Journalism and stem cell research 101

If you think general religion coverage is bad, try mixing it with media coverage of science. Then try to find a reporter who handles it well. It’s almost impossible. Back when I started at GetReligion, I could have posted daily on the errors in coverage of what used to be an extremely hot-button topic — stem cell research that destroys embryos.

In various media reports, embryonic-destroying stem cell research was shortened to “stem cell research.” This did a disservice to the debate on numerous counts, most importantly being that there was no debate over using stem cells that didn’t require the destruction of human embryos.

Demagoguery abounded, aided by a media onslaught that characterized one side as “pro-science” and the other as “anti-science.”

Much of the debate has been resolved by something you probably haven’t read terribly much about in the media: the tremendous success of stem cell research that doesn’t destroy embryos and the struggle for success with stem cell research that does. Also, the reporting simply got better. Distinctions were made between the two types of research and as reporters got more comfortable with the basics, they were able to write up those differences with greater ease.

So it’s weird to come across a story that muddles everything again. It comes from FoxNews.com and is headlined “Catholic Church gives its blessing to stem cell research in new book.” Of course, the Roman Catholic Church never withheld its blessing from stem cell research, however much this disrupts the narrative of its anti-scientific approach. It simply opposed — along with a great many other human rights activists and bioethicists and religious adherents — that research that destroys human lives.

To wit:

In the past 20 years, stem cell research has been thrust into the medical spotlight as celebrities like Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve have advocated for it.  Also, numerous studies have shown stem cell therapies have successfully treated a plethora of diseases.

And now, with the release of The Healing Cell: How the Greatest Revolution in Medical History Is Changing Your Life, the Catholic Church has given its stamp of approval on adult stem cell research by discussing the many ways these therapies work for the greater good.  In fact, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote the book’s introduction, which was co-authored by Dr. Robin Smith and Monsignor Tomasz Trafny, along with Max Gomez.

Stem cell therapy isn’t anything new. Using bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia, which started more than 40 years ago, is essentially the same procedure.  Through this process, doctors extract stem cells from the bone marrow and transplant them into the body to replace damaged cells caused by blood and bone marrow cancers. Sometimes cancer patients use autologous cells – cells harvested from their own body – and sometimes they use donated cells from another person’s bone marrow.

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Remember to substantiate charges

The International Business Times sure has a scoop. Headline:

Conclave 2013: Pope Benedict XVI ‘Did Nothing’ to Stop Paedophile Priest Nello Giraudo

The headline phrasing makes it seem like the conclave decided that Pope Benedict XVI “did nothing” to stop a pedophile priest. Or at least someone said he “did nothing” to stop a bad priest.

Which is why the actual story is so weird. I guess it’s mostly taken from an Italian TV report but there are some problems with following through with the allegations.

To get one thing out of the way, the “did nothing” from the headline is not an actual quote. Or if it is, the quote isn’t in the story. I’m not sure why it’s in quote marks. The top of the report:

Pope Benedict XVI has been accused of inaction over allegations of child sex abuse against an Italian priest.

Former priest Nello Giraudo, allegedly committed numerous sexual abuses on minors in the diocese of Savona, near Genoa, from 1980 to 2005, of which then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was made aware of in 2003 but failed to take action.

Many of the problems in the story would have been helped by just, for instance, telling us who, if anyone, is accusing Benedict of inaction. We’re told that former Savona bishop Domenico Calcagno sent a letter to Ratzinger asking for advice. We don’t know anything about how that letter was received, if or how it was responded to, or anything, really. Instead we’re told:

The Vatican neither opened an investigation nor reported the findings to Italian authorities.

That’s interesting information but in order to check it out, we need to have the words “according to …” included in the report.

It’s super easy to level accusations against someone but journalists should handle all allegations with the same care they would want if someone were accusing someone they knew of something ghastly. Lack of substantiation is a major problem — even if the accused is someone a journalist strenuously dislikes.

