helps Catholics understand news from a Catholic perspective. Diocesan journalism attempts to influence what people think, how they vote and what they do in their lives.

9) Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal consciences.

Applying this final standard to a diocesan journalist is tricky. In a secular publication, the journalist could disagree with the publisher, and this is a journalistic standard. But this is not the case with the diocesan press. Of course, their professional and personal integrity should not be compromised by being duped into publishing something untrue, unverifiable or unfair.


In summary, my opinion is that the term journalist does not fully represent what diocesan editors, writers and communicators do. Journalistic disciplines of fact-checking and dedication to the truth are not just helpful — they are essential. Independence from the Church and elevating views contrary to Catholicism are aspects of journalism that are not helpful. 

After more than 20 years of hearing this debate within the Catholic press, listening to the needs of bishops, observing the successes and struggles of diocesan editors and communications directors, and studying the readership survey results of dozens of diocesan publications, I believe diocesan content creators should think of themselves as more than editors, writers, designers and journalists. We are evangelists first, and we do that through our work of content creation. And that’s who a bishop should hire.