“Now the church is the only institution that is systematically interested …in studying the nature of the media”
Interview with Fr. Artur KOLODZIEJCZYK SJ, media programs director of the European Center of Communication and Culture (Warsaw, Poland).
For the past eight years, Ukrainians of many denominations have traveled to Warsaw to study how to professionally create media projects and build PR strategies at the European Center of Communication and Culture (ECCC). For more than 30 years, Fr. Artur has been involved in “religion and mass media,” and is familiar with current problems between religious organizations and the mass media in Ukraine.
[Correspondent] What was the goal in creating the ECCC?
[Fr. Kolodziejczyk] The center was created to aid Eastern European countries in the development of their media initiatives. A similar institute existed in the West, in Brussels, but there were some issues. Often it seemed that Belgium in its own way induced cultural shock. Also, travel costs were higher and visas were needed. In addition, after people were exposed to life in the West, they didn’t want to return home. These factors discouraged organizers; they wanted for there to be qualified personnel in Eastern Europe working for the church. For this reason, the idea for this institute was redefined. Organizers came to the conclusion that shorter courses with both practicum and theory would be better, because they wouldn’t tear people away from their jobs for too long. They also changed the location of the program to Warsaw, right in between the East and the West. They left the management of the program to us, Jesuits, insofar as we have many contacts and positive relationships in this area.
What are the most significant problems in media-religious organization collaboration?
The commercial media at this moment has sort of an ambivalent attitude towards religion. On the one hand, they understand that a large part of their audience exist in the religious sphere; at the same time, they are a little scared of entering this world. Why? First of all, there’s a feeling of a lack of competition in this field. The journalist knows a lot but rarely understands theological-spiritual issues; this topic is impractical because it’s not well understood. Second, there is a stereotype that addressing religious topics consistently (i.e., for a living) is strange and that covering them is inauthentic journalism. This, obviously, is an older generation mentality heavily influenced by years of exposure to the world of communist propaganda. This propaganda presented religion as an exceptionally internal issue not worth discussing in the social sphere. And these are by no means all the factors. There also exist the problems of secularization and the presentation of religion as an old survivor. Also, advertisers believe that clients who have religious feelings don’t always decide in favor of their products.
Religious mass media – What is it missing and what does it need to become popular in the commercial mass media and be sold on newsstands and in stores?
Many churches to this day carry a strong memory of communist times, when the governing forces waged war against them through the media. For this reason, the church often mistrusts mass media and doesn’t know how to cooperate with its structures. In addition, many people within the church are, as we say, “technologically impaired”; they didn’t grow up in the times of digital technologies, computers and mobile phones. And they don’t know how these media work or what to do with them. This creates in them an undeniable mistrust and feeling of impracticality. And when someone doesn’t trust a group of people, or some technology, they won’t search out the means to use it well.
Could we say that the commercial media doesn’t cover religious issues or doesn’t gather info from church PR representatives only because they don’t know how to do this professionally and interestingly?
To a certain extent. But it’s not only the level of professionalism of the information itself, but the inability to build contacts and create natural friendly relations with media people.
Church history shows that the church was always in the front line with regards to building communication channels. But recently the rhythm of church life has been slower than the rhythm of the rest of the world; the church’s information sources cannot keep up with the mass media. In your opinion, when did this “lag” start? Is this not an echo of the communist regime itself?
We can’t say that this influence is exclusively due to communism. In Poland and other Eastern European countries, communist censorship and World War II without a question played decisive roles. But similar problems with the media exist in churches in other parts of the world. To a certain extent, this situation is owing to the view of the media as a business. When the mass media has a generally social meaning and their primary goal isn’t profit, the tempo of its development is metered. But when the media becomes a competitive subject, their expansion speeds up. Of course, this is tied to the pace of technological changes. In the church’s case, where the aim is not profit but the execution of a specific mission, it can’t keep up with the flow of technology. And on top of that, it’s not the mission of the church to be a skillful competitor to the media.
It is certainly important for the church to have a media presence. So what must be done to draw people to religious topics through the mass media?
The first step pertains to the interior life of the church. For now, the church is the only institution that is systematically interested in awakening media-consciousness and studying the nature of the media. The best examples of this interest are the many institutions of higher education founded by the church, which address media topics to enrich the overall development of its students.
The next step is to organize cooperative channels among religious media. Often, there exists in some parish or eparchy some little newspaper that strives to inform gossipy parishioners of the shady undercurrents of their neighbors’ lives. And a lot of energy is expended on competition. New fragmented initiatives are formed which don’t have any meaning; this is very unprofessional. It seems to me that it would be better to join our efforts to do something more professional to impact our audience more quickly and effectively.
Equally important is the reciprocal progression of the media in a new way. For example, radio stations can play commercials about books and books can have info inserts directing buyers to a website. Reciprocal support and reciprocal advertising. If we see each other as competitors, we’re just pulling each other down rather than giving each other the opportunity to climb higher.
With regards to collaboration with the international mass media, I think that friendly dialogue with media creators is neglected. There are sensitive people within the media who are not only interested in the expansion of their own companies, but are searching for some positive values. The church could really help in this direction (i.e. which social projects, which answers to social needs can be given through the mass media). Even those media primarily concerned with money and economics could occasion the development of a healthy society; they could expose us to interesting initiatives and interesting modes of thinking. We could be partners in attempting to answer this question: In what way can we contribute to the maturation of our society?
One of the problematic points in religion-mass media relations is the language used by the church; it is specialized and not understood by the majority of audiences. What can be done to promote plain accessible language-use between the church and the media?
