LATimes offers readers a simple, one-sided take on Vatican

Every niche website has a few “big ideas” that drive its work day after day. Any GetReligion reader knows — duh — that one of our big ideas is that the press often doesn’t see crucial religious themes and facts that are at the heart of important news stories. That’s the whole “ghost” concept that is explained in the essay published when we opened for business. If you never stopped to read that one, please do.

Another crucial concept for your GetReligionistas is that we are convinced that the “hotter” the story, the more a topic causes public division and debate, the more journalists should commit themselves to seeking out informed, qualified, representative voices on both sides. Of course, there are two sides or more, in many complex stories. This concept is central to what journalism textbooks would call the “American model of the press,” as opposed to the various forms of advocacy journalism in which the editors of publications openly slant their coverage to favor the editorial viewpoint that defines their newspaper.

That’s why it was so important when Bill Keller, days after he stepped down as New York Times editor, said the following in a public forum when he was asked if his newspaper slanted the news to the left:

“We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So what were the crucial “social” or moral values stories in American life during his tenure? And how about in the news today? Well, any list would have to include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other topics that, for a majority of Americans, are inevitably linked to religion.

That brings me to yet another mainstream journalism story in which editors appear to be totally comfortable publishing a one-side advocacy piece that offers zero content from informed voices on one side of a global debate.

Journalists in the audience: Raise your hands if you know that there are multiple camps in the Catholic Church today on issues related to sexuality? If you are breathing right now, your hand should be raised high.

So what are the editors of The Los Angeles Times trying to do in the piece that ran under this headline: “Vatican to debate teachings on divorce, birth control, gay unions.”

Note the word “debate.” That implies that there are competing voices, correct?

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Now, this story is not labeled as a work of analysis. But read the lengthy passage that opens it and tell me what you notice, in terms of the journalistic presentation of the basic facts and background information.

Contraception, cohabitation, divorce, remarriage and same-sex unions: They’re issues that pain and puzzle Roman Catholics who want to be true to both their church and themselves.

Now those issues are about to be put up for debate by their leader, a man who appears determined to push boundaries and effect change.

On Pope Francis’ orders, the Vatican will convene an urgent meeting of senior clerics this fall to reexamine church teachings that touch the most intimate aspects of people’s lives. Billed as an “extraordinary” assembly of bishops, the gathering could herald a new approach by the church to the sensitive topics.

The run-up to the synod has been extraordinary in itself, a departure from usual practice that some say is a mark of the pope’s radical new leadership style, and a canny tactic to defuse dissent over potential reforms.

Within a few months of his election last year, Francis directed every diocese in the world to survey local attitudes on family and relationships and report back to the Vatican, a canvassing of a sort that few of the faithful can recall previously. The results are being tallied and synthesized behind the walls of the Vatican.

So we are five paragraphs into this piece and what is missing?

Right. Clear attribution clauses for the sources. The very next paragraph only underlines this problem.

The exercise reflects Francis’ desire for less centralized and more responsive decision-making, mirroring his own self-described evolution from a rigid, authoritarian leader as a young man into one who consults and empathizes. His training as a Jesuit has taught the pope to cast as wide a net for information as possible, analysts say.

And who are these analysts and what Catholic camps do they represent? Since this story is about a debate at the highest levels of the Catholic world, surely readers will get to hear from a diverse choir of experts?

Keep look for the attribution clauses. Take this passage, for example:

Hardly anyone expects the pope to propose sweeping changes to Catholic doctrine at the synod in October despite widespread criticism that the modern world has left the church behind. Indeed, Francis has unequivocally upheld heterosexual marriage and procreation as God’s established, sanctified ideal.

But liberal reformers have been excited by the Vatican’s shift in tone under Francis. His remark regarding gays, “Who am I to judge?” has gone viral, as has his warning to the church not to obsess over “small-minded rules” and contentious subjects such as abortion.

Who is hidden behind the words “hardly anyone”? Any names?

How about that loaded term “liberal reformers”? Any names in particular, other than “The Vatican Diaries” author John Thavis, whose words dominate the crucial framework passages of the story? Yes, the editor of the progressive Catholic newspaper The Tablet shows up, but what about the voices of a few traditional Catholic scribes or shepherds?

So, to sum up, read the whole piece and (Catholic readers please chime in) list the on-the-record voices. Who, in the list, represents an orthodox Catholic perspective? Who represents the orthodox side of the debate, in a church that — the story admits this — stands on centuries of Catholic doctrine and tradition?

Name the names. Then count them.

Then read the following 2003 memo from a powerful editor, written in defense of the American model of the press after his paper published a radically unbalanced piece on a hot-button subject — abortion. Click here for the source.

To: SectionEds
Subject: Credibility/abortion

I’m concerned about the perception — and the occasional reality — that the Times is a liberal, “politically correct” newspaper. Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right. We did so today with the front-page story on the bill in Texas that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer.

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring “so-called counseling of patients.” I don’t think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it “so-called,” a phrase that is loaded with derision.

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story’s lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he “has a professional background in property management.” Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn’t we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don’t need to waste our readers’ time with it.

The reason I’m sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

I’m no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

Let me know if you’d like to discuss this.

John

The Times, in this case, is The Los Angeles Times.

