Mollie Ziegler regrets the error

wuerlA few days ago I wrote a post so bland and non-controversial that it kind of bored me. It was about the first day’s coverage of Roman Catholic Bishop Donald Wuerl’s appointment to head the Washington archdiocese. I even said I would monitor coverage in coming days to see if profiles became more thorough. Well, for a very boring post, it sure generated a lot of negative mail. A number of reporters thought their coverage merited notice more than the few that I posted.

Other reporters thought it was unfair of me to cite stories that were quickly thrown onto the web rather than the later stories that reflected a day’s worth of reporting and careful writing. In fact, one of the writers to lodge that complaint was veteran religion reporter Ann Rodgers, whose work I cited. She commented on the post:

The story linked here from the Post-Gazette was a sausage-in-the-making version that ran Web only as a stop-gap while I scrambled to get the real story. To see what ran in the newspaper — and the analysis of the significance that Terry was looking for — check www.post-gazette.com for our May 17 story.

I thought her placeholder story was great, but the later one is much better in terms of analysis. It’s chock full of perceptive commentary:

The appointment of Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl to head the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., indicates that Pope Benedict XVI wants bishops who are loyal but who nevertheless are flexible and diplomatic when dealing with sensitive issues of faith and public policy.

“They are not heresy-hunting types by any stretch of the imagination,” former Vatican Radio journalist David Gibson said of Bishop Wuerl and newly appointed Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco. “They are people who are comfortable engaging the culture, standing up for Catholic orthodoxy, certainly, but not condemning with fire and brimstone.”

The story The New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein wrote for the paper bears almost no resemblance to the one I quoted from — a Web-only piece that drew largely on the AP wire story and an old Washington Post interview. Goodstein’s piece is based on original reporting, interviews with the major players, and an understanding of the larger issues. To wit:

Bishop Wuerl, 65, is well regarded in the Vatican, where he once worked, and by fellow American bishops as a pragmatic conservative, church experts said. In 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh, he won respect by consulting parishioners in a major reorganization of parishes and by insisting that the Vatican defrock a priest with a history of sexual abuse.

Although the Archdiocese of Washington, with 560,000 Catholics, is smaller than the diocese in Pittsburgh, with 800,000 Catholics, it is more prominent. The archbishop of Washington often serves as the church’s primary contact with politicians and the news media and is traditionally elevated to cardinal, making him eligible to vote for pope.

The question is obvious: which piece should represent a newspaper’s take on a given story? The quick Web report that throws together wire copy and a bit of archival research, or the thoughtful piece done after a day of reporting? Yep, I messed up. I would hate it if people judged my reporting based on the quick Web reports I file while writing more thorough and balanced stories for my newspaper.

Media critics need to ponder the issue since we are barraged by wire service and online news that may not reflect a paper’s best effort on a given issue.

Another reader pointed out that Washington has more than one local paper, that The Washington Times‘ Julia Duin deserved to have her work highlighted, and that I obsessively analyze the Post. It’s all true. Duin’s story was great, including this bit:

Born Nov. 12, 1940, Bishop Wuerl received graduate degrees from Catholic University in the District and the Gregorian University in Rome. He became a priest in 1966 and worked in Pittsburgh under Bishop John J. Wright. When Bishop Wright was transferred to Rome as the prefect for the Sacred Congregation of the Clergy, he took along Father Wuerl as his secretary.

The young priest, who would earn a doctorate in theology from the University of St. Thomas in Rome in 1974, spent much of the first 20 years of his priesthood in the church’s central city. In January 1986, Pope John Paul II made the unusual move of personally ordaining him to the episcopate in St. Peter’s Basilica; a pope usually only ordains cardinals, not bishops.

But the pope had an emergency on his hands: He needed an American priest to serve on quick notice as the new auxiliary bishop to Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, a pacifist who dissented on homosexuality, sterilizations and remarriage after divorce. The Vatican stripped him of much of his power in early 1986 and forced him to share his duties with Auxiliary Bishop Wuerl.