And while it’s easy to make a charge like “inaction,” journalists should know a little about who is responsible for pedophile priests and what options are on the table for handling them. Neither of these basic angles were handled well in the story.

Proofing image via Shutterstock.

‘God’s representative on Earth to Catholics’

From time to time, readers send notes to your GetReligionistas in which they ask us to pass journalistic judgments on whether this or that mainstream newsroom has successfully split a fine theological hair.

In this case, several Catholics were either offended or bemused by an interesting choice of words in a recent lede at The Washington Post.

Yes, this is another papal horse race news feature. Here’s the top:

When someone becomes pope — God’s representative on Earth to Catholics — he dons all white, takes the title “his holiness” and is greeted even by top cardinals with a kiss of his ring. Can a cardinal who pals around with Stephen Colbert fill such a vaunted role? How about one with a style so simple that he serves tuna sandwiches and chips to even his most important guests?

Yet these two men — Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston — are being talked about as contenders for the papacy, marking the first time an American has ever been seriously considered.

The phrase that jumped out at readers, of course, was “God’s representative on Earth to Catholics.”

As I see it, there are two questions here. The first concerns “God’s representative on Earth” and the second is connected to that interesting addition at the end, which is “to Catholics.”

First, one of the formal titles attached to the papacy is that the pope is said to serve as Vicarius Christi, the vicar of Christ. That’s pretty explicit, especially if one looks up the meaning of the term “vicar,” as it is used by Catholics.

Roman Catholic Church

* an ecclesiastic representing the pope or a bishop. …

* a person who is authorized to perform the functions of another; deputy: God’s vicar on earth.

So, seeing as how Trinitarian Christians believe that Jesus Christ is part of the Holy Trinity, it is pretty easy to accept the paraphrase that the “vicar of Christ” could also be called “God’s representative on Earth.” Of course, a wide variety of people in various flocks would want to debate the meaning of the term “representative” and whether this term is singular.

But let’s move on.

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That minister of humor unloads on the pope coverage

The thought for the day and, perhaps, for the next week or two, care of Father James Martin, the chaplain of The Colbert Report and author of the essential “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.”

The problem, as you will see in this Facebook entry, is that — other than a choice poke or two — I don’t think this particular Jesuit is laughing at the moment. Hang on.

The conclave hasn’t even started, and I’m already submerged by a sea of stupid articles, idiotic commentary and boneheaded op-eds about the Catholic Church, by people who have no clue what they’re talking about. I’m not talking about people with whom I disagree, or who challenge me with new ways of thinking about the church, but writers who seem completely clueless about the most basic concepts. Some of this is to be expected: the church is a highly complex institution with 2,000 of history behind it.

But the number of misinformed articles I’ve read about celibacy, the priesthood, the papacy, the church in this country, the causes of the sexual abuse crisis, church authority, papal infallibility, the role of the magisterium, life in a religious order, the vow of chastity, and Benedict XVI, just boggles the mind. Or at least my mind, which perhaps is too easily boggled. Needless to say, I don’t expect commentators to know everything about the church. (I sure don’t.) But I think it’s a reasonable to expect that people should refrain from commenting (especially publicly) on stuff that they clearly don’t know much about.

Wait, there’s more! Trust me on that.

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Why is the pope so old? (And other media questions)

A few days ago, the Washington Post tweeted out a link to a piece on its web site with the tease “Why is the pope always so old?” and a link to an article. Within moments, a bunch of people responded negatively to the tweet. I attached a screen shot here, but the comments included:

#facepalm

Um…

Why is the press always so stupid?

And why is he always so Catholic?

The article itself has the headline “Why is the pope always so old? (Video)” and it’s more a blog post on two items from outside the paper than an article. The first is an explainer video on how someone becomes a pope. It has almost nothing to do with the pope “always” being “so old.” It does have a few errors (on whether priests can be married and that whole catholic/Catholic thing we’ve been discussing) but you can peruse it on your own. Or watch it here, what do I care?

