It’s good to know where the land mines lie in an election year

Every two and four years, American Catholics begin the great discourse in the public square on the merits of issues, politicians and political parties for congressional and presidential elections. Catholic publications cover that national conversation in their news and their editorial pages. Some even open their pages to paid advertising of various political entities with myriad points of view.

As CNS reported this week in stories about public persons dipping into endorsements of candidates for the U.S. presidency, things can get tricky for individuals. It can get even trickier for Catholic institutions, such as parishes, schools, publishing enterprises and any organization that is considered not-for-profit by the Internal Revenue Service.

In the U.S., tens of thousands of Catholic entities are covered by the annual IRS group ruling that grants not-for-profit protections in the tax code — and imposes responsibilities. If you are going to be exempt from paying taxes, you have to play by certain rules. And those rules can be almost as confusing as the rules of the U.S. Postal Service.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a robust Web site that does an excellent job of explaining what Catholic organizations can and cannot do while participating in the political life of America. Put together by the bishops’ General Counsel office, the site covers just about everthing from endorsing politicians or parties to limits on lobbying to the perils of voter guides to what’s kosher in political advertising.

Check out the site at www.usccb.org/ogc/guidelines.shtml. In fact, it ought to be a favorite bookmark between now and the first Tuesday in November.

New look for UCA News

Our friends at UCA News, an Asian church news agency, have redesigned their Web site; check it out! Be  patient, it is still a little slow loading. The new site features photos prominently and you can register for free access to thumnail images.

UCAN not only publishes in English, but also Chinese — simplified and traditional, Indonesian, Korean, Russian, Vietnamese, Cebuano and Tamil.

Not red, not blue, but purple

Greg Erlandson, president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, the national Catholic publishing house in Huntington, Ind., has a column in an upcoming edition of the paper describing himself as “culturally purple” — in a nation of “red states” and “blue states,” he’s caught in the middle. Part of the problem with reds and blues, he notes, is that neither side talks to the other, or if they do they “are shunned as traitors by their own side.”

He cites the talk Margaret Somerville gave to us last week at the Catholic Media Convention about the importance of coming to some understanding even when groups oppose each other’s views. If you want to know more about Somerville’s talk to the media gathering and missed our story, you can read it here.

Our award winners: International stories take first place

Proclaim it from the rooftops!For most of us who work for U.S. and Canadian Catholic newspapers and related industries, the Catholic Press Association’s annual journalism awards are our Oscars, Emmys and Tony Awards all rolled into one. This year’s award announcements last Friday evening at the conclusion of the annual Catholic Media Convention in Toronto brought CNS several prizes, most notably for our international coverage.

In an era of media cutbacks and consolidations, we’re proud to say that we have an eye focused on the international church. Cardinal John P. Foley, former president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and a former Catholic newspaper editor in Philadelphia, often has reminded the Catholic press of Pope John Paul II’s admonition for those of us in the developed world to be in solidarity with our Catholic brothers and sisters around the globe. And to do that, Cardinal Foley has said, Catholic newspapers should devote space to international news so Catholic readers can be well informed about global issues.

So we’re proud to say that we take extra efforts to report on international issues, something that the mainstream media has been trimming in recent years.

Many of our award-winning stories (linked below) are worth reading again, for they give us a glimpse into the struggles of church members around the world. Whether it be gangs in Honduras or Iraqi refugees stuck in Jordan — or even the activity of the Holy See in Rome — CNS offers coverage unmatched in the Catholic world.

And soon we hope to begin offering individuals complete access to our entire news report, not just those few stories we post daily on our public site.