I hope I’ve touched on all the issues that readers complained about. I would defend myself but I’m unable to do so because I was completely wrong.

How to be fair to “homophobes”

NoSpeechSignLike many in the newspaper business, I keep up with journalism news by reading Jim Romensko’s blog on the very helpful Poynter site. Anyone who thinks that the media world leans left will have their suspicions confirmed by reading Romenesko, but I find there’s no better site with interesting news about the media business. Something he posted yesterday caught my eye:

Billie Stanton says her journalism profs at the University of Arizona 30 years ago were relentless about balance and objectivity. “Every angle must be covered, and if you had any bias, it better not show,” she writes. “This credo served me well for many years. When some talented Denver Post reporters covered an anti-gay referendum later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, their bias showed. Repeatedly I demanded rewrites to give the homophobes’ side equal credence.”

Stanton made the point in a column in the Tucson Citizen about why she is glad to be on the editorial page. But it just cracked me up. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, certainly, but the question is at least worth asking: how fair of a shake can you give people when you believe their legislative opinion is based on an irrational fear of homosexuality? Of course, I was in college and living in Denver at the time of the vote and remember that things were weird. Our own governor — himself part of an interesting polyamorous family situation — marched in the streets condemning the people of his own state for how they voted.

Anyway, you would expect the irreverant Gawker site to poke fun at Stanton’s statement. But I didn’t think it would be hard to find more respected media analysts defending impartiality and balance. Instead, we have this comment from Steve Lovelady of the Columbia Journalism Review:

Let’s imagine an Alabama editor in the 1950′s writing, “Repeatedly I demanded rewrites to give the Klu Klux Klan’s side equal credence.” Or how about “Repeatedly I demanded rewrites to give Hitler’s side equal credence.”

Where the hell has Billie Stanton been for the past 15 years, during which the most discredited journalism credo in the book has become the premise that “balance” equals truth ?

It is truth that journalism is supposed to be about, not “balance.”

People got mad at her — but not because she shouldn’t have used the word homophobia to describe those with whom she disagreed about a political issue — but because she thought those opponents deserved to have their say! As for Lovelady, I disagree that balance is not compatible with truth. But I’m glad he states his view unequivocally. Too bad he invoked Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies so early in the debate. Seriously, when everybody is Hitler, Hitler doesn’t seem so bad. But Lovelady thinks journalism is not about balance and it shows. Stanton, whose work I’m unfamiliar with, thinks balance and a fair shake are important.

Polls of media professionals’ opinions show that they are out of the mainstream when it comes to issues surrounding homosexuality. Many readers who oppose extending marital rights to homosexuals probably wish someone in the newsroom truly understood why they believed that way. The truth of the matter is that in many papers they’d be lucky to get someone as tolerant of their view as Stanton, who thinks they’re sick in the head but reports on their views fairly anyway.

The thing is that it’s not the reporter’s vocation to slant the news in order to manipulate what the reader thinks. And we should always be on guard against the practice, particularly on the issues about which we have strong personal opinions. If one “side” is so obviously right, the reader will figure it out through simple reading. I mean, come on people. I’m Lutheran. Do you have any idea what I personally believe about James Dobson and his type, to name someone I wrote about recently? But my vocation here is not to tell you what to think of James Dobson’s theology, but merely to look at whether he is portrayed fairly in local and national newspapers.

Oh wow. A further search of journalistic response to Stanton shows the situation is worse than I’d thought. Reporters think they should be the judge and jury. Here’s Attytood‘s Will Bunch saying Stanton’s drive for balance is “what’s wrong with American journalism”:

So, an American journalist of some reputation believes that news articles should accept homophobia as equally “true or valid” to those who do not hate gays — all in the name of something called “balance.”

homophobia.jpgIt’s getting easier for me to see why there’s such a disconnect between Americans who oppose extending marriage to same-sex unions and the media. Views held by a large percentage of the readers are deemed pathological, invalid and unworthy of a fair shake. I wonder if reporters and editors realize that readers pick up on that dismissal of their views. Or if they care:

Objectivity — never a great idea in journalism in the first place — posits that we shouldn’t make value judgments as to the people involved in the story or their views. But I think we can, and should. It may not be universally accepted, but homophobes’ views are NOT equally as legitimate as the views of those who preach tolerance, just as segregationist views are not equally as legitimate as those who preach racial harmony.

