Put not your trust in Huffington Post headlines

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I know a maiden fair to see,
Take care!
She can both false and friendly be,
Beware! Beware!
Trust her not,
She is fooling thee!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s advice about women — especially blondes …

And she has hair of a golden hue,
Take care!
And what she says, it is not true,
Beware! Beware!
Trust her not,
She is fooling thee!

… is also good advice in reading headlines. As your GetReligionistas have stressed many times, seldom does a reporter get to write his own title. Yet when a sub-editor makes a mess of a headline the blame is laid at the reporter’s feet when the claim made in the title is not substantiated in the text. There have been times when stories I have written appear under a title that implies the opposite of what I reported.

Sometime back I was commissioned to write an article on a lecture given by the literary critic and philosopher René Girard at Oxford. I gave the story my all and … when I opened the paper after it came off the truck from the printer I found my article nicely displayed on page 5 with a beautiful photo of Girard scoring a goal in a World Cup match.

Too bad René Girard the philosopher and René Girard the soccer player are two different people. Perhaps my readers thought I was being droll, commenting on the élan vital of Girard’s latest book on mimesis by reference to the 1982 France v Poland match. Or they thought I was an idiot.

These meditations on my less than glorious moments in journalism are prompted by a Reuters article on the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s visit to Rome to meet with Pope Francis. The Huffington Post headlined the story: “Pope And Archbishop Of Canterbury Meet, Note Differences On Women Ordination, Gay Rights”.

While I was not in Rome for the press conference at the Venerable English College where Archbishop Welby and Vincent Nichols the Archbishop of Westminster gave a press conference at the end of their day at the Vatican, this headline indicated I missed a major event. Until now Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby held near identical views on gay rights, same-sex marriage, and civil liberties of persons with same-sex attractions. Oh to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting! What had they said to each other?

I dove into the Reuters story looking for details. But there was nothing there. I could quibble here and there with some of the language and editorial asides made by the author:

It was the boldest step by the Vatican to welcome back Anglicans since King Henry VIII broke with Rome and set himself up at the head of the new Church of England in 1534.

An Anglican would say Henry made himself Supreme Governor not head — the head of the church is Christ (there is a difference) and there was nothing “new” in a Church of England in 1534 — “new” implying a discontinuity between the pre and post 1534 church. A frightful papistical canard. Or:

In January this year, the Church of England lifted a ban on gay male clergy who live with their partners from becoming bishops on condition they pledge to stay celibate, deepening a rift in the Anglican community over homosexuality.

A celibate person is an unmarried person. A chaste person is someone who refrains from illicit sexual behavior. I assume Reuters meant to say chaste, meaning conforming to the church’s teaching that “in view of the teaching of scripture, [the Anglican Communion] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage”. The working assumption is that clergy in civil partnerships are celibate, because they are unmarried, and chaste as they are to abstain from sexual relations outside of (traditional) marriage.

And it is the Anglican Communion, not community. Community implies an ashram in the woods somewhere, or a collection of sensibly dressed nuns in their cloister. (True there are such Anglican communities — religious with pearls and twin sets) but this is not what Reuters is likely to have in mind — but perhaps this is the “women” link to the headline?

Or:

The Church, struggling to remain relevant in modern Britain despite falling numbers of believers, published a plan in May to approve the ordination of women bishops by 2015, after the reform narrowly failed to pass last November.

It was the bishops — not the church — who published the plan. It still must be approved by the General Synod, which if the plan goes forward as currently written will likely be turned aside once more.

Anything about gays in the Reuters story? Nothing at all.

I looked about the web and found The Chicago Tribune had run the same item, but with a different title: “Pope Francis and new Anglican leader meet, note differences.” Rather a where’s Waldo headline — written for a bored seven year old. One is in purple, one in white. One has his wife with him (in the background) one has cardinals, etc.

I looked on the Reuters web page to see if the Huffington Post had shortened the article for space reasons, but found they had lengthened the title instead. The suggested title read: Pope Francis and new Anglican leader meet, note differences.” The gays and women bits came from the Huffington Post’s scribes — not Reuters.

