Round two: How not to report on a miracle

Round two: How not to report on a miracle June 21, 2013

Being recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church is a difficult process — almost as difficult, apparently, as trying to explain that process in a mainstream new story.

I realize that tmatt just wrote an early post on this topic, but, trust me, there’s plenty more coverage out there, complete with new and unique gaffes. Let’s go with round two.

So, an official at the Vatican claims that a new miracle has been attributed to the late John Paul II, clearing the way for his canonization. The news may be fairly straightforward, but journalists seem to make the same three mistakes in their reporting:

Not defining the theological terms — The AP must assume that its readers are familiar with the process since they don’t attempt to define or explain any of the terms used in their report:

A Vatican official says a commission of theologians approved a miracle attributed to his intercession, clearing a key hurdle. The case now goes to a commission of cardinals and then Pope Francis. John Paul’s canonization is possible in autumn to coincide with the 35th anniversary of his election, though the official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to reveal details about the case that it may be too soon.

The Polish-born pope has been on the fast track for sainthood ever since retired Pope Benedict XVI waived the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the investigation into his life and virtues to begin just weeks after his 2005 death. John Paul was beatified in 2011.

Leaving terms like “intercession,” “canonization,” and “beatified” unexplained might be acceptable for the National Catholic Reporter. But a mainstream wire service should not assume its readers are fluent in Catholic.

Claiming the process makes a person a saint — As EWTN explains, “By canonization the Pope does not make the person a saint. Rather, he declares that the person is with God and is an example of following Christ worthy of imitation by the faithful.” That’s not the impression you’d get, though, from reading The Daily Telegraph:

The Polish pontiff is likely to be formally made a saint in the autumn.

Or as CBS News says:

Pope John Paul II has moved a step closer to sainthood.

Well, no. John Paul may be closer to being recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, but his status has already been determined and is not due to what CBS refers to as “the saint-making process.”

Claiming the candidate for sainthood performed the miracle — To say a miracle is attributed to a candidate for sainthood merely means that it was due to their intercession that the miracle occurred. Most of the news articles make the safely vague statement that a miracle was “attributed” to John Paul. But some reports, like the one for the New York Daily News, make a clearly inaccurate claim:

The late Pope has reportedly performed a second “extraordinary healing” that Vatican sources say will “amaze the world.”

Saints don’t perform miracles; they merely intercede to ask God to act on behalf of the living.

Failing to explain what the Catholic Church means by “miracle” — For the purposes of canonization, the term “miracle” is used in a specific and technical way. The local NBC News station in Chicago does a fair job of providing a simple explanation:

Miracles have to be considered instantaneous, permanent, and with no scientific explanation.

Few of the news reports make any attempt at all to explain what “miracle” means, much less why it is important for the purpose of canonization. That’s a significant oversight when the miracle is the reason for the story.

The canonization process is complicated, but it’s not exactly a secret. So why do journalists make such basic mistakes in reporting on this story? It doesn’t require saintly intercession to get such stories right. It just requires that journalists do their homework.

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4 responses to “Round two: How not to report on a miracle”

  1. I agree with your posts but have followup questions. How many journalists don’t care? How many don’t realize they are ignorant? How many want to do a better job but are prevented from doing so by the press of work?

    • Jerry,

      “The press of work?” Getting the story right IS the work. Being accurate IS the work. The problem is that what they “don’t care about” is religion, in general; they don’t care if they’re ignorant about religion. A review of several GR posts and comments, even within the last month or so, provide plenty of evidence.

    • Those are good questions. Another question that I have whenever I see mistakes like these is, “If they get such easy stuff wrong, why should I trust media outlets on more complicated issues?”

      Reporting on the canonization process correctly isn’t a life-or-death matter, of course. But if they can’t report basic facts on a transparent process in a major religious tradition, why should we assume that they can accurately report on, say, opaque geopolitical issues?

  2. As far as I’m concerned, His Holiness was a very good man and whether or not He’s made a Saints will not make me think more and/or less of Him cause in my book He’ll always be “ONE” of GOD (Good Old Dad’) faithful followers.
    God Bless