Student Conference Looks at How Media Climate Affects Catholics


Isabella Acierno said she will read and watch news differently after attending the third annual Student Leadership Conference at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in Manhattan March 8.

The junior at Notre Dame Academy on Staten Island was one of 240 students from 31 Catholic high schools in the archdiocese to attend the conference, “The Media Landscape: A Catholic Lens.”

“You have to think about all the sides” of a story, the 17-year-old parishioner of St. Christopher and St. Margaret Mary on Staten Island told CNY. “You have to think about what you’re reading, what you’re looking into and what it means. You need to look into your facts before you really go out in public to say what you believe.

“This opened my eyes to things I never thought it would.”

Sister Nancy Usselmann, F.S.P., director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, was the keynote speaker. She said she hoped she provided tools in her talk to offer students ways to discern and respond or not to respond to the media climate in a virtuous way.

“That’s a challenge because it requires reflection and discernment,” Sister Nancy said. “It’s not something we’re born with. We have to practice, and it’s really challenging in this political climate but also just in general social issues dealing with social media.

“How can we be that presence that responds in a holistic and joyful manner, and really witness to our Gospel values by how we respond and deal with people on social media and in the whole news climate?”

Following her talk, Sister Nancy participated in a panel with Msgr. Edmund Whalen, vicar for clergy in the archdiocese and former principal of Msgr. Farrell High School on Staten Island; Georgia-Renee Boamah, a junior at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx; Obinna Nwako, a junior at Regis High School in Manhattan; and moderator Rob Astorino, a CNN contributor and former Westchester County executive who serves as Cardinal Dolan’s delegate to the Mother Cabrini Foundation.

“This was a great opportunity to speak in front of a large group about how you feel about things, and things we don’t normally talk about,” Obinna said.

“I’m not a perfect person. I see a headline and want to take it as fact. I think everyone should be more informed to do their research before they commit something to fact and believe it’s true.”

The panel discussed a highly scrutinized example from this year’s March for Life involving student Nick Sandmann and his classmates from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky in which the media was accused of failing to initially report all facets of the story.

Later, the panel spoke about the First Amendment and how far an individual or media outlet can go in using their rights.

“Are you using your freedom for love or hate? We are called to love one another,” said Georgia-Renee from her panel seat.

Dr. Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools in the archdiocese, delivered the opening and closing remarks. He challenged students to communicate what they learned with their schoolmates.

“I’ve grown to love our Student Leadership Conference because the students never disappoint us,” Dr. McNiff said. “To get them to come and join us on some very topical issues and we raise that level of conversation about the issues is an experience they obviously enjoy, they need and it speaks volumes as to who we are as a Catholic school.”

Caitlin Reith, a freshman at St. Jean Baptiste in Manhattan, said she learned it’s important to remain civil in discussing all sides of a story.

“I thought that was very powerful and knowledgeable to take from this, a sense of maturity and respect,” Caitlin said.

Stella O’Brien, a junior at St. Joseph Hill Academy on Staten Island, said she learned more about discernment and how to approach the media within a Catholic context.

“It’s really easy to agree with the news that’s put in front of you or to agree with news that confirms an opinion you already have, but it’s harder to sometimes face the news or reality that challenges what you believe and facing that challenge is very important,” said Stella, a parishioner of Holy Rosary on Staten Island.

“Approaching things from all sides is very important. Keep an open mind when you’re approaching things and leave your bias at the door when you’re seeking the truth.”