News at 10: Local Stories, Big Picture

Originally posted on USC’s now-defunct TRANS/MISSIONS: Media, Culture, Religion, Society blog.

by Judith Weisenfeld

On October 30, 2010, a fire destroyed Saint Mary Magdalene Roman Catholic Church in Springfield Gardens, Queens. The local CBS affiliate framed the story with a familiar, formulaic lede: “Fire Destroys Local Church, but not Parishioners’ Spirits.”

The briefs on CBS and other news outlets noted, perhaps with some curiosity, that the parish’s membership is primarily Afro-Caribbean, African American and African. Because this is my family’s home parish–my mother has been an active member for 45 years–I’m acutely aware of the discrepancy between the event’s magnitude for parishioners and its interest for news consumers outside Queens. At the same time, I also see the space devoted to coverage of this blip on the media radar as a chance for news organizations to jettison the formula and get religion right.

The story behind the story–in this case, the parish’s founding in 1913; its life as the spiritual home to Irish, Italian, Polish and black Catholics; the education the parish school provided before its closing in 1974–rarely makes it into local media coverage of religion. While local television news, with its predictable melange of crime, violence, accident and fires, has experienced ratings declines over the past few years, it still remains an important news source for many people. Local reporters rarely have the time to provide context, opting instead to cultivate emotional responses in their audiences through formulaic vignettes: horrified neighbors had no idea that a killer lived among them (cue shot of front door of criminal’s home); relatives are asked to comment on the tragic, untimely death of a young person (cue shot of weeping aunt); residents mourn the loss of a beloved community institution (cue shot of firefighters fighting a blaze).

When the institution framed by the camera is religious, this formula makes it difficult to connect the events to larger social or historical issues. The broader context for understanding the experiences of American Catholics includes church resources diminished by declining membership (partly in response to the church’s shocking failure to protect its children), priest shortages and bankruptcies brought about to a great extent by lawsuits from victims of clerical sexual abuse.

These issues have received considerable national press coverage, most recently, through the lens of this week’s meeting of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (UCCB) and the unexpected election of New York’s conservative Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan as its President. But showing how elements of the big picture are reflected in smaller events–the mark of a good journalistic story, and something local news teams are perfectly positioned to do–is often hindered by the standard approach to religion in local news.

What does getting it right look like? Paul Vitello’s recent piece in the New York Times about the announcement of the first phase of reorganization in the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens is keenly sensitive to the interplay between local parish life and broader political shifts in the church hierarchy in New York. St. Mary Magdalene, which has been without a pastor for some years, is administered by the pastor of a nearby parish and staffed by a sister who serves as Parish Life Coordinator. Lay leadership is strong but, in the context of church closings and mergers in the diocese, it is unlikely that the parish will remain in existence for long, especially with the loss of its church.

The story of how the lives of ordinary Catholics–or Muslims or Jains or Pentecostals–capture or contradict larger narratives is an evergreen resource for local news teams. They need only step outside the tight little box of the formulaic lede to discover a wealth of stories right on their doorstep.

Update: “St. Mary Magdalene rises from the ashes,” Queens Chronicle, October 6, 2016