Cleansing Fire

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Journalistic Integrity

December 13th, 2010, Promulgated by Vox Clara

I originally intended these remarks to focus on both academic and journalistic honesty with a special emphasis on media treatment of the dedication of La Sagrada Familia. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to complete a proper post on these issues until now. Since that time, the news media has managed to provide me with a wealth of additional material over which I might castigate them. I would like to outline several principles which I believe would improve the quality of contemporary reporting with examples of what happens when these principles are ignored.

1. Among the most fundamental components of quality journalism is relevance. A journalist who is unable to stay on his subject is a poor journalist indeed. For example, in an otherwise focused and balanced article on CNN, the author felt the need to insert the following remark with reference to Spain in an article about Pope Benedict’s dedication of La Sagrada Familia: “The country has largely been spared the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the church in much of the rest of western Europe.” What does this statement have to do with La Sagrada Familia? Does the author somehow believe that the Catholic Church is defined by sexually abusive priests? The diversion does say something positive about the Church in Spain, but I don’t see how it contributes to an article on La Sagrada Familia.

Apart from this flaw, I do find the article to be reasonably well balanced. It quotes Benedict frequently, does not mention the small “gay kiss-in” protest that Benedict passed on the way to Barcelona,  and even makes note of Gaudi. Mention of the connection between Benedict’s homily and the Holy Family, for whom the basilica is named, might also have been relevant, but I don’t think I’d criticize CNN for that since they didn’t assert that the pope was railing on Spanish policy the way other outlets did.

2. A good journalist always checks his facts. This does not make him infallible, but it does mean that he rarely makes serious factual errors in his writing. This also does not mean that the author succeeds in identifying the main issue at stake, merely that he does not report inaccurately on what ever his chosen subject may be.

The Wall Street Journal aired a video on its web site courtesy of Reuters that exemplifies such a lack of integrity. Note the contrast between the language of the reporter, which suggests that the pope entered the basilica to “decry Spain’s legalization of gay marriage,” and the language of Pope Benedict’s homily. Note how Benedict comments on the sanctity of the human family while consecrating a church dedicated to the Holy Family. Note also how the reporter construed this not in its logical context, but as a means of lashing out at Spain’s government. The words of the pope simply are not grounds for this reporter’s statements. Read the whole homily to see for yourselves what a “scathing attack” the pope made on Spanish policy.

The New York Times also provides a superb example of disingenuous writing. Here an author writes as though rogue “churches” in Belgium are equally catholic to the Catholic Church herself. While she is right to convey multiple sides of the story, the author clearly lacks knowledge of the rituals with which Delsaert grew up and seems willing to call anything that declares itself to be Catholic, Catholic. There is no mention here of the unity or apostolicity of the Church, only the notion that when it comes to Catholicism, anything goes.

3. When citing sources, be sure to understand what they are saying. This issue arose across many media outlets with regards to certain remarks made by Pope Benedict in his new interview/book Light of the World. A look at headlines should reveal the problem here. The Australian ran an article called “Condoms justified to stop AIDS: Pope” on November 21. The Ottowa Citizen condescendingly declared: “Pope joins the 21st Century.” Al Jazeera decided that the pope had changed Catholic teaching on condom use (Global reaction to pope’s new stance on condoms). Finally, after a clarification was offered for what the pope actually said, the New York Times reported that the “Pope’s comments on condoms sow confusion.

Oddly, each of these accounts portray the idea that Benedict was talking about condoms in his recent interview. The text itself, however, suggests nothing of the sort. Not only is this interview not an authoritative teaching, it doesn’t justify or condone condom use. It does comment on the dignity of the human person, the human aspects of sexuality, and the meaning of real love and responsibility. The pope is an academic and, as such, he makes a lot of careful distinctions in his expressions. A failure to look for these constitutes a failure of understanding and will assure an erroneous outcome.

Where all of this leads me back to is the importance of care and integrity on the part of journalists. Unless a journalist can carefully read his sources for information, present that information accurately, and stay on topic, he will do a poor job of informing his readers of current events. I’d like to close with a recording of Cardinal Wuerl in which he discusses how important it is that the media portray “the rest of the story.

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4 Responses to “Journalistic Integrity”

  1. avatar Vox Clara says:

    Sorry about the dead link there. It’s fixed!

  2. avatar Faithful says:

    A very accurate analysis.

    I wonder, however if this is not so much an issue of the media not checking facts, etc, as it is the media simply wanting to make the Catholic Church look bad.

    In short, I don’t even believe the media tries to be accurate when it comes to the Catholic Church! I think they intentionally slant things and misreport.

  3. avatar Vox Clara says:

    Faithful,

    That crossed my mind. I’ve definitely read the work of journalists who are genuinely anti-Catholic. I think that many others are simply just caught up in a culture that doesn’t respect the Church and go along with it. There are also some who are genuinely ignorant.

    This post was intended to be a general sort of assessment. I believe that the accusation that someone wants to make the Church look bad has to be made on an individual basis and cannot be treated generally.

    You raise a good point though and I thank you for it.

    Vox


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