That’s one very, very poor headline about the pope

As I have stressed many times here at GetReligion, it’s important for readers to understand that reporters rarely write the headlines that accompany their stories.

Editors and specialists at copy desks write the headlines. It’s tough work, and I say that as someone who did that job for several years early in my career.

A good headline can really help a story. A bad one can warp the framework in which the reader encounters the ideas and fact in the text. Alas, that’s just the way the business works.

I often wonder if your GetReligionistas need to develop a special feature or slug-line for bad headlines about religion, especially bad headlines about stories that are either really good or, at the very least, solid.

Take, for example, that Huffington Post headline that dominated a Reuters report about yet another interesting statement — from remarks made without a prepared text — by Pope Francis. Let’s look at a key chunk of the text first:

“If we step outside of ourselves, we will find poverty,” he said, repeating his call for Catholics to do more to seek out those on the fringes of society who need help the most,” he said from the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. “Today, and it breaks my heart to say it, finding a homeless person who has died of cold, is not news. Today, the news is scandals, that is news, but the many children who don’t have food — that’s not news. This is grave. We can’t rest easy while things are this way.”

The crowd, most of whom are already involved in charity work, interrupted him often with applause.

“We cannot become starched Christians, too polite, who speak of theology calmly over tea. We have to become courageous Christians and seek out those (who need help most),” he said.

This is yet another example of the pope attempting to promote that has been called a “religious sense” or a “religious sensibility” that surrounds the events of everyday life. See my recent Scripps Howard column for some additional examples.

His point is that true faith is found in words matched with deeds, not with words alone.

So what was the headline at HuffPo?

Well, that would be this:

Pope Francis Insists Church Must Help Poor, Not ‘Speak Of Theology’

Ouch.

Where in the story does the pope downgrade the need for sound theology or the need to be able to speak clearly about it?

Now, in the digital age, it’s quite easy to tweak the size of headlines in a computer. In this case, the headline only needed one more work to be accurate — “merely.” Put the word “merely” in front of “Speak of Theology” and you have the heart of what he said. Right?

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.

  • RoamingChile

    Yes. And thank you for educating the masses about headline writing and copy editors. I worked as one for several years, as well. You are so right that a bad headline can ruin the reading of a good story.

  • Julia B

    Here’s a really crazy headline with a really crazy story about Francis in the Sun in the UK, where the journalists’ favorite past-time is making the Pope look bad according to John Allen. Evangelicals and other Christians will recognize that the Pope is laying on hands while praying for the young man.

    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4936655/pope-francis-caught-on-video-performing-strange-ritual-on-fan.html#ixzz2TwDcEjcS

    Incredibly, the comments make more sense than the story. A Catholic exorcism is a very elaborate matter that doesn’t happen adhoc like this in a very public place. The priest who is cited is nearly 90 with what appears to be senile dementia to some degree. I think he’s also the “Vatican expert” who was quoted about the danger of letting kids see Harry Potter movies because they were Satanic. Reporters of a certain ilk love to seek him out for an always outrageous quote. Judge for yourself by reading what Wikipedia has to say about him.
    Query: is it fair to call him “the leading Roman expert”, implying a Vatican position?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriele_Amorth

    Disqus made me change my password again. grrrrrrr

    • Howard

      That is an incredibly uncharitable remark. Old and “with what appears to be senile dementia to some degree”? Like some, maybe you, thought of John Paul II? Really, it’s just an appeal to bigotry towards the old when you disagree with them. Fr. Amorth was certainly not suffering from “dementia” when he wrote his books, and in them he discusses both prayers of deliverance (which are not formal exorcisms, and which may be profitably used by any baptized Christian, including laymen and even non-Catholics), as well as the use of short prayers in the early, diagnostic stages of an exorcism. That is not to say that what the Holy Father was doing was an exorcism, but it is to say that your scoffing remark betrays as much ignorance as it does ill will.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      It’s obvious that it wasn’t exorcism, but The Sun, HuffPost and others don’t understand the difference between exorcism and prayers for deliverance. Besides, exorcism is far “sexier” than deliverance prayers.