Checking further I found I had not missed a major ecumenical story by staying home as La Stampa and the Guardian reported these comments by Archbishop Welby at the press briefing. La Stampa wrote:

Questioned whether he and Pope Francis had discussed the question of marriage and the debate over gay marriage, Archbishop Welby said “we are absolutely at one on the issues” by which he meant on the question of marriage (understood in the traditional Christian sense as between a man and a woman). He revealed that the Pope told him that he had read the speech he given recently to the House of Lords in which he opposed the British Government’s bill to introduce marriage between persons of the same sex.

Archbishop Welby added that he and Pope Francis are “equally at one in the condemnation of homophobic behavior” and “our sense that the essential dignity of the human being is where you start, and that is one of the absolute root foundations of all behavior, and the moment you start treating people as a category rather than as human beings with this essential dignity you have begun to lose the plot”.

What is the moral of the story?

Read the article, not just the headline. Though I will admit the Huffington Post editor who wrote this headline succeeded in his job, which is getting me to read the article. That is a different task than the reporter’s job of fairly presenting the news. Beware! You’ve been warned.

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About geoconger
  • Opinionated Catholic

    This is almost as bad as the recent Huff Post headline , “Kaitlyn Hunt, Florida Teen, Faces Felony Charges Over Same-Sex Relationship”. Umm no there is a lot more too it than that.

    I have to say no doubt the headline helps people click on the story. But I am not sure in the great scheme of thinkgs of web pages , feeds, and twitter if that is happening. In the example headline I just gave I got the impression that out of the literally thousands of RT a nice percentage were not. Yets their view of what was happening was done by by the headline . No doubt the same here as to the Pope Canterbury story

    I think when we are bombarded with news via social media its often the headline that has the most power. We can’t click on everything as it goes past.

    So perhaps at the next RNA conference there might be some talk about getting more stories and headlines right .

  • bob

    The HP more than most news outlets is simply a sewer. I can’t bear looking at it. Whatever the subject I read it’s always 1/4 inch from something obscene next to it. The only “religious” articles are by people like Spong, Shaeffer or worse. I said outlet. Read outfall.

  • Ann Rodgers

    As this post noted, reporters don’t write headlines. Headline writers don’t belong to the RNA so there is, alas, nothing we can do to fix that problem. Our goal is always to help reporters get the story right.

    However I think this post missed a larger gaffe than whether “head” is the proper title for the leader of the Church of England. Pope Francis’ meeting with Archbishop Welby was not the boldest step taken toward reconciliation since the time of Henry VIII. My nomination for that honor would go to the meeting between Pope Paul VI and ABC Ramsey Michaels in 1966, during which the pope gave his ring to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

  • Cathy G.

    George, as a headline writer and copy editor, I think my job is also to fairly present the news — in much fewer words.

    This editor didn’t do that, but that doesn’t mean it never happens.

    And Ann, how about getting the RNA to work with some copy editor groups, i.e. the American Copy Editors Society?

  • Cathy G.

    It’s also worth noting that, with the exception of sports and perhaps business, copy editors generally don’t specialize in certain fields and beats the way reporters do.

  • Melissa

    “The working assumption is that clergy in civil partnerships are celibate, because they are unmarried, and chaste as they are to abstain from sexual relations outside of (traditional) marriage.”

    Whoa. I didn’t know that. That is a very interesting tidbit of information that is left out of every mainstream story about the Anglican Communion and whether or not they allow gay clergy, or partnered gay clergy.

    Am I the only one who didn’t know this? I’m thinking that this is very relevant information that should be included when there is a story done on clergy in same sex partnerships. Why would a journalist leave out that info? I suspect that, if the journalist included that info, it would portray the Anglican Communion as not progressive enough. However, if this fact became more widely known, I believe it would do much to alleviate some of the concerns that (for example) Catholics have about the Anglicans.

    Are journalists stirring up division betwee the Christian faiths by withholding important information about Anglican policies regarding clergy in same sex partnerships? Or am I being overly cynical here?