Stephen Ferguson: Media and public perception of the Catholic Church

While most news coverage of the Catholic Church focuses on its scandals, the positive impacts of the world’s largest organization can often be understated, Elon’s Stephen Ferguson argues based on his research into the emerging public perceptions of the Church.

An active member of the Catholic community on campus and at home, the recent strategic communications graduate from Smithtown, N.Y., wanted to help people grasp the “whole story” about the Church. For three months, Ferguson studied the Church’s representation in traditional news media, including USA Today 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.

“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 its own publications and through social media, the Church highlights social reform and controversial political or socioeconomic issues, such as immigration, and emphasizes social justice, Ferguson said. Inter-faith dialogue has become increasingly significant as well.

“(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 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.

“His angle of looking at socialmedia is a fresh approach because much research has been done on how the Catholic Church represents itself in more traditional ways,” Gaither said.

While there might be a disconnect between the Catholic Church and mainstream media, Ferguson said he is not out to discredit the media’s portrayal of the Church.

“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.”

Ferguson presented his research during Elon’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.