      Father Amorth is an exorcist and he is expert in his field. I don’t believe the term “leading Roman expert” implies a Vatican position because his position was for the Diocese of Rome, not the Vatican, per se, nor do I see any sign of dementia in the quote The Sun offered.

  • Howard

    How about “Pope Says Catholics Should Not Drink Tea”? It’s just as accurate.

    • Howard

      Or, since we’re talking about HuffPo: “Tea Party Beware: Pope Condemns Tea.”

  • Julia B

    Howard: my remarks were not meant to be uncharitable and they were directed to the press using this guy as an “official” source. My mother and others in her family developed dementia in the last years of their lives and I expect that my genetic inheritance fore-ordains that I will have it, too. I hope nobody quotes my statements when that happens to me. And I mostly hope that nobody will try to pass me off as THE current expert in whatever I’m talking about. I’m guessing that the good father had a lot more to say and that the reporter cherry-picked the statement that fit his story-line. You do know that the Vatican real official spokesman said that the Pope was just praying for the boy.

    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/vatican-spokesman-denies-pope-conducted-exorcism/

  • Cincinnatus1775

    You assume the headline is erroneous. Given the publication and its audience, perhaps not. There are many who would be all too happy for the Church to focus on social welfare and keep silent on theology. They would very much like the church to limit itself to helping the poor and “not speak” of issues such as the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, etc. The Episcopal Church has adopted the spirit of the HuffPo headline: it’s an advocate of a plethora of social causes and mum on theology.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      There is no assumption of error here — this is a blatant error. It may be the HuffPo’s perspective, but that doesn’t make its perspective correct. The headline says, “Pope Francis Insists Church Must Help Poor, Not ‘Speak Of Theology’”; the story says nothing about that at all. Therefore, the headline is erroneous.

    • AuthenticBioethics

      A venue and and audience do not determine the veracity of the news. It’s not true “for them” unless it’s true for everyone. The degree of error in the headline is spin, and given the venue and its audience, the spin is expected. But being expected does not determine its veracity either.

      At any rate, the headline should convey that the Pope wants Catholics to “Walk the walk, not just talk the talk.” The part after “not” should convey the notion of “not just” – because walking the walk means nothing if one does not know what one is talking about, so talking the talk is important, but it can’t remain there.

      And so what you say about the Episcopal Church, in my view, is spot on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martha-OKeeffe/100002559433793 Martha O’Keeffe

    Following up what Julia B. linked about that sensationalist story in the Italian press, which, the papers over here seemed to have picked up, I’d like to share this link I sw when reading my news feed today.

    I would expect the “Sun” to go for that angle, but this is the “Independent”, allegedly a quality paper *insert loud snort of derision here*

    Never mind that they seem to either not realise what an exorcism actually is, or they don’t care what is going on because a good juicy headline is all they want, the level of ignorance about basic liturgical feasts of the Church is particularly galling:

    “The astonishing footage, taken immediately after Pentecostal mass on Sunday 19th May”

    Pentecostal? Pentecostal???? Okay, I don’t expect the trendy lefties on the “Independent” to be particularly familiar with Christianity, but this is the kind of mistake on a par with “Easter is the Ascension” and “Evangelical, Evangelist, what’s the difference?”. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen such a thing as a “Pentecostal Mass”, and if Pope Francis really did celebrate one of these, that’s a much bigger story than a “it’s a blessing by laying on of hands but that’s not exciting enough so we’ll call it an exorcism”.

  • Julia B

    For those who think my comments about the “Roman exorcism expert” are out of line: I have very good company in not liking the press flocking to Fr. Amorth for sensational citations.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2012/05/fr-gabriele-amorth-makes-a-sensational-claim.html

    http://www.canonlaw.info/a_amorth.htm

  • Michael Newhouse

    They are doing all they can to twist his words to fit their narrative.


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