Line between news, opinion vanishes

By | October 28, 2009

News reports last week about the Vatican’s decision to welcome Anglicans into the church served as a reminder that even the most reputable news outlets can sometimes err in their obligation to choose words carefully.

First, a recap of the Vatican announcement.

On Oct. 20, Cardinal William Levada announced a new arrangement that allows Anglicans who desire to enter into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The establishment of a special structure similar to a diocese – called personal ordinariates – would allow Anglicans to preserve their spiritual and liturgical heritage within the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI said the arrangement was in response to many requests submitted by Anglicans, including 20 to 30 bishops, asking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. The Anglicans who made the request have done so because of disagreements on decisions within Anglican provinces. These decisions include the ordination of women priests and bishops and homosexual clergy.

Now for examples of poor journalism.

The New York Times began its report on the Vatican announcement with a sensationalized undertone: “In an extraordinary bid to lure traditionalist Anglicans en masse …” the article, written by Rachel Donadio and Laurie Goodstein, began. A headline in the Times of London stated, “Vatican moves to poach traditional Anglicans.”

The Vatican announcement was, without a doubt, newsworthy. However, reportage of the event by reputable newspapers was more in the tradition of supermarket tabloids.

It is disappointing to see the New York Times describe the move as a “bid” to “lure” Anglicans to the Catholic Church. To lure means to ensnare, trap or entice – all pejorative terms. Journalists choose their words carefully, and in this case the choice smacks of bias.

While most of the Times story was objective, with comments from Anglican and Catholic leaders, it’s the headline and lead paragraph that capture most readers’ attention. So when a headline reads, “Vatican bidding to get Anglicans to join its fold,” one begins to form a negative opinion without knowing the details.

The New York Times report did not escape the watchful eye of Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who for 16 years has made a living defending the church from defamation and discrimination.

“Why the Catholic baiting charge?” asked Donohue in an Oct. 21 press release titled “Vatican didn’t lure anyone to Catholicism.” He answers, “Because it feeds the stereotype that the conniving Vatican has embarked on another one of its legendary power grabs.”

According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, “journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”

Among its 17 ethics guidelines for journalists, rule number five states:

“Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.”

SPJ also notes in its preamble that “professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.” Presenting opinions as facts in news reports is a sure way to destroy credibility.

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