Saturday, 11 December 2010

"The Pope's invitation to Anglicans to convert..."

A while ago I coined a term for my own amusement: 'Journalisma'. Think of it as a combination of asthma and eczema, except it only afflicts journalists. Its affects are simple - it cuts off oxygen to the journalist's brain, leaving them short of breath facts (which is the asthma part), and spreads like an irritating rash, in that it can be found in multiple media outlets (the eczema part).

With this is mind, I'd like to draw your attention to a recent outbreak, this being one case among many.The above quote wasn't said by anyone I was talking to, but is how an article on the BBC News website begins. Inspired by the excellent work of the journalists on the Get Religion blog, I thought I'd take a swing at deconstructing the article to show you Catholics how much "the press...just doesn't get religion" and to show a few things you will have to point out when people start conversations with, "I read in the papers the other day that the Pope..."

It seems a common mistake (trick?) of journalists is to muddle up the process of who-talked-to-who-first. Indeed, this article begins with a clanger: "The Pope's invitation to Anglicans to convert to Roman Catholicism..." Can you see it? The Pope's invitation. Doesn't this make it sound like the Pope called the disaffected Anglican bishops and said, "Come and join us."? In fact, the Pope didn't initiate anything; the Anglican bishops from England and Australia went to Rome and asked for a way to convert as a community, rather than individually. The Apostolic Constitution 'Anglicanorum Coetibus', which sets how this is to happen, begins, "In recent times the Holy Spirit has moved groups of Anglicans to petition repeatedly and insistently to be received into full Catholic communion..." Get that, BBC? They petitioned Rome 'repeatedly and insistently'!

This, of course, is all of-a-piece with the British media's general handling of this story [see this headline and this headline for more Journalisma, although the Times article at least gets the sequence of events straight. Perhaps misleading headlines is another symptom of the illness].

The main part of the article is about a cable communication by the US Ambassador to the Holy See, in which he reports some comments of 'our man in the Vatican' Francis Campbell. Mr Campbell said to his American opposite number, Miguel Diaz, that the Pope "had put [Archbishop of Canterbury] Williams in an impossible position." As you'll see from the BBC article, this is reported without comment, so I'll add a few of my own.

"An impossible position." I agree, Dr. Williams is in an impossible position, which is none of the Pope's doing, but his own Church's. The article's lack of context to the issuing of Anglicanorum is the problem here, and is another symptom of Journalisma. It doesn't ask why those Anglican bishops petitioned Rome in the first place (which means that you should if anyone brings it up!). They want to become fully Catholic because they foresaw the result at the General Synod earlier this year, when a compromise, proposed by Dr. Williams and the Archbishop of York Dr. John Sentamu, for the Anglo-Catholic communities to have only male bishops was rejected. These Anglo Catholics now either have to accept the authority of women bishops, or leave the Anglican Church [see their statement in the Guardian]. It was for this reason that the bishops in the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC) went to Rome and asked for support in converting as a group, and the Pope has helped them. return to our point. Who's fault is it that Dr. Williams is in this position? Not the Pope's, anyway. That this statement comes from the first Catholic British Ambassador to the Holy See since the so-called Reformation is very upsetting, but not the subject of this post. However, the anonymous journalist simply reports the statements as fact.

Another symptom of Journalisma, at least when it comes to the Catholic Church, is to 'go all in'. By this I mean that the oxygen-deprived journalist appears to think, "Well, I'm writing a story about the Catholic Church anyway, so I might as well flesh it out with stories about child abuse, and anything else I can find to damage it's credibility." Ergo, this story finishes with more Wikileaked cables about the abuse in Ireland, and a somewhat confused section about how the Vatican "helped secure the release of British April 2007". Or not.

This last part is interesting, because clearly it sounds too much like positive news re: the Church, so the journalist oscillates between reporting that an official (whether Vatican or American is unclear) told Pres. Obama in a report that the Vatican can act as an intermediary in such cases, to saying that the same official was "unclear how much clout the Vatican has with Iran", to affirming that the Vatican did help secure the British sailors' release, and finishing with it is unclear how influential the Vatican was in this case. Confused? Me too. Surely we can conclude that, however influential or not the Vatican may be in Tehran, it is at least influential enough to secure the release of British sailors. Why the need to repeat the same contradictory statements twice?

So, there you have it. Look out for these four symptoms of the dreaded disease: 1) muddling up of facts, especially timelines; 2) misleading headlines; 3) lack of context; and 4) throwing everything at the Church in the hope that something sticks. Happy diagnosing!

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