The General Synod of the Church of England — the legislative organ of the Protestant state church — will take up the question of women bishops this week. Should the delegates to synod be unsure as to how they should vote, the doctrinal authorities at The Guardian appear to be instructing them what they must do.
On July 9 the newspaper of the English establishment ran a silly news report entitled “Church of England women bishops: archbishops will overrule synod” that made the extraordinary but unsubstantiated claim that unless synod did what the establishment wanted, the archbishop of Canterbury would do it for them.
Why do I say that this story is silly? Why that word? Besides being petulant, exaggerated and, in journalism terms, unbalanced — it is also untrue. Rumor and opinion are packaged as fact. What the reader gets is the views of certain unnamed persons of what ought to be done, presented as what is to be done.
What we see in this story is not an example of media bias, but basic advocacy journalism. Let me be clear: This is not a failure to get religion or simple error. The non-objective approach taken by The Guardian is deliberate. To use that new GetReligion term, this is “Kellerism.”
The lede states:
The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is preparing to drive through legislation to allow women bishops even if it is rejected by the church’s governing body, the General Synod. The synod is poised to vote again on the vexed plan next week but senior sources have told the Guardian that should the move be blocked again, there are now options being considered to force the change on the church.
The story is that if the plan for women bishops is thwarted a third time by the synod the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, will “force the change” through synod. Yet a close reading of the two sentences shows us the strength of the first is being modified by the second. The subject shifts from the archbishop will act to the archbishop is being presented with a choice of options.
Sources are cited in support of the archbishop’s putsch — but they are not named. The standard practice in classic journalism is to give an identity to your source so that the reader may judge the source’s credibility. What is fact? What is gossip? What is wishful thinking? What motives are at play?
When the source cannot be revealed, there is most often an explanation why and some version of this clause appears in the story: “a source with direct knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak to the media told …. ”
The Guardian article offers several options but does not take their measure. What is fantasy? The ground shifts with each paragraph in this story. The title states “archbishops” implying this is about the archbishops of Canterbury and York. The lede, states the archbishop of Canterbury will act. (Have we lost York?) The details in support of the lede say these are options and scenarios suggested by unnamed pro-women bishop campaigners.
The credibility of the article is further damaged with this paragraph.
Opinion polls, and voting in the dioceses, show an overwhelming majority of the Church of England are in favour of women bishops. But the lay members of the synod are elected through a committee process which favours the old and the fanatical and has given a disproportionate strength to the conservative evangelicals who believe the Bible forbids women to exercise authority over men.
The reader is offered a further dose of prognostications as to what will (or should happen) from The Guardian‘s perspective, before closing with the sole sourced fact in the story.
A spokesman for the Archbishop said “We are concentrating on getting the vote through. It would not be helpful to speculate further.”
Step back the and look at the story with a critical eye.
What we have is an assertion in the lede stating the archbishop of Canterbury will do something dramatic. In support of the claims that he is contemplating extraordinary action we have unsourced opinion and speculation from a partisan in this affair. And then there is an actual comment from the archbishop’s office that it is focusing on the legislative process — not making plans for a coup.
We swing from predictions of undemocratic and dubious plans afoot to thwart the will of synod should the establishment be snubbed to predictions that none of this matter as the archbishop has the votes in hand to pass the bill. Add into the mix petulant jabs at one enemy (evangelical conservatives) and no mention of the other block opposed (Anglo-Catholic traditionalists). What have we? Basic advocacy journalism.
Is The Guardian telling those on the fence that they must support women bishops? And if they don’t they archbishop will force the measure down their throats? Resistance is futile any way because the votes in favor of women bishops are already in hand.
No attempt is made to explain why past votes for women bishops failed. No attempt is made to offer the arguments in support or opposition to the innovation. The Guardian knows what must be done and has no time to waste in explaining the situation. Synod must simply get on with the job, or stand aside and let those with the right way of thinking take charge. There is no need, in other words, to cover the actual debates linked to this issue.
What we do not have are balance, names of sources, objectivity, transparency, credible sources, factual information, context — all those pesky things that advocates of old-school journalism consider essential. What we do have is pamphleteering.