Yes, the folks here at GetReligion still think this is an issue worth discussing.

YOUTUBE: Sorry. I just couldn’t help it.

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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.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Being Catholic but looking only at the attributions and terminology, I still found myself with a new nervous tic.

    The quotes around “extraordinary” caused a ‘Princess Bride’ reaction. I do not think that word means what the writer thinks it means in a Catholic context. A priest, deacon or bishop is called an “ordinary”, one who is ordained in the Church. When something is called “extraordinary,” it means that non-ordained people may be involved. A common U.S. example is the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion: lay people asked to give the Eucharist to help during Communion when there aren’t enough ordinary ministers.

    The usual bad distortions of the pope’s comments on gay priests, comments from an “author and expert” of Catholic teaching (with no sources of his authority) and the use of political language to create a greater progressive tone shows that John’s memo from 2003 has long been forgotten or ignored at the LAT.

    • Julia B

      The video has that British use of “extraordinary” that Americans have mostly adopted. The Brit usage denotes something really startling or shockingly different than normal.
      The article’s jumping on the word “extraordinary” immediately caught my attention, too. I hadn’t thought of it being used to differentiate something involving the laity, but rather just denoting something that was different from the usual, as in the “extraordinary” form of the Mass, i.e. the 1962 Mass.

      This happens a lot when the Church retains the original meaning of words and then they are translated into what is thought to be the English equivalent, but the English meaning has slip-slided into something a bit different. There’s where the dead language of Latin is useful – the meanings don’t morph into different meanings [in general].

      With students no longer studying Latin, as a rule, people don’t see the Latin etymology of words – so they don’t get the gist of their original meaning. It wasn’t that long ago that Latin was still the Western world’s language of academia, law, science and medicine. So it wasn’t just Catholics who used Latin. Those days are long gone, except for a few terms of art and the naming of species, craters on the moon and the like.

  • Brett

    And “effect change” is pretentious phrasing.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    A 1300-word piece and only four named sources, but with all kinds of unnamed “sources,” “analysts” and “reformers.” Is that some kind of record?

    Of the four quoted sources, it appears that the “Robert Gahl” who was cited is actually Father Robert Gahl, a priest of the personal prelature, Opus Dei (though from the photo on the Santa Croce website, he is not albino nor monk nor any combination thereof). I guess it helps to make the right attributions. So it seems he would be one at the end of what the MSM would call more “conservative” Catholicism, even though his is hardly a household name even in conservative Catholic circles.

    The other three — John Thavis, Massimo Faggioli and Catherine Pepinster, are all of the more “liberal” persuasion of Catholicism. Gee, I guess we can’t tell which way the author and editors want the Church to lean, can we?

    What I find interesting is when a respected Vaticanista like Sandro Magister says out loud that Pope Francis is the last Pope-King (http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350776?eng=y). That’s not exactly what I would call the most mainstream view and yet Magister is, as I said, a well-respected Vatican reporter. When are we going to see something like that being talked about in the Times — L.A. or otherwise?

    • Julia B

      I’m stunned at Magister’s article. Absolutely stunned. I usually read him, but hadn’t seen this yet. This diatribe might be the grousing of an Italian who wants to retain how things have always been done. OR it could be telegraphing problems in the making. Thanks for the link.

  • http://www.BrianJones.com/ Brian Jones

    It’s this kind of research that has won me over as a loyal reader of the Get Religion blog. Well done. Insightful and balanced.

  • fredx2

    The interesting thing about Bill Keller’s denial of bias is that his own public editors routinely disagree with him. Several of them have admitted the NY Times is biased. Any reader of the Times after, say, the year 2000 will have noticed the steep decline in the quality of the paper and the increasingly shrill and partisan voice of its op ed contributors.
    And Catholics will note the imperious mendacity with which they treat Catholic issues. It is literally impossible to find out what is going on in the church by reading the NY Times. When it comes to Catholic issues, you will only get slant.
    And, the LA Times is even worse.
    So now we have the complete abandonment of the “American style” which had as its goal objectivity. In its place, a muckraking, “leave out relevant facts if they don’t fit my thesis” style.
    It’s simply pathetic.

  • Tom Hanson

    For a screed bemoaning lack of source info in journalism you have failed to give your readers some important information yourself. Was the article you base yours on a news story? In that case you are certainly in the right. But if it was a columnist’s doing, or run on an editorial page or opinion page, then sources and footnote stuff aren’t necessary or in order and weren’t necessary or in order nearly 50 years ago when I took Intro to Journalism 101 at the University of Minnesota.

    • tmatt

      Follow the link. It was a basic news story.

      • Tom Hanson

        True. But good journalism makes a page-jump unneccesary when possible. And has since the days of newsprint and hot lead.

  • Katalina

    While it is true that the media spin things concerning the Pope and the Church there is still the fact that this pope does not express himself as clearly as Ralph Martin himself recently pointed put last week on Catholic Connections. Also the fact remains that a majority of his gang of eight advisors are progressives if not outright liberals themselves like Cardinal Marx and Cardinal Rodríguez from Honduras. He must agree with their outlook on some matters. The only real conservative he has on that committee is Cardinal Pell I am not to sure about Cardinal O’Malley.


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