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Finding gold in the religion reporting dross: Get Religion, January 25, 2013. January 26, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The newspaperman’s art of rubbishing someone, while appearing professional and even-handed was the principal object of my harrumphing in this week’s Issues Etc. podcast.  Host Todd Wilkin and I discussed two of my recent GetReligion posts concerning the BBC’s coverage of the anti-gay marriage march in Paris and the Sydney Morning Herald‘s coverage of the Australian government’s commitment to preserve religious freedoms for religious entities under a future Bill of Rights.

Todd opened the show with a question about media bias, asking how news organizations could spin stories to show their approval or disapprobation of a topic, while maintaining the appearance of fairness. I responded with an outline of my story about the game’s played by the BBC’s man in Paris, before turning to the hard left politics of the SMH.

To the casual listener the BBC’s report would appear measured, while the SMH’s story was over the top. But if one knew how the game was played — how to rubbish an issue, person or movement with selective polling, ridicule, framing the story against interests, omission of pertinent facts and context, unbalanced quotes and comments and misdirection of issues (asking questions not germane to a story) — it was quite clear the BBC took a hatchet to French anti-gay marriage marchers and sought to chop them down to size.

Twenty minutes later I came up for air, took a deep breath and my segment concluded. Radio appearances are a challenge. Television is easy. I am quick to pick up visual cues while I miss verbal ones. If I am going long or off topic on video I can usually tell by the expression on the host’s face or the frantic hand gestures of his producer (usually a hand passing rapidly across the throat then followed by outstretch hands with fingers splayed). This means five seconds or for God’s sake stop!

I don’t get that sort of feedback with radio. This leaves me worrying that my critique of the shortcomings of others comes off as  the Two-minute Daily Hate or priggishness.


An email from a listener to this episode of Issues Etc., brought this home.

I’m writing after listening to the broadcast on the BBC coverage with George Conger and am confused as to which media groups to trust.  I would like to ask your opinion as to what is a good source for news?  I am actually so discouraged in this regard, that I basically ignore secular media.

Thanks, Eric

Not all GetReligion columns are negative. Quite a number hold out a reporter’s work for applause — showing the craft at its best. I recently praised an AP story on Tibet as an example of great writing and reporting. But the majority of stories address problems with the media. And these criticisms prompt emails from readers asking who amongst the journalistic fraternity has not sinned?

All writers have fallen short. All have sinned. No one is perfect (though there are a few reporters who come close.) In answer to the question who then should a reader trust, they should trust themselves. Bring a critical eye to the reading of a newspaper story. Read some of the acknowledged great writers and reporters (if you have a literary turn start with George Orwell). In time you will be able to discern the good from the bad.

Second, there are no good or bad newspapers — tabloids and propaganda outlets excepted. A reader will find excellent reporting on the pages of the New York Times, Guardian and Le Figaro or in BBC broadcasts. And they will also be treated to some outrageous howlers. The more knowledge brought to a story by the reader, the easier it is to appreciate quality. In short, don’t give up on the mainstream press — just be aware that it is written by fallible human beings who when they make a mess of a story do so through ignorance and seldom through malice.

The third point I would commend to Eric is that when you read something you like, let the newspaper know. If an editor only sees letters from readers wanting more Paris Hilton stories, that is what he is going to push on his reporters. One of the mysteries of life is that people are very quick to complain but slow to praise. On this website the comments from readers on positive reviews are always a fraction of those of negative ones.

Write a letter to the editor when you see something well done — it will surprise the editor, be greatly appreciated by the author and encourage the publisher to invest in quality journalism. Be in conversation with a newspaper, magazine, blog or author — this dialogue improves their craft. Don’t be passive.

First printed in GetReligion.


Pod people: Colorado Presbys and abuse in Ireland: Get Religion, May 13, 2012. May 14, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Presbyterian/Church of Scotland, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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In this week’s podcast Issues Etc. host Todd Wilkin and I discussed two recent GetReligion stories: the withdrawal of First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs from the PC(USA) and the latest developments in the Irish abuse scandals.

As Nathaniel Campbell noted in his comment on the Colorado Springs article, the press frequently conflates the disputes within the mainline denominations into a single issue — homosexuality.

Campbell writes:

there are deeper but acknowledged issues here over hermeneutics and the evangelical insistence on privileging (often exclusionarily) a literal reading of Scripture.

In my estimation, at least, that is the major “ghost” behind a lot of mainstream/evangelical friction. While on the surface level it manifests as doctrinal disputes, I think it is at root a problem over how to read and understand Scripture.

Wilkin and I discuss the issue of press blindness, noting the divisions within the mainline churches do not stop at homosexuality as the breakaway groups are divided over another Scripture-driven issue: women clergy.

We also look at the coverage in the Irish Times over the fallout from the 1 May 2012 documentary “The Shame of the Catholic Church”, where the BBC claimed that as a young priest in the early 1970’s Cardinal Sean Brady failed to take sufficient action in the case of pedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

I argued that the advocacy journalism approach taken by the Irish Times in its reporting on the Catholic Church was self-defeating. By adopting a relentlessly hostile approach to coverage of the Catholic Church,the Irish Times was preaching to the choir. Those ill-disposed to the church would find confirmation of their views, while those supportive of the church would see their reporting as biased.

The comments to the story demonstrated this. As one commentator noted:

The Irish establishment, including their media, has long been anti Catholic, because the church stood in the way of Ireland becoming “modern” (read divorce, birth control and abortion). The “abuse” saga is a godsend to them to destroy the influence of the church, which was standing in the way of a modern forward looking culture. Perhaps this is why the story is made to sound as if the church is again being it’s old stubborn old fashioned self.

In its simplest sense, the problem with advocacy journalism is that it is based on the supposition that there is no one truth. Truth is subjective, or relative — I have my truth, you have yours. Why then should the journalist strive for balance or fairness, when at heart there is no single point of reference in which to frame a story?

First printed in GetReligion.