More on that later this year. In the meantime, here are the stories that won us first place in this year’s competition for calendar 2007:

Iraqi refugee Sabria Yousef Nona prays during Mass in the Chaldean Catholic Vicariate in Amman, Jordan, Feb. 14, 2007. A sole Chaldean priest in Amman looks after the spiritual needs of 8,000-10,000 Catholics, including many refugees from Iraq. (CNS/Debbie Hill)1. You may have heard of the plight of Iraqi refugees who have fled to Jordan because of the war, but you may not know that we sent our Jerusalem correspondent, Judith Sudilovsky, to Amman more than a year ago. Her stories won her first place for best investigative news writing. Judges said her stories “shed light on an underreported repercussion of the war in Iraq. It clearly took some digging to find these people….” We posted eight stories from Judith for our clients; here are three of them:

Henri Aguilar, a former gang member, holds his 1-year-old daughter, Genesis, in the yard of his home in Chamelecon, Honduras, May 2, 2007. Aguilar, who was a member of one of Honduras\' most notorious gangs, was assassinated by three masked men five days later. Under the guidance of Maryknoll Father Thomas Goekler, he had left the gang and was married, working full time and heavily involved in parish life. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey) 2. Three stories by freelance writer Paul Jeffrey on keeping youths out of gangs in Honduras won us a first-place for best reporting on teenagers. The judges said that “readers could not help but be drawn into the plight of Father Thomas Goekler as he fought to keep the youth of Chamelecon out of the street gangs.” Here are the stories:

3. Our Rome bureau also took first place in the category of best news writing on an international event for coverage by John Thavis of the Tridentine Mass issue. Judges said his articles “are a comprehensive, well-reported and well-written account of a major development in the Catholic Church.” Here are John’s stories:

We had other winners as well, such as a first place for our Spanish-language columnist, Moises Sandoval; a second place for our spiritual life columnist, Father Peter J. Daly; a third-place for our Peruvian earthquake coverage; an honorable mention for last year’s China series; and a slew of awards for our photos and graphics. These are stories you can get nowhere else, and we will continue to bring them to you.

UPDATE: Shorly after I posted this, the CPA alerted members that the awards list has been posted on its Web site.

Keeping kids safe from Internet predators

The exploitation of children is big business these days. Just ask Michelle Collins.

As the executive director of Exploited Children Services at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., Collins makes it her business to keep up on the latest tactics of adults who exploit kids, especially through sexually abusive images.

With more than 1,500 active Web sites displaying exploitive pictures of children, the center finds it difficult to keep up with exploiters, who don’t stay in one place on the Internet too long.

Collins addressed the Anglophone Conference 2008 last week at U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ HQ in Washington. The annual four-day gathering gives church representatives from the English-speaking world a chance to learn from each other on best practices in the prevention of child sexual abuse. Describing ways that responsible adults can keep ahead of those who exploit for profit or for personal gratification, Collins said the technology of the Internet is the primary tool of choice on both sides.

A major push is being made to get the major Internet companies to deny access to anyone who tries to put up such images, Collins said. But cooperation is often difficult because the companies cite First Amendment protections of free speech.

Collins offered information on several Internet safety resources that come out of the center where parents, concerned adults and children can get more information:

NetSmartz411.org:  Aimed at parents and guardians to answer questions about Internet safety, computers and the Web. Also lists Web sites of danger to children.

NetSmartz.org: Has games and activities that teach kids about what to watch out for as they use the Internet.

Cyber Tipline: Allows users to report incidents of child exploitation. Also can reach by calling (800) 843-5678.

Child Victim Identification Program:  CVIP is a national clearinghouse for child-pornography cases across the country and the main point of contact to international agencies about child-pornography victims.

The sites offer quite an education. Anyone unfamiliar with the dangers child exploitation would do well to check them out.

“I’m really annoyed at these journalists”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends the World Food Security Summit in Rome June 3. (CNS/Reuters) VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has a collective thick skin, and tends to ignore journalistic sloppiness or sensationalism. But it was a bit too much, even for the cool-headed diplomats in the Apostolic Palace, to see headlines like “Pope Benedict avoids meeting with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad.”

That was the spin some media put on the fact that Pope Benedict XVI was not holding a private audience with Ahmadinejad or other heads of state who are in Rome this week for a global food summit. A papal encounter with Ahmadinejad, high-level Vatican sources told me today, was never in the works. The reason was that too many of the world leaders attending the food summit were asking for a papal meeting, and in such cases the pope politely declines them all.

