Journalism, Media, and Catholicism: An Interview with Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

In case you missed it, Pope Francis’ prayer intention for the month of October was for journalists. In choosing this intention, the pope was challenging Catholics to be more reflective about how our participation in the common good is dependent on those who practice journalism as a profession. To explore this more, I reached out to Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, who is the assistant editor at PostEverything and Outlook for the Washington Post and will be a contributing writer for America, writing on religion, politics, and public life, starting in 2017.

14936880_1697331527250458_1806655523_nIn our interview, she discusses both how Catholicism informs her work and how she believes it should inform other Catholics in their efforts to bring about what Pope Francis calls “a culture of encounter”.

How do you see principles of Catholic social teaching informing your work?

We all have an obligation in our own work to pursue the common good. For journalists, I think about it in terms of advancing stories that are true, first and foremost, and that are relevant to the public interest. In my editing work, I try to seek out stories that I feel address issues that are being under-addressed.

The two sections I post in—Post Outlook and Everything—are very diverse sections. They are both devoted to having broad conversations. So, for example, since I know both the communities in the Catholic world and the specific political writers who write from a Catholic perspective, I try to seek out people from those groups to contribute pieces for us when relevant. For example, we have a Catholic medical student, Chris Landry, working on a story about how Zika warnings have caused abortion demand to far outpace what the likely incidence of microcephaly will really be. We’ve also invited  Charlie Camosy to write on the potential of a pro-life left.

In working on all of these stories, I feel like I am offering people an opportunity to see perspectives that they may not see very often.

What would you say about the importance of people reading about big picture events that may not directly relate to their own everyday experience? How do these larger questions still relate to our common good?

One of the things I really like about journalism looked at in terms of Catholic Social Teaching is that there is a subsidiarity principle at play. Local papers do a lot to keep ordinary people informed about what is going on in their particular town, and then larger papers like the Post or the Times take on the role of informing people of what is happening nationally or even globally.

These larger papers invite people to partake in the common good by keeping them informed about issues that are going on in other countries and that are affecting the globe, like climate change or Zika. For example, there’s a great piece coming in soon about corruption and climate change in Honduras. We also, of course, try to keep our readers informed about national conflict.

When we inform people about these things, we invite them to participate in the common good and common life of other countries and to even take action if they feel that it is needed.

What are opportunities you see for how the work of journalists should inform the actions of everyday citizens?

We can definitely inform votes, we can inform political action, and we can inform people about needs, shortages, and suffering that are going on in other countries. Oftentimes we can inform people about direct actions such as donations to campaigns, non-profits, or NGOs.

Also, I think that there is a role for papers to take a strong moral stand for people to receive some moral education, to help inform their consciences so they can start thinking about their everyday problems in a different way.

In the opinion section, we can showcase people who have strong perspectives, and this helps people to develop their own moral sense and to see the issues in their lives that have a moral aspect that before they might have overlooked.

Do you have any specific example in mind of something that is going on right now?

We’ve published a string of pieces recently that have to do with autism. I think it would be great if people read more about parents and families of children with autism, as well as people who have autism themselves, and what they go through in life. It seems like one of those disorders that could be helped quite a bit by a little more tolerance. People with autism have a lot to offer and oftentimes are overlooked because they have some difficulties socially. I hope that our work on people and families with autism will invite others to sympathize a bit and to see things from their perspective.

How might Catholic non-journalists around the world be more aware and supportive of journalists?

One of the things that we look to the public for is to help keep us correct. We have great fact checkers, and we fact check our articles ourselves so that they go through several levels of review. But periodically you’ll get a reader who is very educated on a subject who will tell us there is something that is off, and we do run corrections in those cases.

The public can really play a powerful role today because our knowledge bases are disseminated across millions of people, so definitely communicate with your papers and communicate with your journalists. I don’t think there should be an impenetrable wall between journalists and everyday people.

Journalism is here to serve the interests of everyone, and I think it would be great if people felt more comfortable reaching out to journalists and their papers to communicate not only their knowledge but their stories and what matters to them.

Do you have any rules of thumb for how people should consider getting their news, especially considering how much it has changed over the past decade?

I would urge people to not give up on print. Television and even streaming news online have a different way of connecting with viewers and they have a different goal: they want to keep you watching. So it’s going to be a little bit more sensationalist that what we do in print where each story has been individually conceived of by different authors and pulled together by different teams of editors.

For one Sunday copy of the Washington Post, there are hundreds of editors and hundreds of writers who worked on it. So you are getting a huge variety of perspectives, and you are also getting the stories that were not necessarily all conceived for the same reasons. It’s news less as entertainment and more as journalism in the public interest.

News entertainment shows can be really fun. A lot of people like the Daily Show—and the Colbert Report when it was still on—because it gives you the news in an entertaining way. But there is actually a lot of similarity between those shows and talk TV news. Print, even though it takes longer and even though it can be a little bit annoying to get a hold of if you don’t get a newspaper delivered to your house, is worth it because it lets you keep up with the news that’s not just one perspective that’s not just entertainment.

How should our knowledge of sources inform the way that we think about the subject matter?

I think that it’s pretty useful for the everyday viewer to consider that every source in the journalism industry is telling you something about the world. Now maybe a source is selectively picking up on information or mischaracterizing information in ways that serve their interests, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can learn from it.

Taking the election as an example, you can hear polling information from Fox that’s characterized in a completely different way coming than MSNBC. That’s telling you something about the polarizing nature of American politics, and it’s telling you something about the heights of intensity in the election among other things.

What kind of principles do you think everyday people should be using when following the news as part of their daily routine?

I think that if you are bringing journalism into your daily life, you should focus on patience. I would recommend that you commit yourself to following a few subject matter stories as they develop across different platforms and different publications. So I would commit myself to dialogue, to recognizing that there are going to be different perspectives when they present themselves and looking at them as pieces of the dialogue about the subject matter.

I would commitment myself to truth, to trying to distinguish misleading information from information that is true and to think critically about what I am consuming. I would also definitely consider what I consume in terms of the common good—try to focus on things that are going to help you be a responsible citizen and person in your community, country, and the world.

Bonus Question: How do you follow news in D.C.?

D.C. feels really big to me, but I’m originally from Arlington, Texas, which is also a really huge city. What I try to do in D.C. is to focus on it as almost two separate communities: there is almost a Washington and a D.C.

You can follow the news about the Hill and about politics, including the think tank sphere or the philanthropy sphere. Then you can also follow news about D.C. I’ve found neighborhood listservs to be really helpful in knowing what’s going on in the most local levels–there is an email list for every neighborhood in D.C., and if you want it’s really easy to set one up in your neighborhood.

In terms of the communities that surround D.C., I do like reading the local papers to the degree that they are online and you can get them in print.

Philip de Mahy is a PhD candidate in Politics at Catholic University and graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.