Pod people: Did anyone ask the iHow question?

All together now, let’s recite the W5H journalism creed.

Who. What. When. Where. Why.

And How.

I’m still thinking about that last one, in terms of some of the hilariously bad coverage that we saw the other day of that Confession app that was written for the iPad, iPhone and the iPod Touch. You may recall that the stated purpose of this app was to provide a kind of digital Guide For Confession — by which I mean those printed leaflets that believers have used for generations to help guide them in an examination of conscience before going to confession.

The problem, of course, is that many news organizations could not resist the sexy headline or the nut graph that claimed people were going to be able to confess TO their iWhatever or through their iWhatever — thus contradicting the written materials about the app or, for those who took the trouble to invest $1.99 and download the software, its actual contents.

Here’s a reminder of what happened next, care of my Scripps Howard News Service column on the affair:

“Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been 300 tweets since my last confession,” noted CNN.

In London, The Times opened its story by claiming: “Roman Catholic bishops have approved a new iPhone and iPad app that allows users to make confession with a virtual ‘priest’ over the Internet.”

Note the phrase “over the Internet.” Let’s continue:

The Economic Times report was even more blunt. The headline noted, “No time to visit church? Confess via iPhone.” Then the opening lines went further still, stating: “Users of iPhone can now perform contrition and other religious rituals without visiting church, thanks to a new online application.”

The problem is that these statements were just plain wrong. There is no such thing as a “virtual” priest or a “virtual” sacrament. How could electronic devices allow believers to “perform … other religious rituals”? …

(The) the cracked headlines rolled on with the Catholic League expressing outrage about new stinkers, such as, “Can’t Make it to Confession? There’s an App for That,” “New, Church-Approved iPhone Offers Confession On the Go” and “Bless Me iPhone for I Have Sinned.”

Now, note the phrases “without visiting church” and “church-approved.”

Having royally messed up this story, some journalists then had the nerve to report — when Roman Catholic officials issued statements objecting to the misinformation in the press — that the Vatican had withdrawn its support for the app that supposedly let you do things that the makers of the app never claimed that it allowed you to do in the first place. Or something like that. It was a perfect circle of errors. Catch-22.

I bring this up because of something that hit me just before we recorded this week’s Crossroads podcast. Click here to listen to that or to download it (or head on over to get a copy at iTunes).

In your mind’s eye, travel back to the beginning of this liturgical train wreck and put yourself in the shoes of the journalists who wrote the headlines and reports that started this mess.

Ready? Now ask yourself this elementary journalistic question: “How?”

As in the “how” in the W5H formula. How did these journalists think that these penitents were going to confess through their iPhones, iPads, etc.? Surely each of these journalists had to think about that before writing his or her story or headline.

Picture the scene in your mind. What were the believers going to do? Confess by talking to a priest? They could do that already by telephone, if the church allowed that to happen. Text in their confession? Tweet it? Peck out a confession in an email, line after line, which would then go into a priest’s in-box for a later response through the same medium? Folks could already do that through computers and existing forms of software, again, if the ancient churches allowed that to happen.

There’s another angle to this: Hadn’t any of the journalists who touched these stories ever been to Confession?

I mean, surely there was someone, at least one individual, in each of these newsrooms who was a fully practicing, sacramental believer in a Catholic or Orthodox parish. Newsrooms are supposed to be built on the concept of diversity, right? Surely there was someone in these newsrooms who knew the drill, someone who knew what actually happens in Confession. Don’t you think? What did the editors in these newsrooms think was going to happen in these “virtual” confessions?

I never found a story that answered that “how” question.

How about you, GetReligion readers? Did you see that in any story or hear that question answered in broadcast reports?

D’oh. I can’t believe that I didn’t think question of that earlier.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Of course, “contrition” is a state of mind, not a “religious ritual”, and can not be “performed”

  • http://www.thehighwayhermit.com James Bulls

    I’m not a Catholic so I didn’t pay very close attention to the story, but like you said I never read an article or heard a story that actually said “how” the things they reported were supposed to happen. Is this one more example of lazy reporting and editors ignoring the facts in order to sell copy? At worst the news about this app turned into a soda-pop piece of MTV reporting: fast, shiny, and easy to digest.

  • Julia

    Tabloid mind-set. Stories like this get hits.
    Who cares if they are true.
    Most reporters and readers seem to believe the Catholic Church is goofy enough to do something this and they get a kick out of it – judging by the comments I read.

