COLUMBIA — The Vatican’s former head of communications preached the “good news” of media relations Friday night.
Cardinal John Foley spoke on the relationship between media and religion to a crowd of about 400 at the St. Thomas More Newman Center. Foley emphasized the importance of public relations in the Catholic church in communicating the news of the church to the media. He particularly stressed the need for an open and honest dialogue between the church and the media.
“I would ask you in your communication efforts, share the good news of what is happening here and abroad,” Foley said.
Foley was the head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican until 2007. He coordinated media relations for Pope John Paul II’s funeral and the election and installment of Pope Benedict XVI. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York.
During the 1960s, he covered Vatican II and later became editor of the Catholic Standard and Times, where he instituted a page that highlighted members of the Church who exemplify the doctrinal beliefs in their lives.
“I think people are always interested in people,” he said.
Foley said this type of coverage was vital to showing the positive side of the church and improving the church’s perception in today’s media coverage.
“I thought people needed good role models,” he said.
When asked by a member of the audience whether he felt the U.S. media was intentionally critical of the church, he said that in his experience that has not been the case. He said the church must always act with candor when dealing with the media, particularly when the news could paint the church in an unfavorable light.
The cardinal’s stance surprised some of those in attendance.
Elizabeth Freese, an employee at the State Historical Preservation Office, heard Foley’s distinct voice for the first time this past Christmas during his annual commentary on the pope’s Midnight Mass and wanted to see him in person.
“He made a really good point that the good that we do is never really talked about in the media,” Freese said.
Dick Hronick, a retired Jefferson City postal worker, said Foley’s remarks were more optimistic about the current media situation than he expected.
“I think that because of his position that the media might treat him with deference,” Hronick said. “I think that generally the media, at least more and more in the last few years, is being more antagonistic to traditional Christianity than his experience seems to indicate.”
Even so, he sees hope in Foley’s good experience with the media.
“I would like to think his experience is closer to the truth, and maybe people are looking for something a little more,” Hronick said.
Foley also spoke to the importance of teaching students and the public about the processes involved in news gathering and production in order to foster a more media-literate society.
“We should become intelligent consumers of the media and not just couch potatoes,” Foley said.
Tom Bander, a development officer at William Woods University, said he was grateful for the cardinal’s candor with the audience.
“I appreciated that he didn’t talk down to us or above us,” he said.
As part of his visit to MU, Foley also visited a public relations class at the MU School of Journalism on Thursday afternoon. He offered insight into managing large events from a strategic communication perspective and many anecdotes from his past experience with popes, presidents and senators.
Friday’s forum was the fourth installment of the St. Thomas More Newman Center Speaker Series.
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