YouTube Preview Image

The Post blog piece itself isn’t awful, but it is kind of silly. It explains that becoming pope is a lot like becoming president:

But unlike politics, becoming pope basically requires you to work your way up the ladder, step by step. The political equivalent would be advancing from local office to state office to federal office to leadership in Congress and eventually to president. While any Catholic can technically be elected pope, it’s really a race between 100-plus cardinals who have spent their entire lives climbing that ladder.

One hundred-plus indeed! Anyway, then it takes a graphic from The Guardian about papal tenures and how old people are when they become popes and leave the papacy.

I was going to defend the headline but then I imagined a headline like “Why are presidents always the age of your dad?” or “Why aren’t there more toddlers competing in the Olympics?” and I don’t quite have the heart to do it. Neither do I think this is worth getting terribly upset about it.

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Where’s the faith content in these sex scandals?

On one level, that New York Times feature story on the fall of Msgr. Kevn Wallin of Connecticut has everything one would want in a religion scandal. I mean, it’s got sex, crystal meth, Broadway show tunes and a hazy link to a future cardinal.

Consider this summary material:

At a time when priests from California to Delaware have been accused of loathsome deeds, the allegations against Monsignor Wallin, the former pastor of the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Bridgeport, are of a notably different dimension: that he was a drug dealer and addict who was buying an adult novelty shop to launder ill-gotten proceeds, a priest who was cross-dressing and having sex with men.

The enigmatic double lives of Monsignor Wallin burst into public view last month after federal prosecutors announced they had arrested him on charges of possessing and conspiring to sell drugs that could send him to prison for life. Now 61, he languishes in jail, having pleaded not guilty to behavior that many who know him find both twisted and ungraspable.

Or how about this?

After his departure, church officials found a bag stowed in the rectory containing adult pornographic videos, sexual toys and leather masks, according to church workers.

Alarmed at the possibility of child pornography or child abuse, the diocese hired an outside lawyer. The diocese said Monsignor Wallin was questioned and denied interest in children. An expert searched his computer, but found nothing related to children.

The diocese decided it had a priest who had committed a sin but not a crime.

Anyway, I think that we will skip the part about the “lace panties and other articles of women’s clothing” in his laundry.

The journalistic question, for me, is this: What about the actual content of this talented clergyman’s faith and ministry? I mean, was he one of those priests who was silent on the church’s teachings? Was he a progressive who gently undercut the doctrines of the church? Was he a traditionalist to preached one thing, while secretly living a life that completely contradicted the doctrines he had vowed to defend? Was he high church or low church?

Readers don’t get much on that side of the equation, which is strange since many unnamed Catholic leaders — we are told — believed that this man was on his way to being a bishop.

I mean, we are told that he was “erudite” and that the faithful “felt buoyed by his homilies.” He apparently loved to talk about church history and to take people on pilgrimages of some kind or another (other than to the opera and Broadway shows). Then there was this interesting paragraph that combined both sides of his life in a mysterious and unexplained manner:

Monsignor Wallin’s fall seems precipitous. But colleagues said that his faith had been weakening for years under the imperatives of running a financially crippled church, and that he had long been sexually active with men. His drug use, they suspect, may have been more recent, and the final tinder that exploded his life.

And then there is this glimpse of spiritual issues:

“His lifestyle was go-go-go-go, doing 50 things at once,” said a businessman who knew him. “He loved to mix with the big shots.”

But there was evidence he was wrestling with his faith. A church worker who has known him for decades described a session with other priests years ago during which they spoke of things like the mercy of God, and Monsignor Wallin said, “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“He had become disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the church,” this worker said. “You’re always doing the ceremony. You’re always dealing with the paperwork. You’re not shepherding souls.”

But the fact everyone agrees on was that, before the drugs, before his mental breakdown, there was always his double life in which he was violating his oath of celibacy. So whatever his approach to the Catholic faith, it was one in which his public, celebrated priesthood was mixed with his life as a sexually active homosexual and church officials close to him seemed to have known about that, according to the Times.