I love the unironic use of the word “tolerance” in that comment. The thought police have set up shop at your newspapers! Don’t think for yourself — we’ll tell you which view is acceptable. Obey and submit!

A Wuerl of possibilities

wuerlThe Archdiocese of Washington has a new bishop. Pope Benedict XVI announced Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl (pictured) as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s replacement. What does this mean? Well, coverage didn’t quite get to the significance of the change, although many outlets did a fantastic job of introducing Wuerl. Religion writer Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette joined with Maeve Reston to provide some information:

At a press conference in Washington today, Cardinal McCarrick introduced Bishop Wuerl and said one of his strengths was his ability to “uphold the middle” to bring people of varying positions and backgrounds into the church. During his tenure, Cardinal McCarrick spoke out on controversial issues such as immigration and whether politicians who favor abortion should be barred from communion.

Cardinal McCarrick said Bishop Wuerl had worked closely with him as an adviser on the latter issue, when he advocated making decisions on a case-by-case basis rather than issuing a blanket ban.

Bishop Wuerl called the new post, which he will assume June 22, “daunting.” But when asked to say what his biggest challenges would be, he said, “I haven’t been here long enough to learn how to get back and forth to the cathedral . . . so give me a little time.”

He did say some of his priorities would be to stop the number of Catholics leaving the church and to reach out to Washington’s Hispanic population.

The New York Times‘ John O’Neil begins with the claim that Wuerl is conservative and reaches back to 1986, when he was brought in to administer the Seattle archdiocese during the great Hunthausen controversy:

Bishop Wuerl, 65, has served as Pittsburgh’s bishop since 1988, and is considered one of the more prominent of the nation’s conservative bishops. His first appointment after being ordained a bishop in 1986 was in an unusual power-sharing arrangment in Seattle, where he was sent as assistant bishop by Pope John Paul II while Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen was under investigation by the Vatican for unorthodox views.

Cardinal McCarrick, who was regarded as more moderate on many issues, praised Bishop Wuerl as “one of the great churchmen of the United States.” He spoke of his prayers that the Pope would pick a great bishop to take his place, saying, “He has done that, in spades.”

Hmm. The two pieces seem to be saying different things. Which one describes Wuerl better? The Washington Post‘s coverage focused more on McCarrick’s tenure than Wuerl’s arrival, but archdiocesan spokeswoman Susan Gibbs shared a bit of information about the new leader:

Wuerl is known as the “education bishop,” Gibbs said. He shares McCarrick’s expansive view that politicians should be able to received communion regardless of whether they embrace abortion rights, but he is also considered a conservative theologian.

He has written his own catechism for adults, which has been widely translated, Gibbs said.

A quick survey of the blogosphere notes his strong ties to Washington’s Catholic University of America, his no-nonsense reputation for defrocking clergy involved in sexual abuse scandals, and his catechetical approach to managing controversies.

The Times had this interesting piece of advice from McCarrick:

In the [Washington Post] interview, the Cardinal listed ideal traits for a successor, including that he “not be afraid of the media.”

And we’ll be there to watch his performance with the media. Ann Rodgers promises more coverage of the man she’s written about for many years, so perhaps we’ll keep following this. Any angles you think reporters should cover with regard to this change?

The Very Right Reverend Father Dobson returns

20050623 123335 Dobson1I know it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but today’s correction in the Washington Post caught my eye:

A May 14 article about Sen. John McCain’s speech at Liberty University incorrectly referred to the chairman of Focus on the Family as the Rev. James Dobson. Dobson is not an ordained minister.

