NPR ‘smear job’ on Catholic university?

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A regular GetReligion reader alerted us to an NPR “smear job” — as he described it — on his alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.

Here’s the headline atop the report:

College Course Lumps Homosexuality, Rape, Murder

The top of the story:

The Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio faces questions about its accreditation because of a course description that links homosexuality with crimes like murder, rape and robbery.

The university’s social work program offers the course, called SWK 314 Deviant Behavior. The course description reads: “The behaviors that are primarily examined are murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness and drug use.”

Members of a Franciscan University gay and lesbian alumni group on Facebook discovered the course description and have asked the school to change it.

The reader who shared the link felt that NPR favored the course’s critics in its story. After reading the report, I’d have to agree. The piece has a one-sided feel to it (perhaps not surprisingly given the source).

Right at the top, NPR plays fast and loose with the facts. The intro makes it appear that the university’s overall accreditation is at issue. That would be its accreditation with the North Central Association. Keep reading, though, and it turns out the accreditation question relates to a departmental accreditation (the Council on Social Work Education).

Also interesting is that NPR quotes only a portion of the course description. This is the full description via the university website:

SWK 314

DEVIANT BEHAVIOR focuses on the sociological theories of deviant behavior such as strain theory, differential association theory, labeling theory, and phenomenological theory. The behaviors that are primarily examined are murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness, and drug use. The course focuses on structural conditions in society that potentially play a role in influencing deviant behavior.

NPR interviews two alumni critical of the course, including one up high:

“As a lesbian and as a psychological professional, I found a couple of things offensive,” says Elizabeth Vermilyea, who graduated from Franciscan University in 1991 with a psychology degree. Today she’s working on a doctorate and consults with mental health organizations. She objects to including both mental health and homosexuality in that list.

“The state of the art in science on homosexuality is not that it’s deviant,” says Vermilyea. “The DSM — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — has removed it … as an illness.”

That manual certainly sounds important. But I wish NPR had provided more context to help understand it, including quoting a third-party expert.

NPR relies on a written statement for the university’s side of the story:

In a written statement to NPR, the school says, “Franciscan University follows Catholic Church teaching in regard to homosexuality and treats homosexual persons with ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2358) while holding homosexual acts as ‘intrinsically disordered.’”

The university says the term “deviant” is used in the sociological sense, to mean “different from the norm.” And it says the course “covers a wide range of topics including crime, alcoholism, heterosexual deviance and homosexuality.”

If the university refused to grant an on-the-record interview, then a written statement may be the only way to report Franciscan’s side of the story. Even then, some elaboration on exactly what the Catholic Church teaches concerning homosexuality would improve the report.

Moreover, the story suffers from a lack of any interviews with (a) a professor who teaches the course or (b) a student or alumni who has taken the course. Wouldn’t their insight and reflections on what is actually taught concerning homosexuality be relevant in an unbiased news story?

Is this a smear job or simply bad journalism? You decide. 

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • MikeD

    I am another regular reader and FUS alum (hope my degree survives). This whole controversy is a very disturbing example of how media bias can distort reality. Here are some class notes from a course at University of Missouri St. Louis that lists homosexuality as a deviant behavior along with violence, economic crimes, white collar crimes, drug and alcohol use, and mental disorder: http://www.umsl.edu/~keelr/200/200lec.html

    Here is a syllabus from Univ. of Minnesota that lists “sexuality” as a topic alongside crime, substance use, suicide, disability, and mental illness: http://www.soc.umn.edu/~uggen/4111syllabus_04.pdf

    It appears that this is a serious overreaction by people who don’t know much about sociology and did absolutely no research on the teaching of courses on deviance at other colleges and universities. Did they call a professor that taught this course elsewhere and decide that the information didn’t fit their anti-catholic narrative?

    Also, I’m not sure how the DSM is relevant to whether homosexuality is “deviant” or not. According to wikipedia “Deviance, in a sociological context, describes actions or behaviors that violate social norms, including formally-enacted rules (e.g., crime), as well as informal violations of social norms (e.g., rejecting folkways and mores). It is the purview of sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and criminologists to study how these norms are created, how they change over time and how they are enforced.” Calling something “deviant” is not the same as the diagnosis of mental illness, so why talk of the DSM at all.

    BTW, I posted this information on a “progressive” catholic magazine’s blog that was equating this course with “teaching creationism in biology 101″ and have gotten no response from the author.

