STEUBENVILLE, Ohio - Once you take the exit ramp off I-77, leaving the high-speed interstate highway system behind, it's time to step on the brakes mentally as well as physically as you twist and turn through the winding roads and hilly terrain of eastern Ohio.
Steubenville, a city of 20,000 tucked along the west edge of the Ohio River across from the milltown of Weirton, W.Va., is most famous for two of its celebrity exports, the late Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin and the actress-slash-porn star Traci Lords.
But the city is also the home of Franciscan University, a Roman Catholic institution that is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Several programs broadcast regularly on EWTN, the national Catholic network, are taped at this school that promotes traditional Catholicism.
The campus, set high on a hill, looks a lot like any American college until one notices the students' rosary beads and Bibles, and the preponderance of pro-life bumper stickers in the parking lot. Franciscan friars, wearing their black robes, white rope belts, and sandals, mingle with the 2,100 students.
Last weekend, Franciscan University hosted its first-ever Media & Faith Conference, inviting speakers from print, radio, television, and Internet media outlets around the nation to speak to journalism students and other interested parties about the interaction, intersection, and separation of religion and reporting.
There are many lines to be drawn around and through those topics, and the journalism students with strong religious convictions are now examining the sometimes fuzzy boundaries.
Boiled down to the basics, the question they are pondering is this: Will they enter the world of religious media, writing and reporting and editing for like-minded readers/listeners/viewers, or step over into the secular media and report the news for mainstream audiences?
And the question is not limited to Christian students. Imam Yahya Hendi of Georgetown University, speaking in Toledo in February, urged young Muslims to work in secular media to help bring fairness and understanding in reporting on Islam.
David J. Schaefer, an associate professor of communication arts at Franciscan, said his classes typically are split 50-50 between students pursuing secular media careers and those going into Christian journalism.
Several of the Media & Faith speakers were Franciscan graduates working in the "real world" who shared their experiences, both good and bad.
Twenty-three-year-old Rachel Di Pietro, for example, a 2004 alumna, spent much of last year working as production coordinator for the independent feature film, Pain Within, a dark drama about child abuse.
She spoke of enduring many suggestive comments and snide remarks because her faith clearly separated her from most of the Hollywood crowd. But at the same time, there were people on the set who felt drawn by her faith and conviction. She quoted the famous advice of St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words."
On the other side of the aisle, Joyce Duriga is a Penn State University grad who works as associate editor at Our Sunday Visitor, the largest national Catholic weekly paper in the United States.
Ms. Duriga's role is to edify the faithful by covering news events from a Catholic perspective. The cover of the latest issue of OSV, for example, features a photo of the late Pope John Paul II with the headline, "His legacy lives on," alongside stories such as "How to forgive our trespassers" and "Role of God in money matters."
Several speakers cautioned the students that the mainstream media is not a place for evangelism. But it is a field that could use more people with strong moral and ethical values.
All journalists, whether in the mainstream or religious media, must strive to be as fair, balanced, and objective as possible. But in reality, everyone comes to work with an innate point of view. It is impossible to look at events from a completely objective, detached perspective.
When choosing what events to cover, in reporting on news developments, reporters and editors who have a spiritual and moral foundation can add something that some journalists may overlook. It is a matter of insight, not bias. A different view of the facts, not an effort to evangelize.
There's no doubt that media play an important role in our society. Futurist Marshall McLuhan made the famous observation that "the medium is the message." Pope John Paul II recognized the role of the media, saying that "communication has become the soul which shapes the culture of our time."
The questions and the choices discussed last weekend at Franciscan University's Media & Faith Conference could have an impact far beyond the lives of the individual journalism students who participated. To some extent, their decisions will help shape their local, national, and global communities.
David Yonke is The Blade's religion editor. Contact him at email@example.com or 419-724-6154.