So he’s not an ordained minister . . . thank you very much. The correction might have also mentioned what his honorific and vocation are (he has a Ph.D. in child psychology from the University of Southern California). In any case, this simple error appears with alarming frequency in American publications. Interestingly, it was Newsweek, which is a Post-owned publication, that struggled with this sin repeatedly in the past year.

Maybe the Post needs to hold an all-company retreat in which Donald Graham addresses the troops with this opening: “For the love of God, you idiots, how difficult is it to remember the courtesy title for this man? Must we hand him more ammo for his fundraising letters?”

Are you ready for Tom Hanks and his mullet?

mulletLike everyone else in the world, I bet I’m going to go see The Da Vinci Code. But not because I expect it to be great or even a fun, brainless action flick. It’s more that I’m in a perpetual state of trying to understand how a book as ridiculous as The Da Vinci Code could enable Dan Brown to sit comfortably on piles of cash for the rest of his life. I had a colleague in my newsroom a few years ago who pronounced it the best book she’d ever read. How sad is that? Do readers really want three-page chapters? And do they need their characters reintroduced on every page? Was the book written for people suffering from short-term memory loss? Why why why?

So let’s go with Sunday’s Da Vinci Code wrap-up. Jeffrey Weiss has done amazing work covering the book and movie this week. Daniel praised his piece earlier in the week that looked at some of the facts Dan Brown got wrong in his “factual” piece of fiction. The piece struck a nerve with readers, and all of the letters to the editor on May 13 were about Weiss’ religion writing, many of them praising his work. Weiss also wrote about a satire of Brown’s work called The Da Vinci Mole. He followed that up with a Frequently Asked Questions piece. Sample:

Can I learn about art, history or theology by reading the book?

Most experts say that’s like trying to learn science from watching Star Trek.

As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” And Mr. Brown gets plenty of facts wrong.

For instance?

The Priory of Sion is the novel’s secret society. Mr. Brown says it’s a real organization founded in 1099. Last month, 60 Minutes stacked up the evidence that the Priory was a hoax invented in the 1950s by an anti-Semitic Frenchman. . .

Art historians also snicker at Mr. Brown’s repeated references to “Da Vinci.” That would be like referring to “Fred from New York” as “from New York.” Leonardo had no last name, as we now think of it.

The dude is even doing a live chat with the Dallas Morning News movie critic Philip Wuntch later this week. Jeffrey Weiss is everywhere.

The movie has not been screened for critics, a curious move for a flick everyone expects to be a huge hit. But it appears that a few people got an early look at it, including someone with the Daily Mirror. His review is short on info, but I really liked this part:

As it is, the film stands as a superb thriller which cleverly blends action and intrigue with some thought-provoking theories.

Thought-provoking theories? Okay . . . I guess. In a facts-don’t-matter kind of postmoderny way. Or in a Thriller-for-Dummies way that’s not very original and slightly kooky.

fleur21And then Jane Henderson had an interesting package in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She wrote up a what-Brown-got-wrong piece. Even better, in another piece Henderson takes advantage of St. Louis’ French history and architecture to show where Da Vinci readers can find aspects of the novel in their hometown:

Fleur-de-lis

What: Symbol of royalty, France, purity, the Trinity and more. Named after the lily, it is actually a stylized iris.

Role in Da Code: Symbol for Priory of Sion, a goddess-worshipping group that knows “the secret” of Mary Magdalene. Book implies fleur-de-lis intertwined with “Mona Lisa” as “flower of Lisa.” The novel says: “A secret pagan cult? Once headed by Leonardo da Vinci? It all sounded so absurd.”

Seen in St. Louis: Everywhere — on the city flag, on buildings, in paintings, atop fences. Associated especially with the city’s eponym, King Louis IX of France, an ardent Christian who led two (failed) crusades and died in 1270. Prominent statue of the king stands in front of the Art Museum, and he’s painted on the Sheraton hotel beside Highway 40 (Interstate 64) downtown.

Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY‘s religion reporter, wrote up a Gallup Poll about religion and movies in which some folks blamed Satan for trying to destroy people’s faith with books that raise doubts about the Bible:

“The devil has always been a scapegoat,” says Terrence Tilley, a professor of philosophy of religion and Catholic theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

Still, “some of (Brown’s book) is so like what people would like to believe that it’s easy for people to start believing the whole thing. Scholars really get their dander up when obvious fiction and legend is called fact,” say Tilley, who has spoken about the book on panels from Dayton to Dublin.

Oh, and as for my why why why question from earlier? Weiss answered it in his handy FAQ:

Why is The Da Vinci Code so popular?

That, of course, is a matter of opinion. It touches on themes that resonate with readers: The role of women and spirituality, the power of conspiracies, suspicion about the Catholic Church (especially in the wake of the pedophilia scandals), the idea that hidden truths could change the world for the better. There’s a bit of salacious ritual sex, enough violence for a PG-13 rating, and some word puzzles that an attentive reader can solve at least as quickly as the characters in the book. Plus it’s a page-turner with tangled plotlines, cliffhangers at the end of many chapters, and dramatic feats of derring-do.

So there you go.

How to characterize doctrine

vials2There’s an interesting story coming out of Wisconsin about a woman who was fired from her job as a Roman Catholic school teacher because she conceived her children using in vitro fertilization.

The method of conception involves removing eggs from the woman’s ovaries and fertilizing them with sperm. The main complication of the method is the frequency of multiple births. This is because of the practice of creating many embryos and passing several of the “best” of them into the uterus to improve the chances of implantation. Leftover embryos are frozen for future use or discarded. Millions of embryos have been discarded or frozen by couples who use in vitro fertilization.

Let’s look at the way Susan Squires, a reporter for the Appleton Post-Crescent, handled explaining Roman Catholic opposition to the practice after a generous explanation of the woman’s position:

The church’s position is spelled out in “Donum Vitae,” a 1987 church instruction on “respect for human life in its origin and the dignity of procreation.” The document — Latin for “Gift of Life” — was written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

It teaches that in-vitro fertilization is immoral. By employing medical technology to commingle her eggs with her husband’s sperm, Romenesko had violated two clauses in her teaching contract: to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church, and to act and teach in accordance with Catholic doctrine and the church’s moral and social teachings. . . .

Simply put, in-vitro fertilization is the process of extracting eggs from a woman’s ovaries, fertilizing them with a man’s sperm, choosing the most promising cell clusters and injecting several into the mother’s uterus. Clinics typically freeze “extra” embryos, which the parents may use later, discard or donate.

The church, which teaches that life begins at conception, objects to the procedure on several grounds. First, destroying leftover embryos is tantamount to abortion in the eyes of the church, as is “selective reduction” — the elimination of some implanted embryos to avert multiple pregnancies.

Secondly, it usually requires male masturbation to harvest sperm, which the church holds immoral.

Finally, according to the Donum Vitae, “The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person.”

Not bad, eh? The explanation is placed midway through the story and is a rather fair explanation of the church’s position on human life issues. Now let’s look at the way the Associated Press handled it:

In vitro fertilization involves extracting eggs from a woman’s ovaries and fertilizing them with sperm in a laboratory dish or test tube. The fertilized eggs are implanted into the woman’s uterus.

Catholic teaching holds that the procedure is morally wrong because it replaces the “natural” conjugal union between husband and wife and often results in destruction of embryos.

Even though [attorney James C.] Jones said the couple used their own eggs and sperm and none of the embryos were destroyed in the process, the church forbids such donations and condemns all forms of experimentation on human embryos.

The AP characterization just seems lacking on so many levels. It’s not that anything it says is wrong, just that it gives short shrift to a complex theological issue. You can almost see the wave of the hand as the reporter skirts from the news hook about the woman’s firing onto descriptions of the cute twins she gave birth to last year.

test tube babyI noticed another difference between the two reports. While Squires speaks with two Catholic theologians who wonder whether the school overreacted, she shares their concerns with the principal and includes his response. Compare that approach with how the AP handled it:

The in vitro fertilization issue was first highlighted for Catholics in “Donum Vitae,” a 1987 church instruction written by the cabinet of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on “respect for human life in its origin and the dignity of procreation.”