That’s not new — it’s been the Vatican’s policy for the last three years to avoid these kind of revolving-door VIP papal encounters during international conferences. But the story line in much of the mainstream media (unfortunately picked up by some Catholic outlets) was that the pope was so desperate to avoid hosting Ahmadinejad that he canceled meetings with everyone.

“I’m really annoyed at these journalists. Where do they come up with this?” one usually imperturbable Vatican source told me today. He emphasized that the Vatican’s general policy of “meeting with everyone” has not changed, and that the issues here were strictly practical.

The Vatican Press Office also issued a statement today, lamenting the “journalistic inferences that have been circulating” and reiterating that the pope was not meeting with the heads of state or heads of government simply because there were too many requests. It said the Vatican had written to each one, explaining the policy and offering the prospect of a papal meeting on a future occasion.

Looking at our most-viewed stories last month

I’m always intrigued by our monthly look at the most-viewed stories on our Web site, www.catholicnews.com, because it represents what our readers are paying attention to — whether we like it or not. Journalists often have their own ideas for what is important, but stats like these remind us that readers sometimes have different thoughts.

Still, this month’s list contains no big surprises — except if you find surprising the fact that, so soon after the April visit of Pope Benedict to the United States, only one story related to the trip made it into the top 10 for May.

Here’s the list:

1. Vatican letter directs bishops to keep parish records from Mormons (far and away the most-read story for the month, much of it generated by the buzz it created in the Mormon world).

2. Vatican: Receiving Eucharist kneeling may not be permanent change (because liturgical stories always are well read, such as January’s No. 1).

3. God made pre-humans into people, Vatican newspaper says (ditto any story touching on evolution).

4. N.Y. bishop ends practice of Communion at celebration of the word (see No. 2 above).

5. Liturgy, stem cells, sex abuse among topics at bishops’ June meeting (because what the bishops do is always of interest to avid “inside-baseball” fans).

6. U.S. pilgrims cope with expenses, logistics to get to World Youth Day (a great story our Carol Zimmermann did about the long road to Australia).

7. Ecumenical meeting marks first time Mormons join in papal gathering (the lone top-10 papal trip story this month, generated in part by interest in No. 1 above).

8. Directive from Archbishop Flynn ends lay preaching at Mass (liturgy again).

9. Retired Sydney bishop doesn’t want fight with U.S. bishops over book (about a controversial U.S. book tour by an Australian bishop).

10. Priest calls for new strategies to keep young adults in church (because we all wonder whether our sons and daughters will stick around).

The biggest surprise to me? The fact that Vatican astronomer says if aliens exist, they may not need redemption did not make the list (it finished 13th). We’ve seen before that space-alien stories create their own buzz.

A session with John and Jesus

TORONTO — Pope Benedict XVI’s April visit to the U.S. generally received high ratings from both church officials and the secular media, which gave the short trip unprecedented coverage. How sustained would the pope’s good press have been had he stayed on in the U.S. and not returned to the Vatican? That was the question CNS veteran Rome bureau chief John Thavis posed at a workshop on media coverage of the pope held during the recent Catholic Media Convention in Toronto.

Thavis — whom co-presenter Jesus Colina of Zenit described as “like the Old Testament, he’s always there” covering the pope — suggested that, much like coverage of the pope in the Italian press, U.S. media coverage would soon dwindle to the point of insignificance until the pope did something the media could construe as sensational. Thavis conceded that the pope’s core message — the place of God and religion in one’s daily life as a source of meaning — doesn’t offer the secular media many news hooks. And even important speeches the pope gives such as his address to the U.N. draw scant coverage because the pope speaks in terms of general principles and not specific issues.

That’s why Pope Benedict is a pope made for the Catholic press, Thavis said. “We do make room for his thoughts and reflections day in and day out. We are the ones paying attention. We also have staying power. It’s not a five-day trip for us. We’re the ones prepared to tell his story.”

The workshop was well received by a room packed with journalists, and Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, head of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, quipped, “I always wanted to be with John and Jesus.”

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