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CELEBRATE! profile: Stephen Ferguson '11

Though most news coverage of the Catholic Church focuses on its scandals, the positive impacts of the world’s largest organization can often be understated, which Elon University senior Stephen Ferguson argues based on his research into the emerging public perception of the institution. His work is the latest to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on undergraduate research to be presented during CELEBRATE! 2011.

Stephen Ferguson '11

An active member of the Catholic community on campus and at home, the communications major from Smithtown, N.Y., wanted to help people grasp the “whole story” about the Church.

“From the perspective of the news media, the Church is vilified, it’s portrayed as a group of men who make up oppressive rules that Catholics are expected to follow without question,” he said. “In reality, that’s not how it is. The church is more than just an institution – it’s a community.”

“I honestly feel the news media play a major part in how people perceive it. So much is emphasized about the sex abuse crisis or the Church’s political views on hot-button issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage.”

During a three-month period, Ferguson studied the representation of the church through traditional news media, including USA Today, The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as self-portrayals in social media and the websites of the Vatican and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

With his mentor, associate professor of communications Kenn Gaither, Ferguson developed a rubric that categorized news subsidies and articles. Each article was studied using the method of narrative analysis, based on the publication date, headline, key words and dominant themes.

“We then took the coding sheet and looked for common words and themes that started to emerge and then began to develop narratives that would guide the research paper,” Ferguson said.

In its own publications, the Church gives attention to social reform and controversial political or socioeconomic issues, including immigration, abortion and health care. They also place emphasis on social justice, such as helping the poor, in response to disasters such as the disasters in Haiti and Chile, Ferguson said. Inter-faith dialogue has also become increasingly significant.

“(The Church) is becoming more cognizant of different faith beliefs and making sure people are in communication with one another,” he said. “The USCCB and the Vatican are emphasizing collaboration with Jews, Hindus, Muslims and working together to form collaborations with one another to become more religiously literate.”

The Catholic Church is still influential in shaping the discussion about societal issues, Gaither said, so it is important to understand not only its role but also how it represents itself.

It’s an excellent topic and his angle of looking at social media is a fresh approach because much research has been done on how the Catholic Church represents itself in more traditional ways,” Gaither said, “but he’s looking at cutting-edge tools being used by the church and to what ends. It tells us a lot about this centuries-old institution.”

Ferguson said he was most surprised by the common disconnect in the media between the Vatican and the Catholic Church.

“It seems the church as a whole is being pitted against its authority,” he said. “There’s a disconnect there because the Vatican is the official voice of the church but it seems that the church itself is looking to project its own opinions in news media.”

Still, he said he is not out to discredit the media.

“They have uncovered a great many evils concerning individual people within the Church,” he said. “But the Church does a great many things as well, and people deserve to hear those stories, too. It’s about fairness. It’s about the whole truth.”

After graduating from Elon with a degree in strategic communications, Ferguson will work toward a graduate degree in education from the University of Notre Dame. At Elon, he has served as vice president of Catholic Campus Ministry, as a head staff member of New Student Orientation, and as an Elon 101 teacher’s assistant.

- Written by Caitlin O'Donnell '13

Eric Townsend,
4/28/2011 5:11 PM