Warping the content of a Vatican ‘warning’

Of all of the things that outsiders do not understand about the journalism business, one of the most important is an all-too-common misunderstanding about who writes the headlines that do so much to shape the perceptions of news consumers.

Rarely, rarely, rarely does the reporter who writes a news story have anything to do with the content of the headline that is right above her or his byline. Headlines are produced (saith tmatt, a former headline writer) by the professionals on the copy desk. At some larger newspapers, prized wordsmiths win awards for this skill.

So when you see a great headline, you can almost always thank a copy editor.

When you see a lousy headline, you can usually — repeat USUALLY — blame a copy editor.

Why “usually”? Copy editors, as a rule, strive to make sure that the headline echos a crucial fact or theme in the story (logically enough). So if you see a bad headline, you need to dig into the story to see if the text contained bad seeds that grew into that large-print weed.

Consider, for example, this headline at The Herald Sun down under in Australia. It proclaims:

Vatican warns US of threat to Catholicism

Now, if you have been following the media wars over growing fears about religious-liberty trends, you will not be surprised to learn that this headline does not accurately report what the Vatican document actually said. More on that in a moment.

But where did this bad — or at least shallow — headline come from? Look at the top of the story:

THE Vatican has warned of threats of “unprecedented gravity” to the Catholic Church in the United States, in the latest such censure in the lead-up to the US presidential elections.

“Concerted efforts are being made to redefine and restrict the exercise of the right to religious freedom,” Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone said in a new charge seen by observers as targeting the Obama administration for allegedly denying Catholics the right to conscientious objection.

Pope Benedict XVI has told American bishops repeatedly over the last eight months that the compulsory provision for contraception in employees’ health insurance included in President Barack Obama’s health-care plan threatens religious freedom.

Cardinal Bertone’s warning came in a message to the US-based Knights of Columbus, in an apparent bid to get the world’s largest Catholic fraternal group to keep the church’s key issues at the forefront of the election scene.

Note that, according to this report, the Vatican is only concerned about threats to the Catholic Church and its believers. In fact, the Vatican, readers are told, is acting on behalf of the “ultra-conservative” wing of the U.S. Church — not even the normal Catholics, whoever they are. You’ll be stunned to know that the nuns make a guest appearance in this discussion.

However, in the Internet age, it is quite easy to actually read this letter from the Holy See. The key passage tells the Knights that, yes indeed, the Church (big “C”) faces threats. So what must be done?

At a time when concerted efforts are being made to redefine and restrict the exercise of the right to religious freedom, the Knights of Columbus have worked tirelessly to help the Catholic community recognize and respond to the unprecedented gravity of these new threats to the Church’s liberty and public moral witness. By defending the right of all religious believers, as individual citizens and in their institutions, to work responsibly in shaping a democratic society inspired by their deepest beliefs, values and aspirations, your Order has proudly lived up to the high religious and patriotic principles which inspired its founding.

Here is the journalistic question. The headline and the story on which it is based separate the first sentence in this passage from the second. Yes, the Church’s liberty is being threatened, but only because these rights are shared in common with “all religious believers” in other pews and sanctuaries. Catholics are not alone, from the Vatican’s point of view.

So the headline is technically accurate, in that the Vatican does believe there is a threat to the rights of loyal, doctrinally orthodox Catholics. The story is inaccurate when it aggressively suggests, through a rather glaring sin of omission, that the Vatican addressed threats to Catholicism ALONE.

Thus my question: Using the same number of words and about the same number of characters, what could this headline have said if the goal was to accurately reflect (“Vatican warns”) the content of this Vatican letter? Yes, it would certainly have helped if the story had quoted the second sentence in the letter’s crucial passage.

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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.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Should be:
    (not exactly the smae number of characters)

    From NCR:

    From USA Today:

    And from the Puffington Host:

    How’s that for an old HS paper editor?

  • Suzanne

    Vatican: Religious freedom threatened in US

    There should be an online game for headline second-guessers that challenges people to create headlines that actually fit the same space.

  • Suzanne

    Honestly, looking back at mine, I think it’s too vague and generic. As a reader, I’d say, “Haven’t I seen this before?”

    Working KofC in somehow would make it more immediate. Using a subhed would work — but that’s kind of a lazy fix.

  • Mark

    How about: Vatican praises KofC Liberty Defense

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    One other problem: “THE Vatican has warned of threats of ‘unprecedented gravity’ to the Catholic Church in the United States, in the latest such censure in the lead-up to the US presidential elections.” As if these “censures” have anything to do with the elections. Yes, the Holy See is concerned about who becomes president, but they are not as concerned about it as this journalist (and many others) seem to think. The Catholic Church has been around for some two millennia and seen bad regimes and good governments come and go.

    Besides, there is the fact that this message was given on the occasion of the K of C’s annual meeting and its leader is on the board of the Institute for Religious Works (the Vatican Bank). So the fact of the election is completely extraneous to the story.

  • Norman

    “You’ll be stunned to know that the nuns make a guest appearance in this discussion.”

    Nuns, or “a US association of Catholic clergy women”?

  • The Old Bill

    I vote for Suzanne’s: Vatican: Religious freedom threatened in US

    Or perhaps,


  • Julia

    US association of Catholic clergy women

    Sisters and nuns are not clergy in the Catholic Church.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Julia, I think Norman meant it as a joke. And Old Young Bill – absolutely hilarious!

  • Norman

    No joke, I quoted the article verbatim :)

  • teomatteo

    “Holy See agrees with U.S. catholic group: religious liberty threatened”

  • JWB

    Well, I hope the focus on the shortcomings of an Australian paper’s coverage of a US story means the US papers (whose writers might be more familiar with the context of the specific controversy that everyone assumes the Cardinal is writing about even though the letter does not so specify on its face) all did a better job?

  • Norman

    JWB, not that it alters the substance of your question at all, but this is an Agence France-Presse wire report that was run in an Australian paper.