So there is a crucial question here, once again.

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Unnecessary words and the Vatican’s ‘gay lobby’

YouTube Preview ImageYesterday a reader tweeted that The Guardian was clearly trying to insinuate that Pope Benedict XVI is compromised in some way, resigning in disgrace. The headline:

Papal resignation linked to inquiry into ‘Vatican gay officials’, says paper 

Pope’s staff decline to confirm or deny La Repubblica claims linking ‘Vatileaks’ affair and discovery of ‘blackmailed gay clergy’

Sounds deliciously scandalous! The long and the short of it is that some claim there’s a shadowy “gay lobby” in the Vatican, blackmail was involved and such dark forces may have factored into Benedict XVI’s decision to resign. David Gibson over at Religion News Service ruins the fun by saying there’s not much to the report:

I’m one of those who would say this is pretty massively overplayed. For one thing, Benedict’s resignation was most certainly the result of numerous factors, mainly revolving around the internal problems of the Vatican, of which sexual shenanigans were likely one — but hardly the only one, or even the principal one. His advancing age was the element that pushed it all to the brink.

The other thing is that Benedict would receive the Captain Louis Renault Award (see below) if he were to declare himself “shocked” that gay men inhabit the priesthood and hierarchy, and of course the Vatican itself.

So that’s where I got the art for this post! As for criticizing The Guardian, I’m not sure it was doing much more than just reporting on some salacious and unsubstantiated gossip in La Repubblica. But the ultimate paragraph in The Guardian piece did make me laugh:

The Vatican does not condemn homosexuals. But it teaches that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered”. Pope Benedict has barred sexually active gay men from studying for the priesthood.

Anyone want to spot the unnecessary word there? Who wants to tell the Guardian about the celibacy requirement for priests? They’re going to be s.h.o.c.k.e.d. to find out, I bet.

Back to La Repubblica report, you simply must read John Allen’s analysis of it in the National Catholic Reporter (but, then again, you must read nearly everything Allen writes). He says there may be something to it. In so doing, he also explains some interesting media tips:

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Media fallibility on papal infallibility

YouTube Preview ImageLast week in my post “Turkson wouldn’t be first African pope,” I quoted from an humorous guide for journalists covering the election. The last tip:

  • Yes, the next Pope will be a man and a Catholic.

So obvious that it was barely funny, right? And yet … you can view here New York magazine contributing editor Chris Smith suggest on an MSNBC panel that the next pope be … Sonia Sotomayor. The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne humbly notes that the Holy Spirit is running behind him — see, Dionne is ready for a female pope.

These are both instances of opinion journalists offering their opinions. We’re more interested in straight journalists writing up the news. But I still think these opinions are quite telling. And sometimes the straight news guys go into the more transparent opinion business and reveal what you probably suspected knew all along. Speaking of, the New York Times‘ former executive editor Bill Keller — who describes himself as a “collapsed Catholic” (get it?) — has some advice for the Roman Catholic Church. It begins:

Behold a global business in distress — incoherently managed, resistant to the modernizing forces of the Internet age, tainted by scandal and corruption. It needs to tweak its marketing, straighten out its finances, up its recruiting game and repair its battered brand. Ecce Catholicism Inc.

Because when you want business advice, you get it from the folks who are running the New York Times, amiright? I mean, God bless ‘em but they are seriously not the group to be offering business advice. Ever.

Anyway, let’s move on to the news pages. This piece, which also ran in the New York Times, is headlined “When a Pope Retires, Is He Still Infallible?” I was alerted to this piece via Twitter, where various people were mocking it relentlessly. It’s not a piece about how people who are uninformed or confused about the Catholic teaching on infallibility view what’s about to happen. No, it’s an earnest look at the topic, as if it’s a totally legitimate idea. And it somehow rounds up people who agree that this is a very tough question. The second paragraph:

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