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Catholic media faces international challenge for survival: ‘Social media is changing the way we understand the truth’

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Father Cedric Prakash, a prolific writer based in Ahmedabad, India, is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/Indian Catholic Press Association)

José María Poirier has mixed feelings when he talks about the monthly magazine he runs in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.

Poirier smiles when he talks about the magazine, Criterio, and its history. The magazine will celebrate its 95th anniversary next year, no small feat in a country often hit by political turmoil and economic crisis. Criterio is the oldest continuously published monthly magazine in Argentina and dean of confessional publications.

At the same time, however, Poirier admits that he and his team work on a volunteer basis in order to keep Criterio afloat amid the many challenges facing Catholic media, despite the huge figure of Pope Francis, an Argentine.

“Catholic media is struggling. We have a news agency, the Argentine Catholic Information Agency, but it does not have the weight it once did. Many publications have disappeared. I think there is a place for confessional media, but there has to be room for discernment,” he said.

Whether the economy, the lingering impact of the pandemic or the explosion of social media, Catholic media is changing at a rapid pace, and news outlets in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean are searching for the best ways not only to survive but remain a relevant source of information.

The print media, from magazines like Criterio to weekly newspapers, face the most significant challenges, which became even more pronounced during the pandemic.

In Trinidad and Tobago, a twin-island nation in the Caribbean, The Catholic News is the country’s oldest newspaper. Founded in 1892, it is the second-oldest paper in the English-speaking Caribbean after Jamacia’s Gleaner. The weekly paper’s principal distribution channel was through parishes, but that ended abruptly when the pandemic hit and churches closed.

“The Catholic News faced its most serious test with the pandemic and had to digitalize to survive,” said Lisa Bhajan, a Trinidadian journalist and president of SIGNIS Caribbean, an association that brings together Catholic communicators from the 19 dioceses that form the Antilles Episcopal Conference.

Lisa Bhajan is a Trinidadian journalist and president of SIGNIS Caribbean. (CNS photo/courtesy Lisa Bhajan) Editors: best quality available.

“Print media is being replaced, but that does not mean it is going to disappear. The challenge now is driving people to websites,” said Bhajan, station manager of Trinity Communications Network, a Catholic television network. “You can have the nicest website in the world, but it will not matter if people do not know how to find it.”

While changing, print media is still an important source for information in countries throughout Asia.

Agnes Chai of Catholic Sabah news outlet in Malaysia said print media is critically important in her corner of the world.

“Our technology infrastructure is less than super, which affects people who live in the rural areas, so print news is the only source of information available for some of our parishioners in remote areas,” she said.

For Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, the print media remains a staple in his country, India, and much of Asia.

“The spread of social media has been tremendous, but there is no substitute for print media for many people in Asia. I am convinced that the two will coexist for some time to come,” said Father Prakash, a prolific writer based in Ahmedabad.

Christopher Joseph, editorial coordinator of the Union of Catholic Asian News, one of the world’s largest Catholic news agencies, said two issues are critical for Asia — language and content.

Christopher Joseph, editorial coordinator of the Union of Catholic Asian News, one of the world’s largest Catholic news agencies, is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/UCA News)

He said print media continues to be important in many areas, where content from UCA News and other agencies are translated into multiple languages. He said the success of UCA News, however, is the independent nature of its content. The agency is not financed by any of the bishops’ conferences in Asia.

“We have very good relations with the hierarchy, but we are independent. We are the first Catholic agency that is staffed only by laypeople. We are fiercely journalistic, but also fiercely Catholic, which is why it works,” he said.

He said the key is reporting on what matters to people and providing context to the news bits and sound bites found on social media.

“Social media is changing the way we understand the truth and how people comment on church news and social issues. These stories tend to contain a grain of truth, which makes our reporting all the more necessary,” he said.

Montfort Father Andrew Kaufa literally wrote the book on Catholic media in Africa. His 2020 book, “The Elephant in the House,” examines Catholic media in East Africa, but it is applicable around the world. He said social media has basically made everyone a journalist, so Catholic media should double down on what it does best.

Montfort Father Andrew Kaufa, author of a book on Catholic media in East Africa, “The Elephant in the House,” is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Father Andrew Kaufa)

“The margin between spreading news and rumors is very thin. I think Catholic media can be helpful to the people if they opt not so much for breaking news but for verification of news, which requires the Catholic media to include more research and critical analysis. In this way, they will avoid the trap of misinformation but also gain the reputation of people as reliable, credible sources of news,” he said.

Fathers Kaufa and Prakash caution that church media cannot get stuck reporting only niceties about the clergy. Father Kaufa said Catholics in Africa want a holistic approach from Catholic media.

“The news reported by Catholic media must give a full picture of what is happening in the church, but also in the secular world, what is going on politically, economically and socially speaking.

Father Prakash said he fears church media is not effectively communicating the signs of the time.

“Catholic newspapers and magazines are not addressing critical issues. It is easy to write about the pope’s encyclical ‘Laudato Si” and encourage people to plant a tree or not use plastic, but they will not take on the corporate sector that is responsible for destroying the environment,” he said.

Andrés Cañizalez, who runs a news program on Radio Fe y Alegría, a Catholic radio station in Caracas, Venezuela, said radio stations have some of the same problems as print media, including losing audience, especially the young audience, to social media.

“Young people are looking for other ways to be connected, finding content in different places. Catholic radios have the challenge to reinvent themselves while maintaining their essence,” he said.

He said radio stations, and Catholic media in general, need to maintain their identity with the church while reporting on content that appeals to different audiences.

“We have to make sure that people are at the center, so that we can engage with new audiences while focusing on the themes that set Catholic media apart from mainstream media,” he said.

Catholic radio does not have the same presence in Asia and Africa as it does in Latin America, but Chai said it made inroads in Malaysia and other countries in the region during the pandemic. Kaufa said while radio stations began spreading in the late 1990s in Africa, the internet and social media have taken over.

Bhajan said Catholic news outlets need to focus on media training to guarantee content and making sure that information is disseminated effectively.

Her news network has been running a weeklong Caribbean School for Catholic Communications every year since 1995 and, in 2020, SIGNIS Caribbean started its own training program, Communications for the Antilles Specialist Training.

Bhajan said CAST is an online multimedia training “to teach about audio and print, how to write an article, set up an Instagram post, all the skills required to communicate our Catholic ethos.”