Mark Johnson, who teaches moral theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said the 1987 document was the first serious official church writing on the subject, and modifications could be possible.

“This is brand spanking new stuff in the life of a church that is 2,000 years old,” Johnson said, noting that the Vatican now is considering allowing the use of condoms to help battle AIDS in Africa despite its longtime opposition to contraceptive devices.

The reporter then went back to more details about the woman who had been fired. We frequently think that national reporters are better at handling nuance and difficult situations, but I think the local reporter does better in this case. Squires looked at an explosive and controversial issue with a deft hand, treating all of her subjects fairly.

Should the state tell black pastors what to preach?

church and stateYou remember how New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously asked how Richard Nixon could have won the presidency considering how everyone she knew voted against him? Well, I feel like Pauline Kael a lot since I live in Washington, D.C. If there is a less diverse political environment out there, I’m not aware of it. I was shocked that Bush won in 2004 because we went 90 percent for Kerry. I don’t actually know anyone who voted for Bush and lives in D.C.

Anyway, all the action for political office is in the Democratic Party. The other interesting hallmark of D.C. politics is that near as I can tell we like a good number of our political candidates to be — How does one say this delicately? — clinically insane.

Which brings us to Lori Montgomery’s piece in the Washington Post about how five mayoral candidates in our fine city are all agreeing to erode the barrier between church and state by shaping what is being preached in Washington churches.

Now, as you are reading the relevant portions, let’s think of what would happen if a bunch of conservative groups in Omaha required mayoral candidates to pressure Methodists to handle doctrinal issues differently, such as how they view the sanctity of life for unborn children. Or what if other conservative groups required candidates to pressure Unitarians to change their tune on Christianity’s scandal of particularity? Here we go:

The five major candidates for D.C. mayor pledged last night to promote tolerance for gay men and lesbians in the city’s black churches and to combat attitudes that led two prominent local ministers to denounce homosexuality from their pulpits.

But only two of the five — D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) and former telecommunications executive Marie C. Johns — expressed unequivocal support for same-sex marriage, an ideological touchstone in the city’s powerful gay community.

Now really, since when is it any business of these five mayoral candidates to tell pastors in black churches what they should or should not preach?

I mean, just imagine the outcry if special-interest groups forced public officials to make campaign promises to change what is taught in mosques. Just imagine the outcry, again, if conservative groups pressured candidates to tell pastors in the United Church of Christ how they should preach the Bible, particularly with regard to homosexuality.

And the thing is, if this were happening in my imaginary scenarios, most reporters would know to call First Amendment scholars up to air their grievances.

Montgomery’s story covers a debate hosted by the District’s largest gay political organization, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. So I rather understand that she didn’t speak to any First Amendment scholars who could respond to this idea that politicians should tell black pastors what to preach. Still, might members or pastors at these black churches have been available for a response?

church stateUnfortunately, coverage of this very issue — the divide between Washington’s black churches and its gay community — has been lacking.

The candidates were asked about a sermon last month in which Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr., pastor of Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, referred to gay men as “faggot” and “sissy,” as well as the Rev. Willie F. Wilson’s sermon last summer in which he claimed that lesbianism poses a grave threat to the black community. . . .

Later, Brown pounced again, accusing [council chairwoman Linda] Cropp [D] of making “a very homophobic remark” when she said that closeted gay men who also have sex with women have spread AIDS among women. Cropp recited her long record of support for gay causes, including enactment of the city’s domestic partnership laws and legalization of adoption for same-sex couples.

“Language is cheap!” Cropp yelled, rising from her seat. “Nobody’s record is stronger than Linda Cropp’s record! Sitting here, put ’em all together, they can’t beat the Linda Cropp record!”

Man does Mollie Ziegler love that candidate trick of speaking in the third person.