    • John Pack Lambert

      The DSM has no authority in sociology, it is a pshycology manual. The fact that NPR quotes a pshycologist to attack a sociological course is more suspect than I realized on the initial reading.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Working from the “never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity” stance, I’d suggest it’s simply laziness, which often substitutes for stupidity in the above phrase. Mr. Brady had his quote from the folks who opposed the wording and a statement from the university defending its position and that was about all the time he spent on the story. It seems a deliberate choice rather than any kind of external pressure such as a deadline.

    The story doesn’t seem to have any kind of “sell-by date” that would make it stale if he had to wait another day to get a response from the professor or students — and as always, if he contacted the professor and was told the professor wouldn’t comment, he should have included that. If the university would not provide names or contact info for the prof or students, then he should have said that. If they forbade him from speaking to them, he most definitely should have said that — as well as ignored the injunction

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Brett, I think I can assure you that the University would have made their professors available. The PR director is a former classmate of mine and she’s no slouch. The school’s orthodox stand does not mean the administrators and faculty have their heads buried in the sand and are unaware of what the wider culture believes or are incapable of providing solid answers to those beliefs.

      The question about malice vs. laziness is one that I would say is a little more nuanced. Laziness can be because one is lazy, period. It can also be because one does not want to challenge one’s own or someone else’s underlying beliefs. It happens in all occupations and all points of view. My guess is that the laziness in this case was motivated out of wanting to perpetuate the “bigoted, nasty, small-minded, narrow-minded” typology which the Left associates with this type of school.

      • sari

        The other topics addressed by the course (from the website: murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, mental illness, and drug use) are, without exception, detrimental to society. Nor can one say that they sit two standard deviations out. Drug use (abuse, really) is endemic to our society, be it alcoholism, prescription meds, or the use of illicit drugs.

        From the ASA website:

        “Deviant behavior is defined as behavior that elicits a strong negative reaction from others. Learners will understand the socially constructed nature of deviance as evidenced by how the definition of the same act as deviant or not varies by time and place. Thus, they will understand that one of the central sociological questions about deviance is whose definitions of deviance prevail, an understanding that links deviance to power in society.”

        http://www.asanet.org/introtosociology/UnitPages/UnitVIIDevianceandConformity.html

        Note that sociologists view “deviance” as being socially defined rather than absolute. IOW, the university instructor decided what behaviors fell under the purview of his or her class. This is very important to understanding the disconnect between value-neutral science (yes, social sciences are science) and science through the lens of a belief system. The other, bigger question, one unasked in the article, is whether or not the majority of Americans (the people who determine deviance) feel that homosexuality constitutes deviant behavior.

        So, yeah, it wasn’t a stellar writing, but I, a non-Catholic (and one with a degree in the social sciences), found it rather illuminating for what the school is teaching future social workers.

      • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

        Thomas — I imagined the university would have done so but was listing reasons why I believed the omissions had no valid justification — since no disclaimers appeared, then the reporter had probably not asked those questions or been stonewalled in that way. And I agree that this represents a laziness of not bothering to question one’s own assumptions, which is certainly problematic in different ways than plain old not-wanting-to-work-very-hard laziness.

  • Ted Seeber

    Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 2357-2359:

    2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

    2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

    2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

    For more information, I suggest reading paragraphs 2331-2400. You’ll get at least a good overview of Catholic teaching on human sexuality in general, and you’ll quickly notice that only 3 paragraphs out of 69 relate to homosexuality at all.

  • sari

    DSM-IV (currently; V is in the works) is the Diagnostic Manual of Psychiatric Disorders. It lists the criteria and CPT codes for mental illnesses and certain neurological disorders, like autism. Homosexuality was once listed in the DSM, hence the reference, but was dropped in the 1974 edition of the DSM-II.

    • MikeD

      sari,
      I understand that aspect of the reference, but is it relevant to the issue of whether homosexuality is a proper topic of study in a sociology course on deviant behavior? The alumni group representative and NPR (and others who have covered this story on various news sites and blogs) seem to be implying that the removal of homosexuality from the DSM is somehow definitive proof that it should not be studied or discussed as “deviant” in this particular course and that doing so makes FUS somehow “unscientific” and undeserving of accreditation.