We shouldn’t be preoccupied with the fact that the church speaks its own language, although it would be good to learn how to modernize that language, to simplify it. But honestly, that is the journalist’s job. The most prominent pastor won’t be a good editor or journalist or literary heavyweight. And if he is, it’s just coincidence. the main work of a bishop is not to be a television entertainer. If he is, praise the Lord. But we must acknowledge that the church is the carrier of a thought, a view, a vision that must be realized by media-professionals. Take, for example, the church’s repeated attempts to make films about the 10 commandments. Those were films whose purposes were straightforward religious education. Alongside these films, certain creative filmmakers also made films on this theme – something much larger than a simple retelling of the 10 commandments. Again, I must emphasize that here cooperation between the church and the media is important and necessary, where each structure does its own work for the sake of a single unified idea.
By this reasoning, lay people should occupy a new and critical position in the church today.
That’s just it. The role of the laity is incredibly important, both within church structures, and on a global scale, where they are carriers of high values in those circles. The contemporary media (as well as the entire commercial world) strives to present business as a field that cares about social good. This is so-called “socially aware” business, where bosses give social insurance to their workers, care about work environments, and take part in social activities. This approach, without question, results in significant gains. The church, for its part, can present these companies with a wide range of social work initiatives in which they can take part.
If we imagined an ideal board of editors of some religious periodical, what position would a priest be given? Should he automatically and necessarily be the editor-in-chief?
It’s important that the board of editors include a person competent in theological and spiritual issues. But this doesn’t presuppose that a priest be the editor-in-chief. The majority of a priest’s training is concerned with totally different things; far from every priest would have the organizational capacity for such a position and this work should be done by a professionally prepared individual.
Sometimes, religious media overplay the pious nature of their work. On the other extreme, they can often speak about spiritual issues too secularly, almost to the point of vulgarity. Where is the golden mean between the two?
Yes, both extremes are problematic and both extremes forget about one thing: the focal point of media work is the audience and serving its needs. This means that the goal should be making a high quality product, a product that will interest, hook, and address the needs of the audience. The attitude in which piety overshadows understanding isn’t conducive to this goal. The media should serve to expand the bounds of individuality and promote the feeling that individuals are both a part of society and that they play important roles in the formation of social life.
A few months ago there was a large-scale advertisement of God in Ukraine. This action brought about remarkable tumult. Questions were asked: Should we advertise God? How do you feel about this issue?
I think that all the work of the church in its entirety from the very beginning is an advertisement of God. What else can we call the psalms, the holy liturgy? They are nothing else but advertisements for the Heavenly Father. In specific situations such as these we don’t treat ads as a wish to sell something in order to make a profit. No, because we don’t expect anything in return. Instead, the feeling when we open some treasure is to want to share it, to invite friends in order to spread our joy. This is the role that evangelization plays in all its forms. And sometimes these forms are similar to commercial advertisements; they use forms characteristic of commercial advertising. Yet their content is different. I think that we should make use of as many of these forms as possible. Because if we don’t try, fittingly we will not be successful in completely transmitting the glory of our Heavenly Father.
Media for the sake of profit is a pretty capital-oriented idea. Religious organizations generally don’t concern themselves with this kind of mentality, and therefore cannot always create something competitive. Is the problem really only monetary?
Yes, lack of resources is a problem. But this must also be treated as its own sort of chance. Because we could create a whole world of alternative media in the name of the church. But our financial position means that we must by natural means learn to converse with the world media. This teaches us how to build cooperative ties and partnerships along the road of our mission of making the world a better place. This calls on the hierarchs to be smarter, calls on them to search out smart believers, professionals in the kingdom of the mass media.
The programs at ECCC are international and multi-denominatsional. From the very beginning, Ukrainians came to ECCC for its programs. You have had the opportunity to observe the development of religious media in our country from the sidelines. What tendencies are especially evident?
I can’t attempt to dissect your situation in detail because my observations are very fragmentary. But I can say that my attention was first drawn to the abundance of talented individuals in Ukraine. The more you start to collect means, the higher-quality products you will start to develop. For example, a professional expansion is evident in periodicals for children and children’s programs. We take notice of the fact that you are constantly commencing new projects and finding new market niches. With regards to problems, the thing that stands out the most is distribution. Another problem is the absence of cooperation, which would help in expansion and development. Here a good addition would be the reciprocal advertising of which I spoke earlier. This would help a wider circle of people to obtain the desired product. And also this would change the financial position of publication. It’s also important to attract people to work in direct person-to-person sales. Without question, a specialized commercial approach to issues. Here we see also that our role is important: questions that we address here later get asked in your circles, and initiatives we start develop there too. And this for us is a big joy.
Poland is principally Roman Catholic while Ukraine today is multi-denominational, with preference given to the Orthodox tradition. For this reason, for Ukrainians, from one side, to proceed is tougher, and from another side, this is a call for a search for new opportunities. What do you think?
I think that Ukraine currently finds itself in a position it can benefit from. After the long hardships of dependence on others, finally a feeling of happiness is arising from attained independence. And a feeling of responsibility for building the future of their homeland accompanies it. This is why this is a time conducive to increasing inter-denomational dialogue and strengthening ties. And it’s this kind of contribution that can make for the church for Ukraine, with its past national, cultural and religious differences, a unified goal and unilateral good. In this there is profit for everyone. This is an important perspective that should not be missed.
Thank you for the interesting conversation.
Interview conducted by Svitlana YAROSHENKO in Warsaw on the 3 April 2008.