    I’m thinking this story had to have originated in the UK press. It smells like a Ruth Gladhill story.

  • Bain Wellington

    Reuters, which had a sensible but not very informative print feed, completely messed up the iHow aspect in their vox pop video report from Rome which made a wobbly claim that the app enables ‘confession-on-the-go’ (without a hint what that might be) before falling flat on its face by confounding contrition with penance – blithely informing us that you can choose your own ‘penance’, whereas what the app actually offers is seven (!) different acts of contrition.

    So even when an effort is made to explain iHow, the result is not always a happy one.

    The idea of a virtual priest has been around for several years, as has the authoritative response [Pontifical Council for Social Communications, The Church and Internet, 2002, §9]:-

    Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith. Here is another aspect of the Internet that calls for study and reflection. At the same time, pastoral planning should consider how to lead people from cyberspace to true community and how, through teaching and catechesis, the Internet might subsequently be used to sustain and enrich them in their Christian commitment.

  • Passing By

    Bobby’s post on the new Catholic translation of the bible was the subject of a very straighforward bit our local CBS affiliate (Channel 11 in Fort Worth/Dallas). As I say, it was a very straightforward, but from the opening of the news broadcast, they announced things like “big changes coming to the bible” and “you only thought it was written in stone”. I mention this here because it’s fundamentally dishonest, just like the stories about the confession app. Next time you are contemplating the low regard people have for journalism, think of stories like these. We aren’t stupid. Next time you are bemoaning the decline of the mainstream media, think about these sorts of stories and remember that we have options now.

    Yes, yes, yes… I know that lots of good goes on in the media. Not all stories are lies and manipulations. My question is where is the peer review: if journalism is a profession, or even a craft, then you need to have ways to stop this sort of thing.

    I’m mad at this. Not because the confession app story is anti-Catholic or anything like that. It’s more childish than anything. To tell the truth, I can imagine a “how” process sort of like an old Our Gang comedy: bored children sitting around until Spanky or Darla yells “Let’s put on a show”. So the kids sit around the newsroom, see a bit about the confession app, and they are off and running.

    What stupidity.

  • MarkAA

    >I mean, surely there was someone, at least one individual,
    >in each of these newsrooms who was a fully practicing,
    >sacramental believer in a Catholic or Orthodox parish.
    >Newsrooms are supposed to be built on the concept of
    >diversity, right? Surely there was someone in these
    >newsrooms who knew the drill, someone who knew what actually
    >happens in Confession. Don’t you think? What did the editors
    >in these newsrooms think was going to happen in these
    >“virtual” confessions?

    In my two decades of daily newsroom experience, I can say with certainty that I do not believe I ever worked with anyone who was even close to a traditional Catholic who would actually know — and respect — the confession drill the way it’s supposed to be done. I have met a lot of post-Vatican II Catholics who were very critical of their church, or often former church, and many who had 1,000 one-liners mocking their own faith. I cannot recall one instance of someone who understood the history and practices of sincere, traditional Catholicism and followed anything close to the older traditions of the church (or showed any outward indication of doing so). I would include regular and frequent confession as one of those older traditions. So the idea that a large newsroom could have NOT ONE Catholic who understood, respected and practiced confession as it is traditionally understood would not surprise me a bit.

    Also, there’s no good reason to think that such a person, even if well known in the newsroom, might be consulted about this story. This was too juicy a news bit to get all serious about and let facts get in the way.

    I think this story was so inaccurately reported because it got “framed” wrong — it got identified as a “tech” story or humorous “lifestyle” story rather than a serious religion story. Immediately it was treated as fluff news, and the reporters who wrote about it saw it as a breezy, somewhat comical item not requiring serious reporting. The undertone in the reports I read was “look at the big, hoary old church trying so hard to be hip with an iPhone app; ha, ha.” They “reported” it but there was a snarky, breezy tone to the “reportage” that undermined any possible serious reporting. Combine ignorance of the actual practice of confession with the at least subtle attempt to poke some “new tech” fun at an ancient institution, and you would get just about exactly what we all got.

  • Daniel Shelley

    This was not lazy reporting and editors ignoring the facts in order to sell copy. This was journalism getting stories wrong on purpose. The motives of selling more copy, being snarky, and being stupid just for stupidity’s sake are there, but with repeated opportunities to be honest these journalists have pass these opportunities up. It’s one of the few professions I know of where being stupid can be some kind of trophy.