      • sari

        Mike,
        The disorders (constellations of behaviors) listed in the DSM are there because people who exhibit them are considered to need remediation, at the very least, and/or a cure, wherever possible. Were these people *normal*, they would not be included. As a parent of two kids with autism spectrum disorder, I can attest to the importance of a label -and- to the heartbreak (and lack of acceptance) such a label implies. We diagnose disorders to fix them; that’s the bottom line. Failure to include homosexuality in the DSM equates to normalcy in many people’s eyes. That’s the logic.

        That the DSM’s current set of authors and the Catholic Church disagree on this point is the topic under discussion, because, as I said in another post, by the sociological definition, society dictates what constitutes normal and aberrant behavior.

  • dalea

    The first problem I see with the story is it conflates social work with sociology when they are actually different fields. Sociology is a study of society, social work involves actions and applications. So, my question is why is there a sociological class in social work?

    Secondly, there needs to be more context on what the national social work organizations require concerning LGBT people. I have linked to it in the past, but am not feeling ambitious today. The national accrediting organization has fairly strict requirements concerning how its schools treat LGBT students. But without this information, the story is hard to follow.

  • Julia

    Seems that discussing how homosexuality over the years has been viewed as deviant or not deviant would fit well into a class about “deviance” as per the sociological definition. So would women wanting to do “men’s jobs” which was considered somewhat pathological in my college Psychology class in about 1964. I kid you not, it was supposed to be a sign of pathological rejection of and/or an inability to adjust to the accepted “women’s role” in life.

  • http://nonnobis.weebly.com Stephen Hoyle

    For what it’s worth, my understanding is that homosexuality was removed from the APA’s Diagnostic Manual of Psychiatric Disorders in the early 1970s due to political pressure from the homosexual community, not necessarily due to any particular scientific reason. Consequently, citing that as proof that homosexuality is no longer consider abnormal by professionals is problematic.

  • deiseach

    Please note that amongst the deviant behaviours listed, mental illness is included. Are any of our outraged commentators outraged that mental illness is called a deviancy? Or perhaps, just perhaps, there is a specific technical meaning as a term of art in this instance.

    Everyone seems to be happy that examining, for instance, the association of mental illness with homelessness and poverty under the description of “deviant behaviour” is an acceptable phrasing? If they can seem to understand – or at least, not get up in arms – that mental illness is not being treated as sinful or a personal fault, why the exemption about homosexuality?

  • http://www.ncregister.com Tim Drake

    As a reporter who actually spoke to all sides in the story, and revealed details that all of the other so-called journalists did not, I can assure you that those who contacted the university did not give the university an adequate time to respond before they released their press release. To me, it smacks of a smear job. No question. For all of the details, read the full story here: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/franciscan-universitys-sociology-course-description-comes-under-fire/

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for the link, Tim.

      I found this quote from your story particularly enlightening:

      “Unfortunately, I used the term ‘red flag’ in my conversation with NPR,” said Stephen Holloway, director of the office of social-work accreditation with the Council on Social Work Education. “It would be completely inaccurate to say that a course description which may connote a pejorative interpretation of homosexuality because it’s listed with other terms is sufficient to put the accreditation in jeopardy.”

    • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

      Yes, thanks for the link and for your work in covering the story.

  • Robb Moffett

    I was a regular NPR listener from the beginning. I am a white democrat, one time liberal. About ten years ago i became interested in the issue of immigration. I realized after much reading that we would be better as a country economically,environmetally and socially with less immigration and a stable population. it was at that time my eyes were opened up as to how biased NPR was . They only have one narrative on immigration: All Immigration and immigrants are Good, anyone that wants less immigration is EVIL.
    I no longer listen to NPR or public TV. Once you see the lies they broadcast on immigration, it is hard not to think what else are they lying about?

  • John Pack Lambert

    This report is a total hatchet job. The title engages in out-of-context attacks. To expect a Catholic institution to treat homosexual actions as other than deviant is to expect them to go against their core teachings. Only by attacking out of context can this course even be seen as problematic. The broad range of issues studied makes sense, and the claim that there is any attampt to treat as equivalent all issues is bogus.

    The problem with accredidation groups like the one in question is that they have a long history of marginalizing religious views. The DSM declassification of homosexual actions as disordered was a long, controversial process, and to assume that those who do not agree with the outcome should be excluded from academia is to undermine academic freedom.


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