But anyway, notice how in the coverage of this story on how black pastors discuss homosexuality, never is the idea engaged that they have a theological defense for their remarks. I’m not taking sides on the issue, just noting that a defense of their perspective is rarely given space in the pages of the Washington Post. It’s almost as if the newspaper authorities have decided that opposition to homosexuality is wrong and not worthy of engagement. And since the battles between black churches and the gay community don’t seem to be going away, the Post does a disservice to its readers by not better explaining the theology of black churches.

What will the Associated Press do?

AP stylebook coverOne of the reasons some editors and reporters shy away from reporting about religious issues is because their ignorance on the topic can cause outrage among readers. You get a businessman’s name wrong and you run a correction. Get a detail wrong about Mennonites and you field angry calls from Pennsylvania for weeks. Connie Coyne, the reader advocate for the Salt Lake Tribune, deals with an example of this in her column this week:

This e-mail is typical of one we receive about the use of religious titles in articles dealing with members of the clergy:

“I am writing in regard to the nice article you wrote titled ‘Orthodox Christians get ready for Easter.’

“It was an informative article and many of us of the Orthodox faith enjoyed it very much. In the article you mentioned [Father] Kouremetis with his proper title.

“This was fine. The second time you mentioned his name you referred to him as Kouremetis. Totally out of line.

“He should be referred to as Father at all times. Men of the cloth should be referred to with respect. In another one of your articles ‘St. Peter’s marks 500th anniversary,’ you referred to Pope Benedict XVI. Later you referred to him as Benedict at the start of the next paragraph. Please show a little more respect when referring to other religious leaders. This not nit-picking, it’s just respect of the cloth.”

The first time I wrote about a religious topic, I covered an extremely controversial issue. But one of the oddest things I got hate mail about was not keeping the honorific for the man about whom I wrote. It wasn’t my fault, actually. It was Wall Street Journal style. Coyne explains how it works:

We understand that certain religious traditions have unique ways of referring to their individual clergy.

To use all those titles in The Salt Lake Tribune regularly would confuse readers who did not understand the nuances of the individual religions.

We use The Associated Press Stylebook for guidance on the titles. . . .

The AP holds that the first reference to a clergy person should include a capitalized title, usually “the Rev.” before the person’s name. On second reference “to members of the clergy, use only a last name: the Rev. Billy Graham on first reference, Graham on second.” . . .

While many churches have special ways of referring to their clergy, all of them must be treated fairly. If we gave special treatment to, say, Catholics, then Baptists would be upset. By treating everyone with an even hand, we can deliver the news without favoring any one religion.

Coyne chose an excellent topic to cover in her column, one that explains how journalists handle religious issues differently than devout laity. The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking of how newspapers are responding to requests and demands of certain Muslims about how to handle their religion in print. We had some Muslims threatening to kill editors for printing cartoon images of Muhammad — and most newspapers being scared into submission. And we had Comedy Central air a cartoon that blasphemes Jesus by showing him defecating on others while blacking out an image of Mohammed carrying a football helmet. But in the months since some Muslims took their battles to the newsprint, nothing has struck me so much as this BBC policy:

Peace Be Upon Him
Throughout the BBC’s section on Islam you will see Peace be upon Him or (pbuh) after the name Muhammad.

Muslims say Peace be upon Him after every mention of Muhammad’s name, as a mark of respect. Muslims do the same when they write the Prophet’s name, adding pbuh.

The Arabic transliteration of Peace be upon Him is sallallahu alayhi wa sallam which is usually abbreviated as saw.

Use of pbuh on bbc.co.uk/religion
The BBC uses the pbuh in the Islam section out of courtesy, and we would do the same for any other religion if they had a similar phrase that was universally used as a sign of respect.

What do you think? Is the BBC method — should it be expanded to other religions — the way to go? Should newspapers always refer to G-d in stories about the Jewish religion? Should Jesus’ name be fleshed out to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Or is the Associated Press method the way to go?


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